For Diners With Deep Pockets, Dallas Is the New Dubai
The crowds streaming into Highland Park Village are hungry for luxury. At this open-air shopping center in suburban Dallas, they valet-park their Porsches, sport Yves Saint Laurent handbags, flit in and out of Audemars Piguet and pause for brunch at Sadelle’s, the fancy new deli from Major Food Group in New York.
Sadelle’s has been open for just over a year, and it’s not unusual to find the place packed on a Tuesday afternoon, as well-dressed guests sip mimosas and snack on $18 pigs in a blanket and $85 latkes topped with salmon and Osetra caviar. Even the sugar for coffee comes to the table in tiny Le Creuset Dutch ovens.
Dallas has long had a reputation for living large, an image built on oil money and the wide swaths of ranch land displayed on its namesake TV series. But today, the city is enjoying a surge of new development, new residents, new wealth—and a dining scene pumped up by the arrival of several high-end national restaurant groups, all looking to cater the party.
These companies are giving Dallas the kind of attention they’ve previously lavished on tourist playgrounds like Las Vegas and Miami. In the last two years or so, local outposts have been established by STK, RH, Komodo, La Neta Cocina y Lounge and even Nusr-Et, the Salt Bae steakhouse. Major Food Group opened a Dallas branch of its maximalist-Italian restaurant Carbone last year, and says it has even larger ambitions in the city.
The local rumor mill is humming with speculation about the next potential imports — names like Joe’s Stone Crab from Miami (which said it had no such plan), or Ralph Lauren’s Polo Bar (which didn’t respond to requests for comment) and Pastis ( which said it was in “preliminary talks” about a space) from New York City.
“I’ve gotten calls from every single restaurant group in the country,” said Stephen Summers, whose family owns Highland Park Village. He added: “Every group you can think of, from Los Angeles to New York City to international groups, seems to want to be in Dallas.”
The pandemic spurred many Americans to move to places like Miami and San Antonio, where the weather was warmer and Covid restrictions were looser.
No city has benefited from this shift quite like Dallas. From April 2020 to July 2021, the Dallas-Fort Worth area gained about 122,000 new residents, more than any other metro area in the nation, according to Census data. Some demographers predict that by the 2030s, Dallas—now the largest metropolis in Texas—could replace Chicago as the third-largest metro area in the nation.
Where will those people go for fun? The Dallas-Fort Worth area has no beaches, mountains or world wonders, but it has about 15,000 places to eat. In 2022, the average Dallas household will spend a larger share of its income on dining out than those in New York, Miami or San Francisco, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Like any major city, Dallas has its share of want — 17.7 percent of its population lives in poverty — and economic inequality. The area is home to 92,300 millionaires and 18 billionaires, according to a 2022 report from Henley & Partners, a London investment firm, that ranked Dallas the 18th wealthiest city in the world. Several Fortune 500 companies, including AT&T and American Airlines, are headquartered in the area.
“You have no idea the velocity of spending that happens in that market,” said Julie Macklowe, the founder of the Macklowe American Single Malt Whiskey, which sells for $350 to $400 a shot in numerous Dallas restaurants. “It is like the US’s version of Dubai.”
These upscale chains cater to the city’s ultrawealthy — and those who want to live like them for an evening. The Las Vegas-based restaurant group Blau + Associates recently opened Crown Block in Dallas’s soaring Reunion Tower, where the seafood tower costs $230. The place had about 10,000 reservations before it even released a menu.
The three-month-old Dallas branch of La Neta Cocina y Lounge, originally from Las Vegas, offers a $95 lobster taco served in a cheese-stuffed tortilla.
Ryan Labbe, who owns the restaurants, has high hopes for Dallas, where — unlike in Las Vegas — a meal isn’t just a pit stop on the way to a show or a club.
“Dinner in Dallas is your night,” he said.
In Dallas, these companies have also found manageable operating costs. There’s no state or local income tax. Rents are cheaper and ingredients cost less than in many other major cities, said Matt Winn, a partner in and the chief development officer of the Chicago-based Maple Hospitality Group, which has two Dallas restaurants — Monarch and Kessaku — and has plans to open a third, Maple & Ash. It’s been easier to hire workers, he said, and to sell extravagant dishes.
At Monarch, “we have a whole king crab that serves eight people and it’s $1,000,” Mr. Winn said. Dallas diners “will show up and spend that.”
In a city whose dining scene has often dwelled in the shadow of Houston’s diverse cuisines and Austin’s array of distinctive independent restaurants, many locals are loving the attention.
“You have two Ritz-Carltons being built here,” said George White, a retired IT salesman who eats out often. “Things are happening.”
But a splashy dining scene isn’t necessarily an interesting one, said Brian Reinhart, the restaurant critic at D Magazine, who recently published a list of the city’s 50 best restaurants — and deliberately left the out-of-town chain restaurants off it.
