Twenty-five years is a long time in Dallas, a city where it seems the newest is always the best, where trends hardly have time to happen before they’re gone and the next one looms. That goes double for the restaurant business; eating out is Dallas’s favorite recreation, and the most common complaint of local restaurateurs is the fickleness of Dallas diners, who count themselves out of it if they’re not seen at the latest hot spot the week it opens. Twenty-five years ago things were different. This was a city just beginning to crest. Dallas had only one skyline then. LBJ was a muddy ditch. Piano was way out of town, and Addison was dry. Food was a different story, too. There were no That, Ethiopian, Vietnamese, or Korean restaurants. Chinese food was Cantonese; Italian food meant red sauce. Seafood was fried, or broiled and sauced-never blackened or served raw. No one had invented New American; Cajun food was still across the river and back in the bayous.
Formal dinners then were French, or they fit into that vague category known as “Continental.” Lovers Lane, the Miracle Mile, was home to a triumvirate of the best of these: Mr. Peppe, Marcel’s, and Dominique’s. Expense account favorites for the two-martini-lunch bunch were Arthur’s, Mario’s, Old Warsaw, and Chateaubriand. Steak was still the ail-American meal-Dun-ston’s was grilling theirs over mesquite long before mesquite was chic, not just cheap.
What’s surprising is how many of these names are still familiar. They may not be as visible as the new kids in town, but they do steady business and fill a valued niche in Dallas’s dining scene. Most of them have survived this long not just because they serve good food, but because they possess a certain personality-an aura created by owners who come in every night and waitresses who have been there, in some cases, for twenty years. Swimming against the current, these places offer their customers the comforts of tradition and dependability rather than the shock of the new.
Some of the old restaurants have come and gone, and then come again, like the reborn Chateaubriand; some, like S & S Tearoom, have moved and changed so completely with the times that only the name remains to remind us of how it used to be. Some have proliferated into chains, like El Fenix and El Chico, but most of them are still what they once were, unchanged by waves of radicchio and lemon grass, untouched by celebrity chefs or gourmet pizza. Still standing proud are some grandes-dames as big, posh, and expensive as ever: Mario’s, Old Warsaw, Arthur’s. Other mem-bers of the twenty-five-year club include a couple of Mexican places and a couple of old-style Italian ones (Pietro’s and Il Sorrento). Filling out the list are a number of low-profile, unpretentious neighborhood coffee shops and cafés-Kel’s Restaurant, the Hungry Jockey. The Mecca- kept alive not by transient herds of trendies, but by neighborhood businesses whose employees enjoy a friendly break and a home-style meal in the middle of a busy day.
Following are reviews of some of my favorite golden oldies, plus an all-star roster of restaurants that have celebrated their silver anniversaries.
In December, the rumor mill had it that Mr. Peppe was leaving-the last of the fine old dining establishments to desert the Miracle Mile. As it turns out, the rumor was both right and wrong. Albert Schaufel-berger, “Mr. Peppe” to many of us, has gone, but Mr. Peppe, which has been serving Swiss-French cuisine from that same location for thirty-one good years, is definitely staying put.
The place looks much as it always did-a pastel mural of a Swiss landscape covers one wall, a mock wine cellar under brick arches decorates the other half of the room. And the menu is certainly familiar-crabmeat Peggy, artichoke Elizabeth, sautéed sole, chocolate mousse. Order the pepper steak-a flavorful cut flamed tableside expertly and discreetly-or that delicious dinosaur, beef Wellington. The fish is unflamboyantly prepared- simply sauced and accurately cooked-and the specials are generally a good bet. The price of an entree includes a salad, soup, and vegetable, adding up to an excellent bargain. Service is old-style excellent-overseen in the past by the ever-present Albert and now by the new owner. Barnaby Schrenkheisen. owner of the now-defunct Schrenkheisen’s in Rockport. Schrenkheisen, who celebrated his own wedding in the restaurant, jumped at the chance when he heard that Schaufel-berger was ready to sell. “But a lot of peopie still expect to see Albert here,” he admits. “People celebrate their weddings, births, anniversaries, even divorces, here, and they think Albert is part of their family.” To make the transition easier, Albert continued to come in for several months, saying adieu to long-time customers and introducing them to the new “Mr. Peppe ’
Tex-Mex they come, Tex-Mex they go, but Dominguez (the casa and the man) endures. Pete Dominguez is usually to be found at the original Cedar Springs location (though he now owns several sibling restaurants), still greeting regulars by name and introducing himself to newcomers. Pete moved to Dallas from Austin in 1957 and opened Casa Dominguez in 1963, serving “Austin-style” Mexican food. There’s a large population of Dallasites (not all of them Texas Exes), who think that’s the best kind, so Dominguez was an immediate hit and has remained popular ever since. If you doubt it’s so, check out the walls; they’re covered with testimonials and autographed photographs from his celebrated clientele. If you wonder why it’s so, check out the food. The chips are fresh, hot, and replenished often. The hot sauce is flavorful and hot. The nachos are smothered in beans and cheese, the enchiladas in rich chili. The “Pete-za” is as great a combination of classic ingredients as a frito pie: taco meat, jalapenos, cheese, and onions sandwiched in a sautéed flour tortilla and topped with a scoop of guacamole. Everything is as it should be-and if it’s not, Dominguez is there to find out why.
