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Restaurants & Bars

Yes, Dallas Is America’s Losingest City in the James Beard Awards

Since Dallas last took home a Beard in 1994, 98 candidates have been advanced without success. How historic is that tally? We crunched the numbers.
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The James Beard Awards have snubbed Dallas 98 times in a row over 30 years. Eliesa Johnson

It’s been 30 years since a Dallas restaurant won a competitive James Beard Award.

In 1994, Dean Fearing took home the title of best chef in the Southwest, three years after his colleague Stephan Pyles triumphed in 1991. Since then, no awards have come Dallas chefs’ way, a streak that will continue at least until 2024 after this year’s prizes, too, went elsewhere.

Dallas’ few winners since 1994 were not in dining categories decided by judges. Paula Lambert of the Dallas Mozzarella Co. was inducted onto a “Who’s Who” list in 1998, and writers for the Dallas Morning News (2000) and Dallas Observer (2003 and 2013, the latter for a feature by local legend Alice Laussade) have taken home journalism prizes. In the last decade, Dallas’ sole winner is José Ralat, a double champion for his “Tex-Mexplainer” column in Texas Monthly.

But it’s been three decades since a local restaurant or chef won a prize. Why? And how does Dallas compare to other American cities?

I’ll briefly address “why” here, then return to that question later. Do not blame Dallas’ chefs or restaurants. We have our share of great talent, industry leaders, and delicious food. Everybody in Dallas agrees somebody should have won in 30 years, whether it’s Bruno Davaillon for his perfectionist thrills, Misti Norris for inventing her own culinary style, Teiichi Sakurai for turning Dallas into one of America’s best Japanese food cities, Sharon Hage for valuing the seasonal and the local, or this year’s finalist, Reyna Duong of Sandwich Hag, for transforming our vision of a healthy service industry community. And that’s not even mentioning candidates in other categories like bakeries, breweries, and bars.

Point being: don’t blame the candidates. If I hear you saying anyone “let us down,” I will slap your taco out of your hands. That’s wrong both philosophically (it’s unjust) and literally (it’s not how voting works).

How Dallas and Fort Worth compare to other cities in the James Beard Awards

Fort Worth has never won a voted category. The only Beard in Fort Worth was the “America’s Classics” honoree Joe T. Garcia’s. San Antonio has it even worse: no prizes for anything, ever.

San Antonio and Dallas are the two largest American cities to be shut out of the Beards in the last 30 years. Then come Jacksonville, San Jose, Fort Worth, Columbus (Ohio), Charlotte, Indianapolis, El Paso, Memphis, and Fresno.

It’s nice to have company as we look up to winning cities like Louisville, Palm Springs, Madison, Oklahoma City, and Asheville. Since Dallas last won a competitive food award, Birmingham has taken five, Milwaukee four, and Durham three.

Dallas’ overall numbers are poor, but what about its success rate as a percentage? Since Fearing, Dallas has had 98 more semifinalists, none of whom won. Compare that to San Antonio (35 contenders who didn’t win), Charlotte (11), Fort Worth (four), Jacksonville (three), and San Jose (no recognition of any kind, ever).

The Beards appear to have deemed San Jose the single worst food city in America. But the city that has competed for, and lost, the most awards? That’s Dallas, and it’s not even close. Our last win was 99 tries ago.

Why does Dallas keep losing the James Beard Awards?

As a former judge (in 2022 and 2020), I have theories.

The primary problem is simply that the competition is good and far away. Consider the Texas category: in the past two years, it has been jam-packed with diverse talents serving different kinds of food, hundreds of miles apart from each other. How is a judge supposed to compare Sandwich Hag to a Mexican restaurant in El Paso?

When I visited all five finalists for last year’s vote, I was the only judge able to do so. I found the resulting choice—between five amazing, talented chefs who were all community role models—to be very stressful. This is part of why I think the awards would not be cheapened by letting more people win.

A 30-year drought like Dallas’ is not explained by one big thing, but by dozens of little ones: the fact that Texas only got its own category four years ago, and then the first two votes were canceled; editors of national publications who think Dallas is lame; a lack of tourist destinations to draw out-of-town judges; being so darn far from other cities where judges live; the mix of each judging panel; good competition with inspiring backstories; ease of reaching the restaurant and booking a table; the dwindling number of professional food writers and critics.

Heck, in 2020, Dallas didn’t have any finalists because two Dallas judges forgot to vote.

The single most important factor in the Beard Awards is where the judges live. Because judges are prohibited from voting for restaurants they hadn’t visited, the awards are contingent on judges living near candidates or planning extensive travel, mostly at their own expense.

(I don’t know if the you-must-visit-a-place-to-vote-for-it rule still exists. Three 2023 judges told me that they did not fully understand the voting process this year, even after filling out their ballots.)

Dallas, Fort Worth, and San Antonio are not victims of a conspiracy. There is no sinister cabal of food writers cackling at us. Also, we are not undeserving. We have great restaurants and chefs, and we should do them honor locally every day and every week.

What’s the solution to all this? As far as the Beards are concerned, I’ve been vocal about the answer. The list of 20 “semifinalists” should be the finalists. The list of five “nominees” should be the five winners. There should not be a third round. Don’t compare apples to oranges, don’t shut out whole regions, and don’t rely on judges texting friends asking about restaurants they haven’t visited. Honor more of our nation’s worthy champions.

The solution for Dallas, meanwhile, is to honor and cherish what we have. External validation is wonderful, but last week I got something better. I got lunch from Sandwich Hag.

Author

Brian Reinhart

Brian Reinhart

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Brian Reinhart became D Magazine's dining critic in 2022 after six years of writing about restaurants for the Dallas Observer and the Dallas Morning News.
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