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Restaurants & Bars

Dallas Dining Leaders Reflect on the End of a Culinary Era—and Explain How to Start a New One

After bad news about Cry Wolf and Meridian, restaurant chefs and owners reached out to share their concerns, hopes, dreams, and fears for Dallas food.
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50 Best Rest 2019 Homewood
Several chefs reached out to us to mourn the loss of some of Dallas' best restaurants (pictured: Homewood). But they had a whole lot more on their mind: changing economics, the real estate market, stereotypes of our city, and how we can get over the last era and focus on the next one. Kevin Marple

Of D Magazine’s eleven best new restaurants of 2022, three are already closed and one has undergone a major leadership change. Meanwhile, the continuous stream of bad restaurant news—headlined early in the year by the abrupt closure of Homewood—seems to be increasing of late. Dallas diners recently reeled from back-to-back revelations that Cry Wolf was closed and Meridian was remaining open, but without founding chef and inspiration Junior Borges. (Meridian’s website now says it serves “American cuisine,” not Brazilian.)

Every restaurant is different, and every closure has a different backstory. But something is happening worth talking about. Six chefs and restaurant owners recently reached out to me, unprompted, to vent their frustrations and discuss Dallas’ big-picture culinary future. I granted them all anonymity to speak their minds, and the result was hours of frank discussion about what Dallas diners, chefs, and food writers (including this one) are doing wrong.

For the rest of this essay, I’m turning the microphone over to those six insiders. Aside from stitching their commentary together, I don’t want to insert myself too much. One chef warned me against it, saying they had had “numerous conversations with other chefs who’ve said, ‘Here’s another example of Brian Reinhart deciding that Dallas isn’t creative, and Dallas isn’t this or that.’” This time you know it’s not me.

To give this open mic some organization, I’ve arranged the discussion around a series of questions. That’s not actually how our conversations went in real life. After they were over, I picked through 10,000 words of notes to identify themes. This article isn’t that long, but it’s still long. Hope you’re sitting down, because if you want to understand where Dallas dining is headed, you’ll want to read to the end.

Is something happening to the Dallas food scene?

Yes and no. There is no single cause for the recent upheaval, but there will be a combined effect. It’s important to keep that difference in mind. Our dining landscape is changing rapidly, but it is not the result of a flaw or conspiracy.

“I think it’s coincidence,” one restaurant owner said. “What’s important is to see the balance of what’s opening and what’s closing. If you had a lot of new chefs coming up and opening their own places, [closures] would not be the problem. The problem is, what are the new exciting restaurants, the progressive restaurants, that are replacing these?”

Another chef partly agreed and partly disagreed, warning, “It is impossible—and negligent—to create a narrative where all these places are woven together to say, ‘these are all restaurants that I like, and they’re closed now.’” But that chef doesn’t much like the dichotomy between “progressive” restaurants and the rest: “If you have a restaurant and it’s doing well, is it because it’s not creative and it’s appealing to some lowest common denominator? I don’t like to hear that.”

Post-pandemic effects: corporate consolidation, TikTok culture, changing customer tastes

The pandemic affected more than just mask-wearing habits. Government support for small businesses lasted for several years, and some operators may be working without that support for the first time since 2019.

But after the virus wrought its worst damage, locally-owned businesses faced another challenge. “There was that big boom of all these restaurants opening, all these chains, guys coming in from California, wherever they’re coming from,” said one person who recently closed a business. “It turned into these Instagrammable trendy things—it wasn’t really about the food, which made it tough for us who were trying to make it about the food. Unfortunately we live in this time where everyone is constantly wanting to post the newest, the hardest place to get into, and then after that it just dies.” Social media’s fast pace, visual nature, and requirement to immediately grab attention encourages a superficial approach. This person said it helps people think of restaurants as disposable objects to be consumed once and discarded.

I asked a younger restaurateur (and frequent user of social media) about Dallas’ longstanding reputation for a short culinary attention span, embodied in the idea of the “Fickle 500,” a phrase that dates back 20 years. This person said that social media is making that lack of customer loyalty significantly worse. And the problem is not just paying customers: “The life of an influencer is what it’s all about now. When we first opened, I didn’t need to respond to influencers because we were getting enough foot traffic. Now, you’re making deals left and right.”

It’s really hard to look at a new spot and say, let’s do all the bells and whistles.

