Big D Moving Into The Big Leagues of Restaurant Cities

The food scene in DFW is moving up nationally. Photo Courtesy: Darryl Briggs
The food scene in Dallas is moving up nationally. Photo Courtesy: Darryl Briggs

By Steven Doyle

In recent years Dallas truly has started to come into its own regarding the restaurant scene. Naturally we look to cities like San Francisco and Chicago when describing a ‘restaurant city,’ but Dallas generally never is part of that conversation. Historically Dallas has been snubbed by the James Beard House’s annual awards, but ironically invites these same chefs to cook for their weekly dinners in New York.

Dallas is the definitive melting pot, and so is its cuisine. It is difficult to describe what our food is all about. We have plenty of Asian restaurants. Look to Little China in Richardson, or the Korean district near Walnut Hill and I-35E.

But we are not considered just for our Asian cuisine. There are plenty of Italian eateries, too, like Lucia in Bishop Arts and the new Battuto on Preston, many are hard pressed to discuss Italian. Dallas actually once flourished with a strong Italian neighborhood where Jimmy’s Food Store is located. One by one, the Italian meat markets, florists and other shops vanished leaving Jimmy’s as a reminder to our Italian past.

Examples like these lay heavy and could possibly discourage your average interloper looking for the latest in haute cuisine in the Dallas area, But alas for those hungry enough to seek out the very best we have as a city accelerated that effort, and many incredible restaurants lie in wait for those willing to seek and destroy a great plate.

Marquee Chef Andre Natera thinks there is a fantastic movement with our restaurants.

“Dallas is in a really nice ascension with regards to where our chefs are going,” he recently said.

“If you look back five years ago you couldn’t find restaurants like FT33, Driftwood, Spoon, or even Marquee for that matter. There is a younger new guard of chefs coming up now onto the scene.”

Natera believes that with the advent of the Internet and social media in general these chefs are better able to grasp their inspiration than they could before these mediums existed.

“This makes it more of a level playing field for us with regards to other major markets,” Natera continued. “The Food Network and other television programs have opened up people’s minds to be more adventurous and educated with food. As the diners are educated, and the chefs become more educated, you have this quickening process amongst the two groups, you have a better dining scene.”

The only missing ingredient, according to Natera, is talent. And Natera claims that the talent pool in Dallas has increased exponentially.

“Dallas chefs are starting to collaborate,” he said. “We are eating at each other’s restaurants, collaborating and  brainstorming, yet there is a varied style of cooking.

“You have chefs like Matt McCallister, Omar Flores and Bruno (Davaillon) who all have a very specific style of cooking working together. Yet you walk into FT33, or Spoon, or my restaurant, you definitely know who is cooking.”

Natera went as far as to predict that within the next few years Dallas will be competing with the likes of Chicago, Los Angeles and New York for the best restaurants.

New Restaurants, Young Chefs
Natera’s belief that these young chefs are changing the way we eat is obvious when you look to the new restaurants that have popped up even in the past year. In the Design District, we have Oak cheffed by Mansion on Turtle Creek alum Jason Maddy.

Chef Maddy had his humble beginnings working as a sous chef at Macaroni Grill before finally attending the Culinary Institute of America. He also worked at a whole host of incredible restaurants before finally moving to Austin where he did a three year stint at the Driskill Hotel. He then was offered a position that lasted more than three years under David Bull at the Stoneleigh Hotel in Dallas. Maddy was recruited to the Mansion by Chef John Tesar and the French wunderkind, Bruno Davaillon.

When Chef Maddy opened Oak, it was soon declared by some as the best restaurant in Dallas, serving up his new American cuisine. This undefinable cuisine seems to be what we do best in Dallas. These chefs also appreciate the local farmers and ranchers, and you often will hear the tired term farm-to-table bandied about. This simply means a less reliance on farmed goods grown across country, or beef from questionable feedlots located anywhere on the planet.

Boulevardier located in Bishop Arts is another example of a young talented chef making his mark on the dining landscape in Dallas. Chef Nathan Tate grew up in the North Texas area, and his family actually raises the beef he uses at the French-inspired bistro. Tate also relies on a quick turnaround in shipping for his seafood and fine selections of oysters offered up daily.

