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RESTAURANT HANG OUTS

In Dallas, a neighborhood hangout may not be around the corner from your front door, but it sure feels like heme when you get there.
By Betty Cook |

What’s a neighborhood hangout? It’s where you go to get out of the house without really leaving home. You know the kind of place I mean-a restaurant, with a bar, of course, but mostly a come-as-you-are comfort station. Where you can recharge on the run with a quick cup of coffee, or cushion the transition from stressed-out day to idle evening with a few shots of your favorite beverage accompanied by a good, honest meal you didn’t have to fix yourself. Where you can group or not, talk or not, according to your mood, but where the staff and other regulars are enough like family to worry if you fail to show for more than a day or two. Your restaurant haunt. In New York, Chicago, even San Francisco-any of the crowded old walk-around cities-that’s exactly what it would be: within easy steps from where you live or work, around a corner or a few blocks over, so attuned to the texture and tempo of its close community that you could be taken to it blindfolded, and you’d know what part of town you’re in. But try that in loose-knit, far-flung Dallas, where people live on wheels, not on foot. Territorial lines are blurred, and neighborhoods may be defined more by common interests than common ground. So may many of our neighborhood restaurant hangouts; the best, though, are true to their genre in both respects: close enough to get to easily and often, warm enough in ambience to make you feel family-cozy. To make you feel family-possessive, too, perhaps- don’t be surprised if you find yourself unwilling to share the haunt you’ve hunted and claimed with outsiders, even with friends. Let them find their own-the quintessential neighborhood hangout is, after all, the most private public place in any city.

C lub Schmitz

The words “low profile” take on a new meaning when it comes to Club Schmitz: Not only is the Denton Drive outpost not listed in the Dallas telephone directory, it is often unreachable by dialing a Dallas phone. Which means if you need directions to get there, you’re out of luck. But, should you happen upon this hangout, you’ll find that Club Schmitz is as simpatico an eat-and-drink depot as you could ask to see looming down the pike. It’s been family-owned and run since two cousins, Leonard and Big-un Schmitz, opened its doors in 1946. Owned now by their offspring, brothers Bob and Jim and their cousin Larry, the club caters to the family trade as it always has. Favored first by Irving residents for whom it was the closest wet spot, it draws from all over town-blue-collar tribes to judges and yups meet and mingle here in surfoundings that have gone unchanged for the 45 years they’ve weathered. “Hot chili, cold Bud,” an over-the-bar sign proclaims; and beer is the only drink served, Club Schmitz’s menu dishes out hearty comfort in food that’s incredibly low-priced-bracelet-sized onion rings for a dollar and a quarter, a bigger-than-life burger for one seventy-five. Add 65 cents to that, and you’ll get the double burger, a structure so majestic I still can’t believe I saw a shuffleboard player casually down two in a row without breaking the rhythm of his game. I believe Bob Schmitz, though, when he describes the club: “A sort of neighborhood place without a neighborhood,” he calls it. He’s right. When I left after a recent linger the tune playing on the country jukebox was “I’ll hang around as long as you’ll let me” Club Schmitz lets you from 8 a.m. to late, six days a week, noon to midnight on Sundays. 966l Denton Drive.

Slider and Blues

There is a kind of city savvy I confess I will never have. It has to do with knowing where Everyone’s going-after the game, for before-dinner drinks, to fill in whatever odd space of time between regulated routines. Somehow, without anyone saying a word, some people instinctively sense where the main crowd, the in group, the established gang will head next. Where they’re heading these days in North Dallas is Slider and Blues, an amiable eatery set inconspicuously off Northwest Highway on Hillcrest. In the mysterious way these things happen, Slider and Blues has become the gathering spot of record for fa) mommies and kids in search of seats and sustenance after exhausting soccer sessions; (b) dating high school couples who sit on the same side of the table and try not to look at each other; (c) large family groups who sit separately by comfortable agreement, adults at one table, offspring at another; and (d) your occasional solo people-watcher, who may have the most fun of all. Strange as this tandem procession sounds, Slider and Blues is ideally configured for it: The place is divided into two rooms-one adjoined by a video-game annex and occupied by non-smoking women and children when I was there, the other more masculine and businesslike, containing a bar that serves beer and wine. Both have televisions for sports watching. Like the space, the menu has something for everyone: burgers and curly-Q fries for the soccer team, salads and quiche for the moms, thin, crisp pizzas and homey Italian specialties for whomever’s hungry-my visit’s from-scratch rigatoni was a cheese-taden double-sized serving, with wonderful little knotted Italian rolls, fresh baked. The salad that came with it held a distinctively fine-diced melange of tomato, olives, celery, and onion-a combination owner Andy Stasio proudly calls his “special vegetable mix,” and serves alone as a dip as well as on two of the pizzas. As with all establishments that have made the grade from mere restaurant to cherished haunt, waiters and regulars here seem to be on a natural first-name basis with each other-a practice that struck me as perfectly in keeping with a place that is named for the owner’s two bird dogs. 8517 Hillcrest.