“If we are headed toward a world where the highest-end dining is just as chain-ified as the most basic fast food,” he said, “it’s going to be harder for Dallas to maintain any sort of distinction or culinary character.”
Chain restaurants have historically been part of the city’s identity, albeit less expensive ones: Chili’s, On the Border Mexican Grill & Cantina and 7-Eleven all got their start here. The proliferation of these businesses hurt the image of the local dining scene, said Mark Masinter, the founder of Open Realty Advisors, which leases real estate to Dallas restaurants.
But in recent years, many of the city’s independent restaurants have thrived and drawn national praise. Bon Appétit chose Dallas as its restaurant city of the year in 2019. Other publications have named Petra and the Beast and Roots Southern Table among the country’s best. (The Times included Roots in its 2021 list of favorite American restaurants.)
Sam Romano, who runs the local steakhouse Nick & Sam’s, said the influx of out-of-town restaurant groups will further raise Dallas’s profile. “With restaurants come prestige,” he said, citing Major Food Group’s decision to open a satellite of Carbone, one of only four in the United States. “That says something about Dallas.”
A few years ago, Dallas wasn’t even on the radar of the New York restaurateur Eugene Remm. At the encouragement of a colleague, he visited in 2021 and was surprised to find dining rooms that were packed every night of the week.
“If you can find restaurants busy on Mondays and Tuesdays and restaurants in a dense, two-mile radius that can do $17 million, $22 million, there are no more than 10 markets that can justify that kind of spend on a regular basis,” he said. “That makes it special.”
Next year, he plans to open a location of Catch, an upscale seafood and steak restaurant, in the city’s fast-growing Uptown neighborhood.
He once associated Dallas with “George Bush and cowboy hats,” he said, but discovered that it’s more like New York. “People are going to members’ clubs and have the same Dior store and the same Gucci store and the same everything.”
Not every national restaurant group succeeds here. The chef Tom Colicchio closed his Dallas location of Craft in 2012. Il Mulino, an Italian import from New York City, shuttered in 2006 after just two years in business.
Today, Dallas diners are more cosmopolitan, said Candace Nelson, who opened a location of the Sprinkles cupcake shop in 2007, followed by a branch of the Los Angeles restaurant Pizzana in 2022. “They are excited when a concept from their many travels chooses their city to come to.”
On a recent Friday night at Carbone, that excitement among guests was palpable. Through the evening, customers in stilettos and suits poured out of Cadillac Escalades. Servers in crimson uniforms whizzed around the restaurant with $600 bottles of Burgundy and slabs of chocolate cake topped with edible gold.
“The people working here, they call them captains, and they have the outfits,” said Nav Singh, who works in real estate and was splurging on a celebration of his birthday at Carbone. “They are putting effort into it. At a mom-and-pop shop, it is maybe white shirt, black pants.” Compared with the average Dallas restaurant, he said, “this is more elevated.”
But the boom in out-of-town restaurants hasn’t come without casualties to the home team.
In 2021, Julian Barsotti, who owned a longtime Dallas restaurant called Carbone’s, sued Carbone, claiming copyright infringement. But it was Mr. Barsotti who ended up changing the name of his restaurant, after making a deal with Major Food Group.
“If the name meant that much to them, at the end of the day I was happy to compromise,” said Mr. Barsotti, who said he could not disclose the terms of the deal.
Erin Willis, who recently closed her French restaurant, RM 12:20 Bistro, in East Dallas, said the large restaurant groups were partly to blame.
“These big corporate entities that now own all the restaurants, they can pay for more advertising, they have deeper pockets, they are more glitzy,” she said. “It puts the small places like myself into the background, and we can’t survive.”
The outside groups also dilute the city’s culinary diversity, she said.
“Dallas has so many ethnic foods to offer, but what the corporate side is doing is bringing so much of the same thing into the metroplex,” she said. “There is no variety. It edges out the people who are trying to stay true to their culture.”
Teiichi Sakurai runs the downtown Japanese restaurant Tei-An, a short drive from two nationally known sushi places, Nobu and Uchi, that came from other cities. But Mr. Sakurai said his business hasn’t been affected by the competition.
“Nobu, they have much more European dishes, using Japanese fish done carpaccio style,” he said. “We do handmade soba.”
And Dallas diners are loyal, he said. “We have 25 years of regulars.” National groups come and go, he said. “They don’t remember names.”
Regino Rojas, who serves dishes from his native Michoacán, Mexico, at his restaurants, Revolver Taco Lounge and Revolver Gastro Cantina, said the upscale chains focus more on curating an atmosphere than on serving unique food. His clientele, he said, is different.
Besides, said Mr. Romano of Nick & Sam’s, Dallas is only getting denser and larger, as new developments expand the metro area’s footprint. If restaurant groups want to set up shop here, “we have the space and people for them.”
Is there such a thing as too many places to eat?
“I don’t think there are enough yet,” he said.
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