Dallas restaurateur

Three different leaders told me that diners’ preferences became more conservative during the pandemic. As the world got less certain, they wanted foods that were more of a sure thing.

“It’s for sure that since the pandemic people got more conservative in their choices in general,” one operator said, explaining that their top five most popular menu items now accounted for a much larger percentage of sales.

“Our clientele was like, ‘we want something different,’” another leader recalled. “They’ll give it a shot, they’ll go, ‘yeah, OK,’ then they’ll go back to what they want.”

“People’s appetite for adventure has changed,” the third person said. “I don’t think people prioritize adventure as much as they used to.” This person’s restaurants were rewarded in the pandemic when they removed cheffy tricks. “We all had to scale back the sophistication of what we were doing with the supply chain, and everybody’s sales went up. ‘Wait, I had more diners here and I had to do less of the bells and whistles I thought I had to do?’ It’s really hard to look at a new spot and say, let’s do all the bells and whistles.”

One chef forwarded me an Instagram story by acclaimed New York chef Alex Stupak, who asked, “My only reference is NYC…As a legitimate creative person, do you ever feel like you are being punished for trying???” The lesson from Stupak’s comment isn’t that creativity means failure. The lesson is that chefs are feeling the pressure everywhere—for reasons that have nothing to do with their skill.

Very high budget, they’re here to stay. Very low budget, they’re here to stay. It’s everything that is in the middle that is having a hard time.

Dallas restaurateur

It’s a great economy. It’s also a terrible economy. The difference depends on who you are

Multiple Dallas restaurateurs raised another national issue: income inequality and the decline of the middle class.

“The middle class is gone,” one chef bluntly said. “Forget it. It’s dissolved. It’s saddening, because that was the bread and butter for mom-and-pop shops, cafes, bistros.”

“Very high budget, they’re here to stay,” another person argued. “Very low budget, they’re here to stay. It’s everything that is in the middle that is having a hard time.”

A third person agreed: “You’re either selling so your PPA [per person average] is $100-plus, or cheap food.”

Crown Block Bar
For some of our anonymous restaurateurs, Crown Block was a symbol of the dangerous direction of Dallas dining: flashy on Instagram today, potentially out of fashion tomorrow. Brittany Conerly

When I asked one source about inflation, they corrected me. “There’s inflation and there’s elasticity,” they said. “There’s how much it goes up, and how much somebody cares. I look at all these prices on menus and I’m like, damn! Who are all these people?” This proprietor has experience with customers who are sensitive about tiny price changes—but still willing to spend big. “Once you cross a certain line, it’s all Monopoly money anyway. You’re gonna regret it in the morning, so who cares?”

One source was especially fatalistic about the apparent decline of the middle-class customer. “We’re going to see a lot of mom-and-pop shops slowly disappear, corporate elements taking over, and the convenience food, Uber Eats, DoorDash, they’re going to take over. It’s going to be like Demolition Man. ‘We’re going out to fancy food tonight.’ ‘Oh, where are we going?’ ‘Taco Bell.’ On the surface it will be utopia, and underneath we’ll all be eating rat burgers.”

Chains are winning because everything is harder for a small business

These economic pressures—increasing class divides, a love of splurging, rising food costs, and rising wages for skilled workers—are all driving food businesses toward one business model. If it feels like everything is becoming similar, that’s because everything is trying to be profitable. As one restaurateur explained, “More venues are leaning toward more self-sufficiently-run, fewer [employees], bigger profit margins, which means more booze and less creativity in the food aspect. We are all forced to rely on alcohol sales to survive.”

Remember, too, that the big corporate chains taking over high-end dining with restaurants like Carbone and Komodo can afford to pay employees better and offer benefits. “When you’re not corporate and you can’t offer insurance, it makes it so tough,” one restaurateur said. As I wrote in a previous explanation of this issue, “It may feel good for diners to support locally-owned businesses, but for workers, it feels much better to have healthcare and vacation days.”

Does our food scene have Dallas-specific problems?

There was considerable disagreement about whether, and what, challenges are unique to Dallas rather than part of a national trend. In the end, one Dallas-specific theory gained broad support, but one generated emotional debate.

