A champagne-colored Lexus SUV filled with four well-coifed, middle-aged women pulls up to the valet stand. Attendants surround the car and, with a flourish, simultaneously fling open all four doors. Expensive perfume scents the hot summer breeze. One woman stoops to adjust her strappy Jimmy Choos while another rearranges the belt over her Prada sundress. And then, with everything just so, they step onto the sidewalk and approach the entrance to Marquee Grill & Bar in Highland Park Village.

Before they can push through the doors, though, a shiny black Bentley jumps the curb and parks on the sidewalk. The women shriek as the driver dashes like Errol Flynn to greet them. A striking, raven-haired woman then slides out of the Bentley’s passenger seat, and her pouty Valentino red lips part. She says, “What perfect timing!”

Indeed, everything seems perfect and wonderful at Highland Park Village. Developers Ray Washburne and Stephen Summers bought the property two years ago and have performed enough reconstructive surgery on the aging beauty that the 80-year-old shopping center looks half its age. The underutilized spaces are now filled and riffraff occupants have been replaced with sparkling, high-dollar tenants such as Stella McCartney, Christian Louboutin, and Diane von Furstenburg.

And Brian Twomey. Who? You won’t find that 38-year-old whippersnapper’s name in The Dallas Social Directory. A quick look at Twomey’s résumé reveals he’s not a blue blood. His first restaurant, Loft 610, was in—gasp—Plano. His second, The Common Table, is a casual pub in Uptown. Not only was he raised in Lake Highlands, Twomey was once a “lowly cube jockey” at Pizza Hut, as he puts it. Hardly the pedigree one would expect from a man now in his position. His Twomey Concepts owns and operates Marquee Grill & Bar and The Village Theatre.

It’s a wonder the deal ever happened. Washburne had a vision for restoring the Highland Park theater and adding a multi-story restaurant next door, and he was wrapping up the process of interviewing people to carry out that vision. Through a friend in real estate, though, Twomey was granted a late meeting and worked 48 hours straight on his proposal. He already had one ace in his plan: Tre Wilcox, the handsome chef who wowed Highland Park diners during his seven-year stint at Abacus and gained a national following after starring for two seasons on Bravo’s Top Chef. Twomey hired Wilcox in 2009 to retool Loft 610’s menu and promised him his own restaurant some day. Now he had a chance to showcase Wilcox in the highest-priced restaurant space in Dallas. Twomey won the job.

Washburne tested him early. “This was not like any other deal where the landlord was pitching you,” Twomey says. “This was you pitching the landlord. Washburne said he liked me and was going to give me a shot. Then he told me there would be no money for improvement and I had to do it on my own.” Plus, Twomey would have to toss in $600,000 toward the theater renovations.

Twomey needed $4 million fast. He found it when he ran into his old Pizza Hut boss, Peter Hearl. “He put up meaningful dollars and bought into my company,” Twomey says. “Then we leaned on his son, Mark, an investment banker in New York, to move to Dallas and be my partner.”

Many more “meaningful dollars” later, Twomey and Mark Hearl are running one of the most fashionable restaurants in Dallas. Their all-star staff did not come cheap. Besides Wilcox, there’s Justin Beam. The former general manager at Fearing’s and bar manager at Craft runs the front of the house. Jeff Yerger, once the general manager at Abacus, assists him. Jason Kosmas and his manly mustache are behind the sexy bar. Forbes magazine once named the latter the best bartender in New York. Wilcox staffed his kitchen with his loyal band of “little brothers,” including Jermaine Brown, Tim Woehr, Brian Bell, Tommy Smith, and Oliver Sitrin.

marquee_02 Rabbit tenderloin. photography by Kevin Marple

If the restaurant is busy, there isn’t a bad spot in the house. The 270 seats are spread over two floors and three patios. The premium spot is the Chef’s Dining Room downstairs. Here the setting is feminine and formal, with dramatic coffee-brown booths, white-clothed tables, large silver-framed mirrors, and shiny ’70s-style chandeliers. The Chef’s Dining Room is the only place to view the exhibition kitchen where Wilcox and company perform their choreographed cooking show.

Halfway up the stairs, carpeted in a black, brown, and blue geometric pattern, you’ll find a narrow dining area to the right. The clubby space designed by Zero 3 with bent-wood cane-back chairs overlooks the outdoor Romeo and Juliet-style balcony. Across the hall you’ll find the entrance to Kosmas’ bar. Take a few more steps up to a dining room on the top floor filled with banquettes for two, four-top tables, and brown leather booths. The upstairs decor is more midcentury modern by way of country club, with Armani green cypress stained walls lined with brown leather booths on one side and exposed brick along the other. A skylight lightens the space.

We arrived at 6:30 on a Friday evening and were the first table seated upstairs. We felt like we’d been banished to Siberia. Our only company was the waitstaff huddled behind the service bar, just arm’s length from our table. We could hear them gossiping about customers who’d been overserved the night before.

