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From a culinary desert to an epicurean oasis
By W.L. Taitte |

IF YOU MEASURE Dallas by its restaurants, it’s a brand-new city. Ten years ago, it was a backward little town-a culinary desert made bearable by a few wonderful oases. Now restaurants are springing up like skyscrapers all over the place-a splashy, fancy, ambitious one opens every couple of weeks. Of the more than 200 restaurants in the August D Restaurant Guide (the most complete listing of D’s rated restaurants), only about 15 percent had been in business 10 years or more. More than twice that number-more than 30 percent-had just opened in the previous year.

Ten years ago, the Pyramid Room in the Fairmont Hotel reigned almost undisputed as the queen of Dallas restaurants. Guy and Martine Calluaud ran a small luncheon and takeout spot known as Calluaud Traiteur in the northeast corner of The Quadrangle shopping center. The Black-eyed Pea and Chili’s were fledgling businesses-highly touted little spots that offered unpretentious, down-home cooking to a new urban market, The Pyramid Room is now rivaled by eight or 10 exquisite dining rooms in hotels surrrounding the northern part of the city- not to speak of the many independent restaurants where the chef is at least part-owner and manager. Patry’s (which closed this summer) and Ewald’s had proved that such a place could attract and hold a clientele, but Calluaud brought a new level of cooking to Dallas. The growth of Calluaud-from its original delicatessen-type operation in The Quadrangle to its second home in an old house on Fairmount and finally to its present establishment location on McKinney-is perhaps the most representative story of the growth of a Dallas restaurant in the last decade. Calluaud proved that subtle cooking in an authentic French style-although with an occasional twist of originality that felt right at home in Texas-served in an understated but truly elegant environment (a most memorable detail is the lavish use of fresh, salmon-colored roses) could become the standard-bearer for Dallas restaurants. Many chefs have taken up the challenge and have opened their own places. Several are Europeans who have been brought to town by the luxury hotels and who have seen Dallas as a place of opportunity-and a place for competition.

If the flourishing of Calluaud can stand for one important trend in Dallas dining over the last 10 years-the trend toward excellence- the sagas of places like the Black-eyed Pea and Chili’s also represent a significant line of development. If Dallas likes to eat fancy, it also likes to eat casual. (Dallas just plain likes to eat.) The growth of the type of restaurants that are a cut above the fast-food places but that require a relatively modest outlay of money and bother has been phenomenal. From its original down-home trendy eatery, the Black-eyed Pea became the anchor of a chain of restaurants that threatens to engulf the Southwest with cream gravy. In fact, Prufrock Restaurants owns 10 Black-eyed Peas and five other restaurants in the Metroplex alone. Chili’s, which is also cloning rapidly, was taken public this year and is on its way to becoming a national operation. Dallas is the land of oppurtuni-ty for culinary entrepreneurs.

With all this explosive and very recent growth, it’s hard to even remember what Dallas was like as a restaurant town 10 years ago. Maybe the best way to remind ourselves is to visit a few of the places that were leaders then and remain leaders now. Back then, my favorite Dallas restaurant was Chiquita. It has since moved a few blocks south and has opened an additional location, Mario & Alberto, far to the north (cloning isn’t limited to the big chains in Dallas- everybody’s doing it). And it keeps on adding new and unusual Mexican dishes to its menu. But Chiquita is essentially the same place it always was: colorful and cheerful in an unconventional way, inexpensive enough that almost anybody can afford it at least once in awhile and a purveyor of excellent, innovative Mexican food to large numbers of customers. The quality of food has been somewhat variable-from very good to out-of-this-world-but that is a range of variation few restaurants achieve. Its ambiance is certainly more relaxed and unpretentious than that of most of the new places opening today-a difference in which the advantage doesn’t necessarily lie with the present representatives.

Many of the great survivors among Dallas restaurants seem to have this unpreten-tiousness. Sonny Bryan’s (Dallas’ classic barbecue joint), if anything, pays too little attention to the amenities of gracious living-it doesn’t always seem clean, let alone comfortable. Highland Park Cafeteria (still the best place in town for home-style Southern cooking) may reflect a bit of the upper-class tranquility of the community from which it derives its name, but it is finally just a cafeteria, for Pete’s sake.

Several of the old-fave fancy restaurants do put on the dog when it comes to decor, but with such quaintness as to seem almost populist. D Sorrento, for instance, looks like a back-lot set for some Thirties musical about Italy. The Old Warsaw (nobody at any time has called the place by its official name, La Vieille Varsovie) tries to look elegant by putting painted flamingoes on the wall of the dining room and photographs of every celebrity who has ever happened by on the wall of the bar. A pianist and violinist play (not very well) semi-classical musical treasures. The old Dallas may have been a mite provincial, but she was a curiously lovable old gal.