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One of the few Dallas-area restaurants that has become a destination for tourists: Pecan Lodge. SOHO Story

The effects of culinary tourism

Let’s start with the one we feel more confident about. Dallas’ tourism industry is different from many cities better-known for progressive restaurants. We attract more business travel and less leisure tourism, as a percentage, than a city like New Orleans or San Francisco.

As one owner explained: “If you go to Paris, if you go to all the funky places, not the super luxury ones, but the equivalent of Cry Wolf or Homewood—there’s a lot of tourists in there. Here the food we have that people travel for is barbecue.”

In October, I dined in a London restaurant where the chef visited each table, asking all of us where we were from. Two guests were her friends; everyone else in the dining room was from outside the United Kingdom. The point is not where we were from. The point is that she asked. When was the last time a Dallas waiter asked where you’re from?

“Dallas restaurants depend on Dallas mouths and Dallas wallets,” one restaurant owner said. “You don’t have 25 percent of the dining room from out of town who have that adventurous palate.”

Does Dallas have an adventurous palate?

That quote hints at the second thesis, the really controversial one. Some of the restaurateurs who’ve blown up my phone this month assert that Dallas has inherently conservative taste in food. But others disagree, passionately.

“Dallas has nothing but pretty much the same kind of restaurant everywhere you go,” one chef told me. “It’s just different atmospheres. You’re gonna find pastas, you’re going to find steak sections, you’re going to find chicken dishes.” Another person referred to a generic “seafood and martini” template.

But a third chef fought fire with fire. “I hate this narrative about Dallas that everybody is some robotic asshole that only cares about fried foods. I’m so tired of that being the narrative that’s pushed about the dining scene. Not all of us are from New York or San Francisco and eating all these crazy foods. It’s hurtful when these articles kind of portray Dallas as this place where we’re only a bunch of dickheads trying to make money and there’s no personal feeling associated with the foods we’re creating.”

There’s a form of well-sourced clean eating that people are really afraid the upscale Dallas palate won’t want. That they just want that crunch.

Dallas restaurateur

One person offered the more moderate position that a reputation for conservatism can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Build a steak town, and it will attract the people who want to live in a steak town.

“They kind of self-selected,” that person said. “If you were moving to Dallas, you probably looked at the straight-arrow sensibility of Dallas and said, ‘that’s what I want.’ The more Dallas people left Jersey and California and moved to Dallas. The more Austin people left those places and moved to Austin. There is a more Dallas style of restaurant and it’s a reflection of us.”

Another operator summarized the tradeoffs in our local hospitality industry. “If you go to what’s supposed to be a fish restaurant, and they only have tuna and salmon, it’s not very exciting. But we’re here to feed people.”

If you are sensing a divide between chefs who want to make people happy and chefs who feel a creative artistic impulse—well, a lot of my sources sensed that, too. It stirred up emotions. Some people questioned why those two ideals need to be different; one rejected the moralistic suggestion that one approach is “better” and that “normal” foods might not be creative; one suggested making dishes that are “down the middle” with the kind of flawless technique that gets gourmets excited.

That last person pointed out, as role models, large but still inventive restaurant groups in other cities. Austin’s Emmer & Rye Hospitality and Tatsu-Ya groups, and Houston chefs like Chris Shepherd and Aaron Bludorn, produce comfort food at high volume for large crowds while also winning national awards for things like Guyanese curry, Korean-Southern fusion, and Balkan street food.

When I asked why Dallas didn’t have a similar group, several people offered several theories. One pointed out that the pandemic destroyed our momentum. One suggested our best local chefs have had different priorities—or been less business savvy. Paradoxically, while Houston’s success may come from being more culturally integrated than Dallas, Austin’s success may be because it is less integrated. One chef pointed out that in Austin, a restaurateur like MML Hospitality or Fermín Nuñez (of Suerte) can find “their” part of town and stay there.

In Dallas, many local restaurant groups either play it safe with crowd-pleasing fare, or exploit connections in the nightclub business. “A lot of these club guys are now considered restaurateurs,” one person said. “They know from clubs how valuable it is to know athletes, to say, ‘Oh, Dak [Prescott] was at my restaurant,’ and they are able to use that network of that type of influence to get people to the restaurant for dinner and then over to the club. But the food sucks!”

Another reason to resent institutional real estate investors

Most of my sources believe Dallas has especially bad luck with real estate.