Eventually, a waiter approached. He winked at me and said, “Hello, beautiful ladies. May I suggest a nice, crisp white wine for you tonight? It is from Austria.”I couldn’t find an Austrian wine on the by-the-glass page, so I asked to see the bottle. Instead, he brought out a full glass, set it before me, and asked to take our order. I again asked to see the bottle. He returned and, without apology, showed me a bottle of Mohua Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand. I tried to ease the tension by joking that he must have confused Austria with Australia, which isn’t far from New Zealand. He turned and walked away.

He returned 10 minutes later and interrupted our conversation. “Please don’t disappoint me by not ordering the duck breast,” he said. “It is my favorite, and you must eat it for me.” We hadn’t even opened our menus yet.

Once we did, we found a nifty list of small plates on the left page and a compact selection of entrées on the right. Wilcox’s cuisine is hard to classify. The appetizers are the most appealing and include crispy spring rolls, shrimp and grits, and vegetable risotto—plus a few unusual dishes intended to impress foodies. The entrées feature four steaks, a few seafood dishes, and one preparation each of chicken, pork, and duck. The composition of each entrée changes frequently, but the protein-plus-potato presentations are safe versions of lavishly garnished 75205 banquet food.

All of the starters we tried were superb. Ceviche is an inspired combination of lobster, squid, and avocado mixed in a gazpacho sauce thickened with banana purée. A few specks of fresh jalapeño add heat to the slightly sweet liquid scented with ginger and rum. A soup of fresh corn in a warm cream broth was almost too sweet, but we finished it without remorse. Panko-crusted soft-shell crab, served with a soft shake of jalapeño powder and a slice of grilled pineapple, could have been a meal in itself.

marquee_03 Exhibition kitchen. photography by Kevin Marple

All of the entrées were average. The much-touted duck breast arrived at our table cool. The huge portion was presliced and sat in an equally tepid porcini sauce. To the side, a mound of crispy Brussels sprout leaves rested against an apple-fennel purée. Another entrée, a massive chicken thigh, must have been trimmed from a chicken that stood 3 feet tall. The meat was juicy, but the spice allegedly rubbed into the leg must have fallen off in the cooking process. A warm sherry sauce helped. Overall, though, it was nothing special. Same goes for the strip, which, ordered medium rare, was served medium.

At this point in our meal, our chummy waiter had disappeared. We sat with unfinished food in front of us for 20 minutes. But he came back with a joke. “Okay, my pretty ladies,” he said. “Are you ready for your main course?” Hysterical! We tried to order dessert, but he was incapable of explaining the details of a chocolate coolant with milk jam. We decided to leave.

Several weeks later, we returned for lunch. To my horror, we drew the same waiter. “Where did all of you beautiful ladies come from?” he asked. His unctuousness knew no bounds. However, the table of women in tennis togs drinking white wine across from us ate up his corny compliments, as did the sorority sisters at the next table.

We ordered a burger, which was a thin strip of meat at the bottom of a pile of garnish between two shiny buns. A seared tuna salad was a rectangular plate with a nice portion of tuna, but two of the pieces were untrimmed, beyond seared, and tough. A fancy-sounding panko-crusted chicken salad with watercress was embarrassingly pedestrian. Four 3-inch strips of overfried chicken rested like dark brown cigars on each side of a pile of sliced iceberg lettuce topped with crispy red tortilla strips.

The next time I called for reservations, I requested the Chef’s Dining Room. It was like eating in a different restaurant. The service was attentive and professional, and the food arrived hotter. I tried the rabbit with chocolate panna cotta, jalapeño honey, and pumpkin powder. Later, Wilcox described it to me as a “molecular gastronomy take on Southwestern cuisine.” To me, it was like a ridiculous attempt to deconstruct a mole—a little rabbit swiped through the pumpkin, honey, and chocolate was gimmicky but good. The standout entrée was the 3-inch bone-in pork chop, grilled over hickory and oak. It takes Wilcox three days to prepare this chop for the plate. The chop is brined, cold smoked, and marinated in chopped shallots, garlic, rosemary, oregano, thyme, and parsley. The tender meat, gently sauced in a maple glaze, melts in your mouth leaving the flavors of sweet, savory, and smoke on the tongue.

On this visit, we managed dessert. The signature salute to the theater, a chocolate tart layered with caramel popcorn and served with salty butter ice cream, was fun. But the house-made ice creams, particularly the sweet basil, were the perfect antidote to a hot Dallas night. We enjoyed our experience so much that we didn’t want to leave. So we headed to the bar.

There we discovered our favorite Marquee treat: the Scarf Dancer, a dainty cocktail designed by Kosmas. He fills a champagne coupe with a deep purple drink made with Tito’s Vodka, St-Germain, lemon juice, and black currant purée. Curls of lemon peel echo the logo etched into the wine glasses. The inspiration for both comes from the art deco statue in the lobby of the theater, a nude with a long scarf draped around her waist. We raised our Scarf Dancers in a toast: “Here’s to feeling like beautiful ladies!”

For more information about Marquee Grill & Bar, visit our restaurant guide.

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