NOBODY COULD accuse Dallas dining of being provincial today. There has been a remarkable increase in sophistication-even in the last two to five years, let alone 10. (The average age of restaurants receiving the D Award, this magazine’s highest praise, is less than four years.) Five years ago, there were no excellent seafood restaurants in town; now there are half a dozen. Five years ago, there were no first-rate Asian restaurants in town; now there are extraordinary Chinese, Indian and Thai places and dependable Japanese and Vietnamese ones. One family run restautant alternates between Russian and Indonesian specialties, and the city has at least three Ethiopian restaurants. Whatever else it is, Dallas is at least cosmopolitan these days.

This has happened in spite of some not-so-cosmopolitan quirks in Texas laws. It is a cliche that restaurants earn an important part of their revenue from the sale of alcohol. A decade ago, it had just become legal -and only in some parts of Dallas-to sell alcohol by the drink. The immediate effect was to open up the territory where the city’s better restaurants congregated from a small area bordering the Park Cities to a wider one that included the entertainment and nightlife strips along Greenville Avenue and north of Bachman Lake. Oak Lawn and Greenville have remained havens for the top restaurants, Bachman has declined somewhat and Lovers Lane west of Preston has undergone something of a resurgence during the last few months.

But the biggest news in restaurant demographics in the last 10 years was the vote that made the city of Addison wet. Not long ago, Addison was a sleepy, quasi-rural northern suburb, sort of lost between Richardson and Farmers Branch. Now the whole balance of Dallas and its nightlife has shifted northward, and the Addison “strip’-the section of Belt Line Road roughly between Preston Road and Midway-has become the most glittering in the Metroplex. Dallas still has restaurant ghettoes; they’re essentially the wet areas, as one can see driving up Stem-mons Freeway, which has a huge array of popular restaurants at Walnut Hill Lane, the northernmost boundary of that wet portion of the city. But at least there are more of them, more widely scattered. Irving, for instance, has passed a law allowing wine and beer to be served in restaurants without a membership card, and the progress in the quality of available dining establishments there is already notable.

But if there has been real progress in the quality and sophistication of Dallas restaurants over the last 10 years, there have been some notable defeats as well. Eight years ago, there were a couple of restaurants that specialized in the cuisine of Spain; now Dallas has none. Full-time Indonesian and Argentinian restaurants have come and gone. Here’s a short honor roll of Dallas restaurants that opened-and closed-in the last decade, and whose passing has created a void:

Oz. Certainly the most ambitious restaurant Dallas had seen up to that time, Oz swam against the current by being in a dry neighborhood and charging high prices for membership, sparing no pains on the food and charging high prices for it, and adopting a glittery, neon look that tried to be very chic. No doubt Oz was too much. Its decor was too much, its prices were too much, its pretensions were too much. But its very excesses paved the way for today’s glamorous restaurant scene.

Yucatan. The space where the Calluauds first vended their wares has housed an extraordinary series of restaurants. After Calluaud Traiteur moved out, Yucatan moved in. It was in some ways the best Mexican restaurant Dallas (and Texas) has ever had-certainly the best devoted to a single regional Mexican cuisine. The Yucatecan dishes such as cochinita pibil (roasted pork) and panuchos (the distinguished ancestor of chalupas) were sheer heaven. Sadly, the place never caught on. One of its many successors in the same spot was the original Sergio’s-in its early days probably the most delightful Italian restaurant Dallas has seen.

Khalil’s Beirut. This small but attractive Lebanese restaurant in Highland Park Village served marvelous Middle Eastern food. The location and the cooking could hardly have been bettered, and the prices were reasonable enough. But customers always seemed to be greeted as if they were the adversaries in the latest regional war. It took courage to work oneself up to a trip for hum-mous or tabouli. Now you have to go to Fort Worth if you want Middle Eastern food of greater ambition than a pita-bread sandwich.

Yunnan Dynasty. The real breakthrough in bringing first-rate Asian cooking to Dallas came when Frank and Amy Yi of Austin took their show on the road and brought it up Interstate 35 to Dallas. Many of the dishes were adaptations of recipes by Wen-Dah Tai, a friend who was later persuaded to move to Texas after his experiences in visiting the Yis. Yunnan Dynasty brought definitive Chinese cooking to North Texas for the first time, but the chore of commuting between two cities finally got to the Yis, and the Dallas Yunnan Dynasty is no more. At least we have their friend’s subsequently opened restaurant (a little place in the Galleria called Uncle Tai’s Hunan Yuan) to console us.

