Dallas was the top fine-dining city in Texas for over a hundred years. Houston assumed the throne in 2008 when Bill Addison, then the restaurant critic of the Dallas Morning News, waved the white flag. On a tour of Houston restaurants, Addison was blown away. Dallas didn’t have any “young ballsy chefs” like Chris Shepherd and Bryan Caswell turning “regional quirky ingredients” into dishes with a real sense of place, he confessed. And the ethnic dining scene in Dallas was a joke compared to what was going on in Houston.
When Addison left Dallas for Atlanta, the DMN hired former LA Times critic Leslie Brenner, who was even tougher on the Dallas dining scene. “Big D dining is more about commerce than art,” she wrote in 2009. She complained of too much smoked salmon and crème brûlée and not enough local produce, and lamented that “our French chefs are a bit stuck in the 1980s; our Italian chefs are stuck in the 1970s.”
The most scathing takedown of the Dallas food scene was titled: “Homesick Restaurants: How Dallas Became a Dining Nowhereville” written by Hanna Raskin in 2010 on her departure from a restaurant-critic gig at the Dallas Observer. The fact that steamed mussels were one of the most popular dishes in Dallas summed it all up for her: “By latching onto steamed mussels, Dallas isn’t just snubbing its culinary heritage—it’s sacrificing its claim to being a serious and significant food city.”
Young chefs in Houston, and most of the rest of the country, have been on the locavore path the last few years, developing dishes based on indigenous ingredients and multicultural influences that epitomize their city’s uniqueness. But the new generation of Dallas chefs took a different path. Rebelling against the Southwestern cuisine that Dallas chefs like Stephan Pyles and Dean Fearing made famous in the 1990s, they attempted to create a cosmopolitan dining style. And they ended up with Las Vegas cuisine.
But it’s not just the chefs that bear the blame—it’s a struggle to find local ingredients in corporate Dallas, and harder still to get anyone to eat them. Locavore eateries like chef Sharon Hage’s York Street got high praise from the critics but closed due to lack of business. Young vanguards like Matt McAllister, the chef and owner at FT-33, are having a hard time convincing Dallasites that Spartan portions are worth the price.
There are occasional bright spots. In 2009, Tim Byres’s Smoke, one of the most interesting restaurants in the country, opened next to the Belmont Hotel on Fort Worth Highway. With a real-deal barbecue smoker in the kitchen, Byres has turned Texas smoked meat into a fine-dining cuisine.
Dallasites joined the barbecue big leagues when Justin Fourton opened Pecan Lodge in 2010. Then City Hall sold the joint’s Farmer’s Market location out from under him. Whether Pecan Lodge’s new location will be in Dallas or elsewhere remains to be seen.
Houston’s food scene has gotten so much praise nationally and internationally, it isn’t even in the same league with our northern neighbor anymore. The most charitable thing we can say about the food in Dallas is that it has nowhere to go but up.