Before Walmart, the heart of any small town was its main street. more than a place to shop, it was a place to gather, eat, and run into neighbors. When small towns are swallowed by urban sprawl, they lose their identities, and their Main Streets usually disappear. But, sometimes, the heart of a place can be resuscitated—see Bishop Arts District—and, in a few rare cases, it simply survives.
Like Snider Plaza.
The short strip running parallel to Hillcrest Road, near SMU, anchors the enchanting illusion that University Park and Highland Park are just small towns stuck in the middle of a big city, like some kind of urban Brigadoon. Many of the bungalows that once surrounded the shopping center have mushroomed into mansions worthy of the area’s property values, but the small-town feel that residents cherish about the Park Cities is intact in Snider Plaza.
Kids still ride their bikes up to the plaza, mothers push strollers from store to store, the central fountain still gets soap dumped in it when SMU (or Highland Park ISD) students feel a rush of old-fashioned school spirit. Some businesses have been in Snider Plaza for years. Partly, that’s because of the Ralph Porter Company Realtors, whose inclusive leasing policy allows for tiny antique stores as well as national chains.
In 1927, Porter built the first office building in Snider Plaza and helped his friend C.W. Snider sell and lease the land in the rest of the center. And though businesses come and go—everyone still misses M.E. Moses—others endure, and Snider Plaza’s quirky lineup is a long way from the cookie-cutter shopping centers that repeat themselves at every intersection along Preston Road.
A family-owned business and the oldest residential real estate firm in Dallas, the Porter Company still manages or controls about 50 percent of Snider Plaza. That sense of history and community has resulted in an eclectic cluster of businesses instead of another center full of expensive fashion boutiques. Let’s say Snider Plaza emphasizes the Andy Griffith side of the Park Cities’ personality, rather than the Carrie Bradshaw side.
There’s Kuby’s, where a lot of customers still speak German, the premier Dallas butcher shop for decades. This is where proto-foodies went to buy their cut-to-order meats and exotic foods like house-made sausages and lamb long before the Food Network made it fashionable. There’s Rejebian & Son, back in the plaza after a short hiatus, still run by the third generation of the Armenian family and still a leading Texas authority on fine Oriental rugs. Need we say more? Antiques, frozen yogurt, fine fabrics, fine guns, and blue jeans—browse Snider Plaza and you’ll find them all side by side.
Dallas Metropolitan Ballet/Etgen-Atkinson Ballet School
It’s a pretty spring afternoon, and the SMU campus near McFarlin Auditorium is dotted with puffs of pink tulle like little mimosa blossoms. It’s recital day for the Etgen-Atkinson Ballet School, and, for a few hours, the cool coeds make way for tiny dancers ready for their moment in the spotlight. For decades, Miss Ann (Etgen) and Mr. Bill (Atkinson) have been teaching the children of Dallas to dance. Professional dancers themselves with illustrious careers behind them, the Etgen-Atkinson team teaches all ages—from preschool through professional level—the formal art of ballet, with its roots in the Russian and French schools. They also direct Dallas Metropolitan Ballet, a nonprofit company for aspiring professionals. Alumni have gone on to dance with American Ballet Theatre, New York City Ballet, Joffrey Ballet, San Francisco Ballet, and dozens of other companies.
Jack’s Burger House
Jack’s Burger House opened in 1951, at the height of america’s malt-shop culture. The founder with the improbable name Prometheus Koustabardis was known as Jack, and his business secrets were as simple as his nickname. First: Jack’s is dedicated to its neighborhood. The walls are lined with photos of high school teams and groups sponsored by the restaurant. Second: the secret salt, a seasoning blend created 60 years ago and still used on all burgers and fries.
There’s an army of expertise behind the doors of jackson armory.Founder and company president Ret. Judge David Jackson is an authority on antique and military guns, Randall Thompson is a specialist in historic firearms and militaria, and Kevin Topham is an expert on modern guns. All this knowledge concentrated in one store makes Jackson Armory a gun collector’s paradise—a place where a novice can start to learn the intricacies of the development of firearms and their historical use, the experienced collector can exchange information with fellow enthusiasts and discover treasures like English duelling pistols and Civil War weapons, and the sportsman can find just the right gun. Jackson Armory is also the No. 1 dealer in the United States for Wilson Combat, so they can offer advice and experience when choosing a personal handgun.
Plaza Health Foods
In 1949, when plaza health foods opened, the whole idea of “health food” was a tad on the wacky side. Originally a bakery owned by Paul Fuqua, a corner of the store was commandeered by his wife, Ester, a registered nurse frustrated by the medical profession’s emphasis on illness instead of wellness. She sold vitamins and herbs, and, before long, the whole store was reconceived as Plaza Health Foods, an idea far ahead of its time. Now run by Paul and Ester’s grandson Max, the store has stayed ahead of its time. It offers biometric testing like cholesterol screening and allergy testing, massage therapy, and exercise classes, along with good old-fashioned advice.
Snider Plaza Hair Styling
When did hair care become so complicated? Walk into Snider Plaza Hair Styling and be soothed by the hum of hair dryers and the sight of women in rollers half-drowsing under the old-fashioned beehive helmets. Welcome to back-in-the-day, when the well-kept woman’s weekly visit to the “beauty shop” gave her a ’do that lasted seven days and a man’s proper haircut called for “whitewalls.” Don’t look for reviews on Yelp or Google. This is not that kind of trendy shop. Recommendations come by word of mouth, and are traded between neighbors and handed down from parent to child.
If you don’t want to see your dress on someone else at the next charity gala, shop at Studio Sebastian. As much a gallery as a fashion store, Studio Sebastian carries the fashion other Dallas boutiques don’t dare to—edgy, forward-looking, unconventional but very elegant. For 16 years, owners Kobie and Sebastian Ahmadi have sought out hard-to-find European lines like Chinti and Parker, Paul & Joe, and Matthew Williamson to show alongside more familiar designer names like Missoni, Maria Cornejo, and Jill Stuart. Add to that a curated collection of killer shoes and accessories, and you’ll have a look that’s inimitable.