Agnew’s. The restaurant that made the New American cuisine a delicious reality in Dallas had a troubled history throughout its brief life. The original proprietor, Tom Agnew, left and tried to form other ventures, finally opening Agnew’s at the Promenade, a completely unrelated restaurant. This summer, Agnew’s was closed without advance notice by its owners-business simply wasn’t brisk enough to offset the costs of running a first-class restaurant. It was a significant loss, since chef Dean Fearing’s cuisine at its best was unsurpassed (the single best fish dish I have ever eaten was some salmon he cooked), and the live string trio gave the place a marvelous feel (partly spoiled by the haughtiness of some of the waiters). Rumors fly that Agnew’s will return-as Yunnan Dynasty did briefly between its first closing and final demise.

RESTAURANTS BY NATURE have a limited life span, since truly good ones demand the undivided attention of one or more people with the rare gift of running a restaurant, and Dallas seems to be a particularly difficult town for even an excellent restaurant to stay alive in. Fashion is by its nature fickle, and pricey, glamorous restaurants rely on fashion to succeed. The crowds may flock to the new place in town for a while, as long as it stays chic. A few years ago, it was the French Room, at which it was next to impossible to get a reservation; today, it is Routh Street Café; tomorrow, it looks as though it might be the Riviera. Who knows what it will be next year?

And as long as we’re thinking about the future, we might as well compare lists as to what we would like to see happen on the Dallas restaurant scene during the next 10 years. As gratifying as the new-found proliferation of excellent Oriental and seafood restaurants is, I long for a sensationally good Italian restaurant in Dallas. Austin has one. Houston has at least one; New York has scores. Why can’t we have just one? A place where the pasta is dependably perfect, where the salads have arugala greens and are dressed with the richest Italian olive oils, where the veal is perfectly white and tender? Dallas deserves such a place. Dallas demands such a place.

And, while we’re at it, how about a full-service interior-of-Mexico Mexican restaurant, with recipes out of Diana Kennedy’s cookbooks? There would be many different kinds of moles, and all would be made from scratch, as would the corn tortillas, right on the spot. The chiles rellenos would be real poblano peppers, filled with shredded beef or pork mixed with nuts and candied fruit, battered or fried to order and floating in a garlicky tomato broth. And, of course, Dallas needs all kinds of Latin American restaurants (Brazilian, Argentinian, etc.), not to mention authentic Spanish ones. And there are almost no real Eastern European restaurants around here now, and we could use a first-rate New York deli…

If one wanted to be outrageous, one could go farther. Americans have become knowledgeable enough about foreign cuisines in recent years to be able to discern that there are vast differences within the culinary heritages of other nations. We now can sample some of these differences in local restaurants. We have Neapolitan and Northern Italian establishments; Mandarin, Hunan and Szechuan, in addition to Cantonese places to eat Chinese food. The room for diversification is as vast as the world itself. The Yucatan brought us a single specific Mexican cuisine, The Riviera is doing its best to show us what the cooking of Provence and the rest of Southern France is like. Why can’t we have restaurants giving us the cooking of Normandy and Brittany, the many local traditions of Italy, the other provinces of China, instead of the many places that just cook like all the others?

Restaurant cooking has made such vast improvements all over America during the last 20 years that such a wish list no longer seems impossible, even for Dallas. After all, Dallas in 1984 has at least four Indian restaurants that are better than any that New York had during the Sixties. Ethnic foods of every foreign variety have arrived in this country.

I wish I could say the same about American foods. Even with Agnew’s gone, Dallas has a wonderful array of restaurants serving the New American cuisine. But where’s the Old American cuisine? The beef we’ve got (we didn’t only a few years ago) is thanks to the arrival of Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse, Stetson’s and The Palm. But in Texas you ought to be able to buy a properly stewed chicken and a plate of fluffy dumplings. Really excellent chicken-fried steak is much harder to find in Dallas than creditable scallops provengale. This outrageous state of affairs really ought to be remedied.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m not ungrateful for the wonders that have been accomplished in Dallas dining over the last decade. If I had to choose between the truffle en croute at The French Room and the world’s greatest chicken-fried steak, I’d take the truffle every time. But Dallas has come so far in such a short while that it could afford to sit back and take a look at its roots. Dallas, in its restaurants as in everything else, is irrevocably a great international city. Now it can relax and cook up messes of chicken-fried steak or chicken and dumplings or corn pone or whatever without having to worry about ever being called provincial again.

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