RESTAURANTS FRESCO FEVER

A tour of old favorites and new finds in patio wining and dining.

If I told you that outdoor dining was invented in 1542 by a crafty Italian umbrella maker named Al Fresco, would you believe me?

I was afraid you wouldn’t. You know as well as I do that open-air eating was a prehistoric practice resorted to by our knuckle-dragging ancestors to keep from smoking up the cave. Obviously, it took the Italians several centuries to give al fresco dining its name and. with the help of the French, establish the sidewalk cafe as a sunny-day symbol of spontaneous conviviality and romantic charm. In short, the very image for which dining Dallas most wistfully hungers.

Al fresco literally means “in the fresh,” which, besides sounding like the punchline of a Japanese nudity joke, is hard to translate into Texas summer terms. Outdoor dining at 95-plus degrees can be more trial than treat. But Dallas tries; you’ve only to cruise the city’s culinary heartland-McKinney to Knox, Greenville to Deep Ellum, the Quadrangle to the West End-for proof that, whoever the umbrella salesman was. he made enough here to retire. The damn things are everywhere, brought out from wherever they winter, folded and stacked like roosting bats, to spread ribbed wings over half the concrete in town. Al fresco is the hottest (in both senses) eating-out trend going here this season.

Fortunately, it is possible to celebrate the Continental concept without discomfort-after dark, at least. Omittingthe mob-scene pop stops, a number of establishments have managed to make al fresco dining a repeat-able pleasure, in setting as well as food. Herewith, a baker’s dozen of our favorites:

The Quadrangle, 2800 Routh, is what al fresco’s all about. Dine in the twilight dusk on Actuelle’s chalet-like piazza and watch the passing parade of Theatre Three-bound sophisticates. Brunch on a weekend among the health-food habitues of Dream Cafe and enjoy the view overlooking the grassy eastward sweep. Or contemplate the local color on 80s patio to see what’s become of maturing yuppiedom. Okay, so that’s three places, not one. but what you’ve got here is a true cross section of upscale Dallas, and the Quadrangle’s breeze-catching courtyards create a tranquil ambience Italy might envy.

Pomodoro at 2520 Cedar Springs is paradise for people-watchers of a different stripe. Nothing tranquil here-gaiety ripples through the night from the smart business types who gather here to salute the day’s accomplishments. Inside, the noise level’s thick enough to slice, but out front it’s merely merry. Your buffalo mozzarella may try to slide into your lap (the airy deck is tilted, presumably for drainage), but your above-it-all view of Cedar Springs’ nonstop stream of lithe-limbed runners offers all kinds of stimulation (Where dc they all come from? Does anybody know?).

Deep Ellum Cafes (2706 Elm St.) shady rear garden seems miles removed from the street’s motley traffic, and even more sweetly subdued than the low-key atmosphere of the cafe itself. The clientele ranges from artists to attorneys, the dress from outrageous to arch-conservative, but the illusion of remoteness seems to be cherished by all, including the help. While the garden is cozy, tables feel private, and here you can actually talk.

Lakewood Plaza Grill (6334 La Vista), one of the city “s newest al fresco gathering places, is also one of the most comfortable, a cordial arrangement of tiered decks nestled between the restaurant proper and the landmark movie theater next door. Shaded under taut-laced canvas and graced with fgloryosky!) ceiling fans, this amiable space may be one of the few in Dallas habitable by daylight. Certainly, it is destined to be one of the most popular-laid-back East Dallas has been waiting for years for just such a character-mirror ing establishment, and while this one has yet to achieve consistency in food and service, its modest prices and eagerness to please promise that patience will be rewarded.

Baby Routh, 2708 Routh Si.. had to have one, since its daddy didn’t-an al fresco hangout for the cutting-edge crowd, This one’s an open atrium, discreetly landscaped and lighted for conversational coupling. You’ll want to pick your time there carefully, though-pretty as it is, the spot is totally enclosed by the restaurant: on a still night, it can be stifling, so dress accordingly.

Ditto for Dakota’s. 600 N. Akard, which may be the only haute restaurant in town that dug for its deck. Indeed, it’s a deck worth digging, offering diners an intriguing rock-garden view from the underground restaurant proper. But the same aspect thai effectively seals street-level downtown Dallas out of this intimate setting also blocks the breeze. One solution: initiate romance over al fresco aperitifs, then move inside for the rest of your mealtime intrigue.

La Madeleine is too close to passing cars for my taste, at both its Mockingbird and Lemmon Avenue locations (3072 W. Mockingbird, 3906 Lemmon). But isn’t that just like Paris? Its perfect atmosphere for morning paper reading over excellent coffee and croissants makes it the only place for which I’d relax my not-before-sundown rule.

Cafe Beaujolais (69 Highland Park Village), on the other hand, elevates the al fresco ambience to a level that almost out-Frenches the French. The restaurant is set high above sidewaJk level, on a tree-screened stone landing that overlooks Village traffic without enduring ils effluents. Shirt-sleeve informality mates happily here with amiable service-the whole effect is picturesquely provincial and altogether pleasant.

Cardinal Puffs, 4615 Greenville Ave., is al fresco at its most American, as close to a parkland setting as you can get inside this city. This unpretentious burger-based establishment makes the most of an irresistible liaison with nature on lush garden grounds solidly shaded with trees and banks of flowers, remote enough from Greenville Avenue to be fume-free and noise-proof, down-to-earth enough to promote a picnic feeling among its casual young clientele.

Mariano’s, at 5500 Greenville in Old Town, has managed to turn a simple walled-in patio into a peaceful oasis. A longtime favorite of Margarita-loving business and political types, the place fosters an uncommonly relaxing illusion of Mexican-style hospitality in its shrub-shielded haven.

Capriccio, 2616 Maple Ave., and Crackers, 2621 McKinney, derive different outdoor-dining benefits from similar situations: both occupy mellow old houses, sensitively restored. Capriccio’s al fresco diners take the evening breeze from a handsome side deck with a view of The Crescent that’s Continental enough to satisfy their affluent souls. Crackers’ front lawn affords no such advantage-the candlelit tables overlook only the bleak concrete of a hamburger joint opposite on McKinney. But its own garden-party ambience sets such a gracious mood, the casual young crowd hardly seems to notice the view.

Now for the last name on my list. No, it’s not Sfuzzi (what’s the use of listing a place you can’t get into without waiting in line, and that’s too haughty to take reservations?). It’s not even any of the fine restaurants that include al fresco accommodations as an indulgence to the moneyed fresh-air freaks among their clientele (I’d starred several for honorable mention, but gave up counting after the fifty-eighth umbrella cluster).

No, boys and girls, to round out my baker’s dozen. I give you the entire West End Historic District-not one sidewalk eatery, but more than a dozen. No list would be complete without the West End. not because I would eat outside there myself, you understand, but because it embodies the highest local concentration of al fresco fun. You’ve got your broad pedestrian malls and decks, spread so solidly with wall-to-curb tables that there’s hardly room to walk among them. Weekends, wandering tourist throngs wait wistfully for their turn at tables. From a distance, against its backdrop of mellow old buildings, the West End scene could pass for a re-creation of the Continental concept that inspired it. Al fresco is. after all. more frame of mind than food. And if I told you this was as close as we’ll ever come to the romantic Real Thing in Dallas, would you believe me?

I was afraid you would.

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