“Dallas is considered by big institutional capital to be one of the most investable markets in the United States,” one leader said. “That does not help.” (For a direct example of institutional capital affecting our food, visit The Epic.)

More venues are leaning toward more self-sufficiently-run, fewer [employees], bigger profit margins, which means more booze and less creativity in the food aspect. We are all forced to rely on alcohol sales to survive.

Dallas restaurateur

This source has experience working in other cities, and started rattling off envy-inducing stories of young chefs opening acclaimed restaurants elsewhere for only $75,000, or groups of friends buying tiny buildings in the Houston Heights to kick-start their business. “We don’t have nearly enough real estate in locations where there’s a really big base of demand for great food in Dallas. You’ve got some in Oak Cliff, but even Bishop Arts now has gotten really pricey.” This person mentioned one very famous Dallas restaurant with a long-term lease—and indicated that, in the current market, its rent would have doubled.

Even second-generation kitchens—the real estate term for kitchens that were already built by someone else, what you might call a “used restaurant” rather than a “new” one—are hard to find, or priced highly by institutional investors.

This makes it much harder for young chefs and first-time restaurateurs to start their careers. “A lot of them just cannot afford it,” one source says. “At 28 years old, you cannot afford $400,000 and not being sure you can make money out of [the investment].”

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The first generation of Dallas food trucks congregated mainly around Klyde Warren Park and the Arts District. Now, it should be easier to open them in more locations around town.

Until recently, Dallas laws discouraged the kinds of trucks and mobile food vendors that helped create such a vibrant culinary scene in Austin. (Austin’s James Beard Award winner El Naranjo started as a food truck, and several trailers there have been candidates since.) Without the option of trucks or trailers, and with second-generation kitchens hard to find, Dallas rookies frequently resort to pop-ups at breweries and the like.

Here I must admit to a fault. I have habitually prioritized brick-and-mortar restaurants. At one point I even told a pop-up cook that I didn’t review temporary events. That was a mistake. It’s time I took mobile and temporary food businesses more seriously as the way that the next generation of culinary talent will rise in Dallas. Maybe we in the media can play our part by highlighting those who can’t afford a restaurant with a door.

Several restaurateurs suggested that if they could control Dallas’ food scene, they would set aside real estate just for young up-and-comers to test out their craft, learn how to make money, and build a reputation. One of them pointed out sarcastically that our city already tried the “restaurant incubator” model at Trinity Groves—but did it all wrong.

“The artists always live in the run-down loft part of town,” that owner said. “Here, we took the restaurant incubation thing and turned it into high-end real estate! We’re doing it backwards!”

OK. The landscape is changing, but the sky isn’t falling. How do we process all these closures?

One person who runs multiple restaurants offered me a great metaphor. I’m going to let them run with it:

“This is just me talking out my ass, and I don’t want to present it as data-driven. But—music. In the late ’60s and [early] ’70s, there was soul and there was funk and there was rock ‘n’ roll. We always think trendlines just go. We think in theory, music would just keep getting better and better forever. But you got to the late ’70s and you got to this [mentality]—Woodstock was kind of a joke, people were burning disco records. Then you had punk and new wave. That was like, ‘Your revolution is old and stupid, here’s our new revolution.’ I think people are bored by the ideas of 10 years ago. I think there was a point in the late ’70s when somebody heard the same psychedelic guitar jam that they had been hearing since 1967 and they were like, ‘Booooooooring!’ Their friend was like, ‘I can hear the difference between a ’72 Garcia jam and a ’77 Garcia jam.’ And they were like, ‘Where’s The Clash? Where’s hip-hop?’

“You and I are in some fashion some product of this last [food] era. Anthony Bourdain. Fine dining got better. Street food got better. It was this democratized thing. I don’t want to say we’re going backwards. It worked! But now it’s just food. OK, we won. Now what?

“I don’t know that the trend failed,” this person continued. “The overall bar went up. I think now the good stuff [technique, sourcing, etc.] is just assumed, and [customers] just want to have a good time. They’re bored with the revolution that we won. I don’t know what happens next. I don’t think we lost. I think we won.”

Yes, we have challenges to face in real estate, economic pressures, and a lack of food tourism. Yes, diners’ habits have changed after the pandemic and restaurateurs are trying to understand the new reality. But none of my contacts is panicking, and some are upset when they suspect others of panicking.