Matt McCallister has drawn in a huge fan base since opening his Design District restaurant, FT33. McCallister’s cooking style is different from any cuisine you might find in Texas, or possibly the United States. Having started at Stephan Pyles as a pantry chef with little or no formal training, McCallister rose through the ranks quickly, taking in all the knowledge he could from books and online.

The chef dabbled in molecular gastronomy for a bit after being inspired during an excursion to Spain with Pyles. After working for the legendary Pyles for five years, the young McCallister took his cooking show on the road for a year and staged in various top restaurants in the country, and performed pop-up dinners in Dallas before finally opening his restaurants to high praise from local and national media.

Pyles recently told me that, “we (Dallas) are finally becoming the city we always thought we were.”

Burgers, Dogs and Beer. Oh, My!
Dallas isn’t just about its recent influx of fine dining. We also appreciate a good burger, and in the past year have experienced a surge in hot dogs. The obsession might be a reflection on economic times, but the methods in which these restaurants are opening are showing great panache, giving all their customers a good experience.

On the hot dog front we have restaurants such as Hofmann’s Hots which Phil Romano recently opened in the new Trinity Groves area of Dallas. Romano told me that he was looking to open a restaurant using the 125- year-old brand of wiener he grew up eating in New York. He envisions the brand to scatter across the country almost to the scale of Subway, with locations in every city. The hot dogs are unique and they bake their own buns and use high-end ingredients. The cost of the dogs themselves is consistent with the average fast-food chain, but so much better in quality.

Another success story emanating from Dallas is Luscher’s Post Oak Red Hots, created by Chef Bryan Luscher, owner of the Grape on Greenville Avenue. The man is drawing on his Chicago roots to smoke a true red hot, and sells them at a local farmers market, and wholesale to restaurants such as The Green Grocer on Greenville and Bolsa Mercado in Oak Cliff. Restaurants already have picked up on the newly-offered dog, and you can find them on the menu of the newly opened The Lot in East Dallas.

The burger business seems to be in high gear still, with steam moving that movement along at an alarming rate. Recently Maple & Motor won a national award featured on a television program. This burger seems to be the gold standard by which other burgers are judged, but there are some amazing examples in play all over the city. Consider the Austin transplant Hopdoddy located in Preston Center, which often has lines snaking around the building late at night.

To wash down all of these burgers and dogs are many new breweries now open in North Texas. Peticolas Brewing  Company won a gold medal at the Great American Beer Festival in Colorado. The Royal Scandal brew took the highest honor for Classic English-Style Pale Ale, not bad for a business open for a mere 10 months. The Peticolas Velvet Hammer, an American Strong Ale rated at 9.1% ABV, continues to be our personal favorite.

Other breweries, such as Deep Ellum Brewing Company, Lakewood, and Franconia are putting Dallas on the map with their innovations in brews and marketing genius. Beer just lends itself to boastful speech, and high praise.

Cocktails Anyone?
The raging cocktail movement which has heated the city map for the past few years seems to have matured, and is winning high praise. This is a movement I can wrap my head around, as have many in Dallas. I recently overheard a young man in Tate’s Craft Cocktails in Uptown explain to his lower 20-something friends that they absolutely need to try a Manhattan. His revelation in a true cocktail usurped his drinking buddy’s desire for a light beer, and eventually won them over to craft cocktails as many of the good barmen in this city have been working towards.

Our good cocktail bars are being infiltrated by members of the growing Bartender’s Guild, a group dedicated to properly mixing it up each evening to take off the edge of a busy day. These same bartenders are competing, and winning, on a national level. Find these talented people behind the stick at bars such as Tates, Standard Pour, Cedars Social, P/S, People Last Stand, and more recently the reservation bar located (and somewhat hidden), Smyth.

A friend once explained to me that when it came to Manhattans you needed to order two at the beginning of the evening; one for sipping quickly for the heady affect, and the other to savor slowly, picking up the favorable nuances imparted by the quality ingredients.

The state of Dallas’ hospitality scene is ever growing as we become more comfortable in our own dining skin. The way to explore these new venues is by being a curious guest, and an adventuresome diner. Order what might make you question your sensibilities, and imbibe in that which gives you pause. These are good times, my friends.