FORT WORTH, AS everybody knows, glories in being Texan. For many years, most of its best restaurants were emphatically Texan, too-you certainly couldn’t say that about the other big cities in the state. Lately, Fort Worth has gingerly allowed itself to become a bit more cosmopolitan and international in its restaurant offerings, but you can bet your boots it’s not going to lose its sense of self to these newfangled glamour spots.
The Fort Worth restaurant scene changes, but it changes more slowly than in most cities. Where else could somebody say that his three or four favorite restaurants of a decade ago survive and prosper? Yet that’s true in Fort Worth. Consider these:
Cattlemen’s. This is Texas’ premier steakhouse. The menu offers a wide range of cuts and kinds of meat, but the steaks labeled USDA Prime simply can’t be beat. A few years ago, you couldn’t find beef of this quality anywhere else in the Metroplex. Now there are a few other places that have the beef, but none that combine it with the folksy, even corny, Texana-hype atmosphere that Cattlemen’s projects. Pictures of prize steers adorn the walls, and the waitresses are of the “How are y’all, honey?” variety. Maybe Cattlemen’s isn’t exactly a great restaurant-except for the meat, the food isn’t outstanding. The salads come with an odd, pungent dressing, and most people won’t care for the lamb fries. But it is an irreplaceable restaurant, still going strong after all these years.
Joe T. Garcia’s Mexican Dishes. Fort Worth’s other famous, classic restaurant helped define the city’s strengths a decade ago: Texana and ethnic restaurants. Joe T.’s fit both categories. It got its start as a ramshackle place on the North Side where politicians and everybody else in Fort Worth got together to eat family-style dinners. You got nachos, guacamole, enchiladas, tacos, beans and rice-you had no choice about it. Mostly they were exemplary and authentic. Today, Joe T.’s is still a ramshackle place on the North Side. But it is a much bigger and more commercial place; success has gone to its head a little bit. The food may not be quite so good anymore. There is even a branch in-shame!- Far North Dallas. But there is enough of the good old Joe T.’s left that it is still a popular and treasurable place.
Angelo’s. Texas’ big cities have innumerable barbecue restaurants, but very few great ones. This and Dallas’ Sonny Bryan’s may be the best two. Sonny’s barbecue may be marginally smokier and crustier, but Angelo’s provides more creature comforts (such as tables, chairs and booths).
Hedary’s. One of the great family-run restaurants in the Metroplex, Hedary’s serves Lebanese food as good as you can find anywhere. Not only are the standard dishes excellent- hummus (a chickpea dip), falafil, skewered meats- but there are specialties such as the very garlicky broiled chicken that stays in your memory (and on your breath) for a long time. This magazine gives its D award to Hedary’s but not to Cattlemen’s, Joe T. Garcia’s or Angelo’s because its menu is strong from bottom to top and its cooking very consistent.
Other restaurants might be added to this list-such as Kincaid’s, the little neighborhood grocery store that sells some of the world’s greatest hamburgers. What the best restaurants in Fort Worth of long standing have in common is an unpretentious attitude and low prices combined with great food. (Cattlemen’s, of course, isn’t cheap; there’s no way steaks of that quality could be. But just compare its prices with those of steakhouses offering comparable cuts in Dallas, and you’ll see what I mean.)
Fort Worth, until recently, was not a city where you could go out and put on the dog with any great success. The fancier restaurants-the Old Swiss House has always had the biggest reputation-seemed locked in the style of past decades. Of the various places of this type, The Balcony of Ridglea has always been my favorite. Perhaps it is just the memory of a romantic evening spent watching a rainstorm from the long, windowed room from which The Balcony draws its name, eating lamb and its accompaniments. But The Balcony and other restaurants of its generation gave something important to Fort Worth, both in spirit and food. They provided dining alternatives in a city where, in those days, if you wanted to eat fish anywhere but in the handful of continental restaurants, it would probably be fried in cornmeal.
During the last few years, however, restaurants have proliferated in Fort Worth. Standards have risen considerably: The best places have gotten better, and the average is higher. Two of the pioneers in this upsurge-both of them also survivors-are Szechuan and Le Café Bowie. Szechuan raised the standards of Chinese cooking in Fort Worth to a new level. Especially in the spicy Hunan and Szechuan dishes, Szechuan can be matched by very few Chinese restaurants in the Metroplex.
Le Café Bowie, although it is visually no flashier than its predecessors in the Continental sweepstakes, is somewhat more sophisticated in the kitchen. Its premise of keeping things simple works. Everybody gets soup and salad at dinner, and there are no other appetizers. The menu (presented orally) consists mostly of variations on tenderloin and veal scallops.