Highland Park Pharmacy
It is my feeling that a grilled cheese and a chocolate shake at Highland Park Pharmacy will go a long way toward curing what ails you-whether you’re soul-sick, heartsick, or just plain old sick. There are those who disagree-who believe that nothing will do, in extremis, but a chocolate soda and a “Palm Beach” (pimento cheese, to the uninitiated). No matter; it may not be the incomparable counter cuisine that does the trick anyway, but the fact that the Pharmacy is, literally, incomparable. There are few drugstore soda fountains left, and the reassuring feeling that this is a place where Wal-ly, the Beav, and even the Nelson family would feel right at home has its own restorative value. There’s nothing cute or quaint about the Pharmacy-tiny two-top tables are the ugliest possible brown Formica, counter stools are standard. “Functional” is the most upbeat comment you could make about the furnishings, and while the service is highly efficient, it’s not necessarily cheerful. The upbeat part of the Pharmacy experience comes from your fellow eaters-there’s a friendship factor at work when you’re lined up elbow-to-elbow with strangers. People gladly slide over to make a double out of two singles, and they’re happy to tell you they’ll be leaving soon if there’s not a stool in sight.
I can’t help imagining that Paul Draper, designer of the famous Sfuzzi interiors with their classical architecture and crumbling frescoes, ate at Il Sorrento as a child. Surely, the Disneyesque completeness of those Italian arcades, fake piazzas, courtyards, and classical statues was an early inspiration, It may seem a little corny now, but the extravagance of it all still gives you the heady feeling of having walked into a Hollywood fantasy-red and gold carpet in all directions, the dark ceiling like a night sky overhead, service with a flourish, and all of it set against the background music of a strolling accordion player (the theme from The Godfather is a favorite request). Most of the food ranks as classic Fifties Italian. Seafood is prepared with lots of garlic, lemon, and olive oil; the man with the breadbox around his neck is ever ready to serve you another hot roll. Lasagna is thick, cheesy, and heavily sauced: fresh tortellini comes with cheese and cream. “Light” is not a word you would use to describe many things on the menu, but subtlety is not what we seek at this Cyrano of Italian restaurants-we come here for its irresistible panache.
My parents believed that children should learn how to eat out. So once a year or so they would stretch the family budget and their patience and take all three of us kids out to eat Someplace Really Nice. Someplace they would rather go by themselves. One New Year’s Eve when I was about eleven, they took us all to Mario’s. I still remember the dark red rooms and the glittering Venetian glass, the sip of wine I was allowed and the chicken Kiev my father ordered for me. It was the ultimate in eating out, and I felt as glamorous as a movie star. Mario’s still makes you feel that way, and it’s been serving Dallas diners for nearly forty-five years. In that time it’s had its ups and downs; right now. with former chef Antonio Avona back in the kitchen, it seems to be on an upswing. The gently Italian menu is executed with confidence-cannelloni with meat and spinach was lovely, the Caesar salad classic. The sausage and cheese lasagna (“Pope John’s favorite dish”), was rich; the veal Milanesa surprisingly light. It will be interesting to see what changes Avona will make on his new menu-the list could use some sparkle, but you don’t want to tamper with tradition too much. Meanwhile. Mario’s still lays on the luxury; whenever I go there, I think of my children, remember my parents, and marvel. Dallas Oldies But Goodies
Arthur’s, 8350 N. Central Expwy. Brownie’s, 5519 East Grand. Burger House, 6913 Hillcrest. Campisi’s Egyptian Restaurant, 5610 Mockingbird.
Casa Dominguez, 2127 Cedar Springs. Dean’s Seafood Restaurant, 7801 Inwood. Highland Park Cafeteria, 4611 Cole at Knox.
Highland Park Pharmacy, 3229 Knox. Hong Kong Restaurant, 9055 Garland Rd. Hungry Jockey, 1417 Preston Forest Square.
Il Sorrento, 8616 Turtle Creek Blvd. Kel’s Restaurant, 5337 Forest Lane. Kuby’s Sausage House, 6601 Snider Plaza.
Mario’s Restaurant, 135 Turtle Creek Village.
Mecca Restaurant, 10422 Harry Hines. Mr. Peppe, 5617 Lovers Lane. Old Warsaw Restaurant, 2610 Maple. Pietro’s Italian Restaurant, 5722 Richmond.
Prince of Hamburgers, 5200 Lemmon. Red Bryan’s Smokehouse, 3383 Lombardy. S&S Restaurant, 260 Inwood Village. Sonny Bryan’s Smokehouse, 2202 Inwood. Southern Kitchen, 2356 W. Northwest Hwy. Vincent’s, 3004 W. Northwest Hwy.