Darwin’s law applies as ruthlessly in the restaurant business as everywhere else: Adapt or die. The real news in Dallas restaurants this year wasn’t openings but reopenings. redos, replications, relocations, and sometimes even the virtual reinvention of existing restaurants, underscoring again that to survive in the competitive Dallas market, a restaurant has to evolve even faster than, say, a flu virus.
Only the fittest survive. In Dallas this year, that meant restaurants that tried to combine fitness with food didn’t survive: NorthSouth and Eureka! both closed their doors. Some restaurants didn’t survive transplant-Coco Pazzo, successful in New York, closed two locations in Dallas the same year they opened and San Francisco favorite Fog City Diner finally retreated to the West Coast. Some restaurants reproduce easily: Chic homegrown chain Mediterraneo is thriving at its new location in the Quadrangle, and Palomino is packing them into an overdesigned space at the Crescent, in spite of mediocre food. Both restaurants depend more on cachet than cuisine, although the rule of thumb is, the smaller the chain, the better the food. Mediterraneo’s kitchen wins this competition.
Some restaurants re-evaluated themselves and changed in response to the market. Saigon Bistro shifted its menu orientation, focusing more firmly on the city food of Vietnam instead of going global as it had when it opened.
Hofstetter’s new Spargel Cafe might be the most radical restaurant metamorphosis of the year. The old favorite cut itself away from a charming but buried location on Bachman Lake and reincarnated on Miracle Mile-not charming but highly visible.
The new restaurant preserved enough of the old menu to be recognizable as Hofstetter’s but left most of its old-fashioned continental kitchen tricks behind. The new dining room is a picture of chic ’90s style, softly minimalist with wheat-green walls, wheat grass on the tables, and asparagus sculptures. Never mind the botanical confusion. The food is simple, and there’s still enough imported beer and schnitzel to make the lederhosen crowd happy but not nostalgic for the old place.
Watel’s tried to pull a similar trick in its new location on McKinney. Yet in spite of the undeniable polish and prettiness of the new place, everyone misses its former funk. Fortunately, the menu is largely the same, and we can still have our rare tuna and lentil salad for lunch and our cassoulet for supper. Close your eyes and remember the old sloping garden room with its suburban-style sliding-glass doors.
Enigma took the opposite approach when it moved from McKinney Avenue to the old house on Routh Street, where the ghost of the great Routh Street Cafe (formerly in this location) has killed greater restaurants. All Enigma’s signature stuff-glass centerpieces, oddball placesettings. gimmicky art-looks like it was beamed into place here without a napkin losing a crease.
The most-anticipated restaurant of the summer was Biernat’s. which pulled on the power of personality. Manager AI Biernat’s face had reigned at the door of The Palm practically since it opened. This year, when another personality, Joey Vallone, left his namesake restaurant on Oak Lawn to return to Houston. AI opened his namesake restaurant at Joey’s. The new Biernat’s is an obvious descendant of The Palm- serving huge steaks, big potatoes, and meet-your-own-lobsters to the same boldfaced types whose faces are painted on The Palm’s walls. Meanwhile at The Palm, some old celebrities have been painted over, some fresh faces are taking their places in the restaurant’s latest face lift.