6 Reasons Dallas Is Ready for Its Foodie Close-up

By Farah Fleurima  |  December 5, 2013

On a jaunt earlier this year to New Orleans, we ran into a restaurant maven who’d attended college in Dallas in the early ’80s. Still an occasional visitor to Big D, she asked why the dining scene there hadn’t risen to “the next level.” She remarked (paraphrasing), “I can go to Houston and eat something interesting, and I can go to Austin and know I’ll find someplace unique to eat, but then I go to Dallas, and all I seem to find is steak. What’s up with that?”

Many have posed the question, particularly as dining scenes in Austin, Houston and more recently San Antonio have lit up over the past decade. Houston earned a shout-out in The New York Times, Austin had a craft cuisine and cocktail scene well before Uchi made the national radar, and San Antonio is on the rise, with chefs like Jason Dady bringing the city into the spotlight. We think Dallas is on the verge of its moment in the sun; here are a few things going on that make us believe the city is getting ready for its culinary close-up.

The Restaurant-As-Nightclub Scene Is Fading

For far too long, Dallas restaurants that became instantly popular cultivated a see-and-be-seen scene that was less about what was on your plate and more about who was sitting behind it. Although it made for terrific fanfare and plenty of press and attention, that buzz tended to fade away as short attention spans were drawn to the next hot thing and as it became evident that the food wasn't up to snuff (hello, Boca Chica). Nowadays, although we still might see some early new-restaurant fandom, it’s usually surrounding a known chef (more on that later) or the introduction of a great eatery into a corner of the city that sorely needs it, such as Stephan Pyles' Stampede 66 and Hattie's in Oak Cliff. And that kind of excitement speaks to the sort of curiosity that’s more likely to sustain an establishment, rather than let it disappear in a matter of months.

We’ve Embraced Creative Gastronomy, Farm-to-Table and More

One need only look at the blazing and continued success of FT33, Matt McCallister’s mecca of modern cuisine, to know that Dallas is welcoming a move away from steakhouse-centric dining and clamoring for the types of gastronomic exploration that’s putting other cities on the map. And before FT33, the farm-to-table movement was gaining ground throughout the city, thanks to leaders like Graham Dodds, Sharon Hage, Jason Maddy and the late Randall Copeland, as well as the influence of McCallister’s annual Chefs for Farmers. More recently, trends like ramen, pho, food trucks and craft cocktailing have taken hold here. Granted, these things tend to happen in Dallas around three years after they’ve hit in other major cities, but at least they’re happening. And we’re embracing them. We’re proud to live in a city where just five years ago a Monkey Bone Noodle Co. or Mot Hai Ba wouldn’t have thrived, but now can.

Chefs Have Fan Bases

Nowadays, savvy diners and foodie newbies alike know to pay heed when certain names are attached to certain openings. Pyles. Fearing. Rathbun. Tesar. Those surnames turn heads because they’ve grown a following - food roadies, you might call them. But owners are gaining attention too; we expect some excitement to surround spin-offs from the folks who operate Bolsa, Oak or Mot Hai Ba. Even menu consultants like Sharon Hage and Tiffany Derry are getting some extra ink because we know they know the players in the kitchen and behind the scenes. That Dallasites are doing the legwork to keep up with them shows a deepening appreciation of the dining scene, and that’s refreshing.

Craft Cocktails and Beer Are Raising the Bar

Also refreshing is the hand that mixologists are having in evolving our palates. Craft cocktails have made a splash, and a return to housemade syrups (The Cedars Social), spirits aged or bottled right at the bar (Truck Yard), and herbs freshly picked by your bartender (Central 214) are, ahem, raising the bar. And with new craft breweries seemingly popping up every month in DFW, we’re getting an ever-widening spate of crazy-good brews, which makes us demand crazy-good food to pair with them. Trinity Groves’ LUCK restaurant not only supplies an incredible variety of local brews but makes it a point to include it in a lot of their menu items. Tastes to us like a recipe for success.

Restaurants Are Helping Revitalize Neighborhoods

While this is more an effect of inspired cuisine, it's worth noting. East Dallas and Oak Cliff are seeing surges of interest and traffic with high-profile restaurant openings, including Tanoshii Ramen, Monkey Bone and Acme Social Club in the former, and Boulevardier, Lucia and Driftwood in the latter. A great restaurant that earns buzz for an outstanding menu can bring visitors out of the woodwork who otherwise might not go to that neighborhood. And one terrific eatery that does well can and does inspire other restaurants to set up shop. Before you know it, you have a foodie nabe. While Dallas doesn’t yet have anything on the level of Hyde Park in Austin or Montrose in Houston, the Bishop Arts District and now the burgeoning Trinity Groves are making headway.

Haute Cuisine Is Out; Approachable, Affordable Eats Are In

Granted, this is a national trend, but it also underscores our local move away from spendy, expense-account-level meals at steakhouses and five-star restaurants (not that there's anything wrong with them, but have you seen the economy lately?). Dallasites are digging the earthy, cool, low-key dining experience, as evidenced by the rise of Asian street fare and casual joints like Full Circle Tavern, Off-Site Kitchen and Truck Yard. Even though the recent Zagat Dining Trends Survey shows that Dallasites enjoy the lowest average restaurant bills in the country, it's nice to save where you can sometimes.