Ernie’s

Ernie’s opulently furnished restaurant and adjoining lounge make you feel like you just walked into another era. A visit here is a blast from the past, a return to a Dallas-that-was. This is where you would come in the Fifties or Sixties for one of those all-important evenings out, evenings that called for a lush continental menu, a plush, dark-lit lounge, a piano bar manned non-stop, pouring out all the old hum-along standards. Such establishments have always been dear to upscale Dallas as proper settings for businessmen cosseting clients, middle-aged marrieds celebrating social success, younger couples celebrating personal milestones. But, places like Ernie’s are still as valid today as they were then. Ernie’s may be a hangout of a different kind, but hangout it is. To us it’s a way station on the Far North Dallas landscape, where neighborhoods sprawl next to concrete prairies. Here, more than anywhere else, neighborhoods have become less a matter of place than a matter of attitude and spirit. And, speaking of spirit: The folks who congregate at Ernie’s are as spirit-warmed and at-home comfortable as they get. A cashmere-sweatered woman, clearly a regular, urged us to request our favorite tunes of the piano player (Herman Flowers and Bob Bishop split the entertainment duties); another, suavely coifed, shared her regret that she’d moved away for a time, and her relief at returning to the neighborhood-she called it that, and she told us everyone who hangs out at Ernie’s lives close by. We believed her. After soaking up the clubby atmosphere in the lounge we felt like we lived in the neighborhood, too. While this place is upscale in looks, it’s pretty down-home when it comes to people. Owner Mark Fatamian, who owns various restaurant operations around the city, admits that the Ernie for whom this establishment is named is no longer in the picture. There’s another, though, he says, who’s in the lounge every night, and Fatamian is plotting to make him an honorary owner. Just to legalize the name, you understand. We think that’s a neighborly thing to do. 5100 Belt Line, Suite 502.

Gloria’s

For a part of Dallas so attractive and people-oriented, Oak Cliff has precious few neighborhood hangouts. Main reason of course is the area’s longtime stand against liquor sales, which has forced the places that would be bars and pubs anywhere else to operate here as private clubs. Still, a few establishments are gradually emerging as recognized havens for social exchange. The exchange was more political when Gloria’s first opened-launched as a shoestring eatery by Salvadorans Jose and Gloria Fuentes, the humble little cafe quickly became a rallying post for refugee countrymen homesick for their own cuisine, and only slightly less quickly for North American natives drawn to the spot by its novel nuances and, of course, the food. The food’s still the focus: moist chicken tamales steamed in banana leaves; handmade tortillas called pupasas, stuffed with cheese and/or pork and served with an old-country cross between cole slaw and kraut; black beans and sour cream with fried plantain and yucca; a particularly rich, silken flan no one has yet proved is not, as claimed, “the best in town.” Washed down with a tropical drink, alcoholic or not, or a chilled Salvadoran beer, such specialties brought Gloria’s widespread recognition. What’s come out of the mix besides prosperity, though, is an ambience as cordial as any restaurant’s in town. Stop in for a meal any time, day or night, and you’ll find Hispanics and Anglos, professionals and plain workers, grown-ups and children mingling with the comfortable casualness that characterizes the best neighborhood retreats. There’s only one thing that troubles me about all this success: Gloria’s gets just a little prettier with every visit. First the walls had a fresh coat of pale pink paint; then curtains and carpel were crisply upgraded. Last time 1 went, the battered old pool tables in the back room had been replaced with more tables for seating. Oh, well-the multicolored crowd that filled them seemed to be having the kind of fine, good-will-to-all social time that’s what real neighborhoods are all about. Or should be. 600 W. Davis.

Cafe Madrid

How does a new place get to have the forever feel of a genuine neighborhood fixture? Cafe Madrid opened barely a year ago-an ethnic eatery without an ethnic community to support it, in an area notorious for trendy food fickleness. In a city, for that matter, that has never understood or embraced tapas, the little tasting plates that are a way of life in Spain and the specialty of this small establishment. Whether such an enterprise could survive was an odds-against question. Did I say survive? Try thrive-you’ve only to set foot inside the door now to sense an amiable aura of permanence that might have been building for generations. And generations may be the key word here; we saw three on our last visit, descending from patriarch Ildefonso Jimenez Sr. and wife, who together run the kitchen, through their son, Ildefonso Jr., owner of the cafe, to an imperturbable infant who reigned briefly at the bar. We assumed this youngest citizen was a Jimenez, too, but if not, it hardly matters-the family feeling of closeness wrapped the room’s occupants in affection. What Cafe Madrid’s regular patrons have become, it seems, is extended family of the sort neighborhood restaurants tend to engender. The groups we observed varied, from a statesmanlike older couple to a pair of leather-layered yups to a solo Bohemian who ate his way steadily through the evening’s Cornish game hen dinner courses without looking up from his afternoon paper. All seemed to have braved the wintry elements as much for the cafe’s familiar, intimate ambience as for its food and wine. Not that these last do not contribute: I’ve always found the notion of tapas charming, and those we shared from the daily-changing blackboard list of 15 heightened the at-home mood of the setting. In fact the size and nature of the servings, and their just-cooked freshness, create the happy illusion that one is being slipped goodies from the busy kitchen of a benevolent relative who is preparing a banquet. Like good children, we cherished every bite, savored our honest, inexpensive wine, and left feeling fondly nourished-as I gather everyone does who has learned to frequent this place. 2501 Travis St.

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