“We’re just at that period where we came off a big swing and we’re in a bit of a lull and we’re about to get there [again],” one chef said. “Our problem is finding the next batch of kids that will come up.”

The creator of that elaborate music metaphor gave a pithy summary: “We’re burning our disco records right now, waiting for punk.”

Fine dining got better. Street food got better. It was this democratized thing. I don’t want to say we’re going backwards. It worked! But now it’s just food.

Dallas restaurateur

What’s next for Dallas food, and how can we encourage more great things?

More careful, thoughtful—but approachable—cooking

When I asked one longtime Dallas industry leader to suggest improvements for our food scene, the leader immediately rattled off a long list, as if I’d removed a plug from an overloaded pipeline of ideas.

“Pulling back the portions a little bit so you can use higher quality ingredients,” this person said. “Investing more in higher quality kitchen labor, especially investing more in prep so you’re doing deeper, better cooking. Not feeling like every single thing has to be maxed out with salt, fat, crunch. Letting really well-sourced ingredients speak for themselves. I think that’s the biggest thing people are afraid of. There’s a form of well-sourced clean eating that people are really afraid the upscale Dallas palate won’t want. That they just want that crunch. That’s one place where that tension tangibly resides.”

Courageous leadership

That same source thinks we already have the talent to create the new era of great Dallas dining—but that talent needs both opportunity and courage. Speaking of well-established restaurateurs rather than up-and-coming youngsters, this person said, “There’s a half a dozen people who are already in our community who can [create a higher standard], if they sort of look in the mirror and at each other and give themselves permission to do it.

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One anonymous restaurateur praised Teiichi Sakurai as an example of how one person can raise the standards for a whole dining sector.

“Sometimes it only takes a couple of dominant restaurateurs to change the market,” they continued. “Look at what Teiichi Sakurai did for Japanese [food]. Japanese is one of the strongest cuisines we have. His family tree is amazing. They all share great Japanese sourcing, they’ve all been influenced by Teiichi’s fanatically high standard. He set the tone for the entire Japanese dining culture in Dallas.”

Stop thinking of foods as fashions

One young restaurateur encouraged diners to be more present in the moment—and taste what’s on the plate. “Dine without your phones,” this source said. “Really take the time to indulge. That’s where our generation is now, the phone eats first. When you do that, you’re taking away from the experience. I’m not saying I’m not guilty of that! But I know there are times when I need to be fully immersed with the meal and the people I’m with. Time is such a valuable thing, and when you’re with people you don’t see all the time, you need to be in the moment of that experience. If the restaurant is blasting music, they’re trying to distract you from how shitty the food is.”

Help young chefs get on a path to success

For young chefs and first-time restaurateurs, barriers are getting higher than ever before. Dallas needs to mind this challenge most of all. That means encouraging pop-up and food truck culture, taking seriously the idea of a kitchen “incubator,” finding less predatory business models for food halls to operate, and creating a culture that is welcoming to all young talent.

“It’s definitely hard when you feel like all the cards are against you,” one restaurateur who closed a business this year told me.

“Let’s create more resources for young chefs, help them reach out to people with more business experience,” one source said. This echoes comments several restaurant owners made in our summertime behind-the-scenes series, In the Weeds. “If you are changing your menu all the time, are you recipe-ing all those things?” this chef asked. “Do you know how much they cost? Where is all this information? If you don’t have this information, how do you make those decisions?”

Chefs across America face the challenge of breaking into an expensive industry, and they are reacting in fascinating new ways. One of Philadelphia’s most acclaimed restaurants is a supper club. Washington, D.C. is embracing family-style dinners. New York is obsessed with an independent night market. Austin “fine-casual” spot Birdie’s explains its pioneering format in an online FAQ. Many smaller spots across the country are serving intimate, cost-controllable tasting menus—at more affordable prices. As we face a real estate crunch that makes it hard to start a traditional restaurant, we will have to take notes—and support outside-the-box thinking.

“Ultimately, to nurture a culture, it’s the cooks that become sous chefs that become exec chefs that are ready to open up their own little place,” one source said. “If you don’t have that kind of organic farm system, where those ambitious young cooks are coming to Dallas and staying in Dallas, you are going to have a really hard time developing the kind of culinary culture you want.”

A new era is beginning. It will undoubtedly bring us delicious things. But we all have work to do before we can enjoy it.

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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