About four years ago, Fort Worth dining turned another corner. The opening of two elegant downtown hotels-the rejuvenated Hyatt Regency and the new Americana-gave the city its fanciest dining rooms. The downtown development of Sundance Square, filled with shops and restaurants, added a further spark to the flame of a jazzier, more sophisticated Fort Worth. The French restaurant there was L’Oustau, where choreographer George Balan-chine and ballerina Suzanne Farrell dined when the New York City Ballet came to town. L’Oustau didn’t survive (it moved to Dallas and came a cropper there, too), but a branch of Ristorante Lombardi took over the space and brought Fort Worth a level of Northern Italian cooking it had never before enjoyed.
A number of independent places on the West Side contributed to the Fort Worth dining renaissance. The best-known of those is Michel. The proprietor and chef (from whom the restaurant takes its name) is the brother of Dallas restaurateur Jean Claude Prevot, and Michel resembles the Dallas restaurant in several ways. Both have walls covered in dark printed fabrics, both have oral menus at fixed prices and both share certain specialties. In atmosphere, Michel preserves a certain intimacy by its location in a lovely restored house. As for its food, Michel does not quite climb the heights that Jean Claude achieves at its best. But Jean Claude’s best is seen infrequently these days, and its sibling Michel often beats Jean Claude’s desultory routine.
Michel offers French food cooked in a lighter, modern style but completely without nouvelle pretensions. Fish and lobster dishes are some of its biggest triumphs, but the lamb and veal are also worthwhile. Michel himself takes time to visit most of the tables during the evening to visit and accept compliments. Sometimes individual dishes disappoint, but on the whole, Michel remains Fort Worth’s best restaurant.
One place that appeared for a while to be challenging Michel’s front-runner status is Tours. In its storefront location, no place could seem less prepossessing on the outside than Tours. But inside, it is starkly elegant: A few pictures on the walls and subtle lighting give the place real presence. The menu contains a lot of interesting ideas: Roquefort flan with Zinfandel sauce, chicken quesadillas, ravioli with various fillings-and these are just among the appetizers.
During the months it has been open, however, Tours has lost a little ground. As word got out and it became more popular, both food and service deteriorated to a certain extent. Instead of receiving the attention of one of the proprietors, one must now rely on the ministrations of a young and unpolished serving staff. It is still an excellent place to eat, with prices that constitute something of a bargain in today’s restaurant market (although Fort Worth prices in general are far more reasonable than those in Dallas). But it doesn’t quite deserve the D award it merited six months ago in our last restaurant survey.
With the apparent closing of Escape, the fourth Fort Worth restaurant to earn a D award in August 1984, the next level of continental dining in the city is achieved by the dining rooms in two of the downtown hotels. Reflections in the Americana and Crystal Cactus in the Hyatt Regency Fort Worth both have very capable kitchens and the most opulent interiors of any restaurants in the city.
Reflections is smaller, quieter and chaste in feeling. The look of the place is truly unusual, with large sculpted columns in the shape of lotus plants that grow from floor to ceiling (they appear to be ceramic). The name of the restaurant comes from the shallow tiled pool that bisects the restaurant and from the mirrors that occupy one wall and appear to double the space. The food is conservative, but not old-fashioned in feeling like the older generations of continental restaurants in Fort Worth. Dishes such as lamb accompanied by lamb sausages or skewered shrimp could compete with the food in most luxury restaurants anywhere.
Crystal Cactus is larger, more rambunctious (sometimes unbearably noisy, in fact), and more self-consciously Texan. The look of the place is glamorous, but it’s almost a send-up of the reputation of Fort Worth as Cowtown. Pictures of cactus are indeed etched into some of the glass dividers in the space, and the effect of the whole is charming. The food hits some pretty high peaks-salmon wrapped around ratatouille makes a fine appetizer, for instance-but seems a little less consistent than at Reflections.
For all the growth among the high-end dining establishments, the growth among less pretentious spots has been even more rapid and just as welcome. There seems to be a new oyster bar, a new Italian spot, a new Chinese restaurant almost every week.
And some things never change. Perhaps the greatest reward of eating out in Fort Worth is discovering a small Mexican restaurant whose reputation you will either guardzealously from ever getting outinto the world or defend to thedeath if someone else says aword in favor of a rival. There’sBenito’s, where the food isauthentically Mexican ratherthan Tex-Mex, where you canget sopes as appetizers andwhere grilled scallions comewith the thinly cut fajitas. Andthen there’s Robert’s, and thenthere’s…