We Are Where We Eat

D Magazine , January 2002

Two of the hottest new restaurants in Dallas prove that what's on the walls counts as much as what's on the plates.

Taco Diner at West Village, the new retail and residential complex at Lemmon and McKinney avenues, is one of my favorite places in Dallas. My husband and I walk there nearly every Sunday for lunch. The food is delicious--the chicken tostadas are our favorites--but flavorful food isn't the only reason we keep going back. The space itself makes you feel good.

South-facing windows arch to the high ceiling, keeping the room bright with gentle sunlight. The dining room decor balances tranquility and zest: calm, neutral tones for the booths and tables; periwinkle for the chairs; cobalt blue tile above the stainless-steel open kitchen; starkly geometric black-and-white pottery in pink alcoves on the back wall; romantic vintage movie posters along the blue tile.

Most important is the signature color of the walls--which proprietor Mico Rodriguez calls "that wonderful color"--a pale yellow-green. You might call it very light celery. (The exact paint color is a secret.) Rodriguez wanted an "ethereal" atmosphere. He's given the neighborhood a cool, cheerful oasis.

I recently had lunch at Taco Diner with Michael Cox, the chief economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas. Mike is an old friend and shares my interest in economic progress. (We've both written books on the subject.) He's particularly good at documenting improvements in living standards that many economists miss. And he often points to restaurants as an example.

Over chips and salsa, Mike critiqued Taco Diner's atmosphere and put the place in a broader context. Restaurants have come a long way since the cafeteria of his 1950s childhood in Little Rock, when Sunday dinner out was just a way to give Mom a once-a-week break from the kitchen. Now we Americans spend nearly half our food dollars on restaurant meals, and that money buys a lot more than food and labor.

"For the last 10 years, it's been more about the experience than the food," he says. "You're not going there just for your stomach. You're going there for your mind." Innovation in today's restaurant business means not just better recipes, but also more appealing environments.

Dallasites love to eat out--local restaurant and bar sales have more than doubled in the last 10 years--but that doesn't mean getting our business is easy. According to the Dallas Convention and Visitor's Bureau, Dallas has more restaurants per capita than any other place in the country, which means competition to attract and hold customers is fierce. Meanwhile, customers' expectations, for the environment as well as the food, grow ever more demanding.

"The bar keeps getting raised," says architect Paul Jankowski, whose Zero 3 partnership specializes in restaurant design, working for Mico Rodriguez's M Crowd, among other clients. (M Crowd owns Mi Cocina, Taco Diner, and a group of fine-dining restaurants, including Citizen and The Mercury, under its Restaurant Life division.) "Black-Eyed Pea used to be a high-design restaurant," Jankowski notes. "It used to be unique and kind of fashion-forward. People would ask, 'Have you seen the Black-Eyed Pea?' That's not the case any more." Design that was once cutting-edge is now a minimum standard, taken for granted by customers.

Jankowski's partner Jan Martin, an interior designer, notes that when the pair started out in the mid-1980s, only big places hired designers. Professional fees made business sense for a 10,000-square-foot nightclub, but not for little guys. Now, even small shops have to think about design, just to keep up with the competition.

The pressure on restaurateurs is part of a larger trend: an aesthetic imperative affecting people, places, and things. Target sells high style to the mass market. Graphic design is ubiquitous and mandatory, thanks to desktop publishing and font-filled word processors. Hair coloring and plastic surgery are booming. We're increasingly conscious, and demanding, of how things look and feel.

For today's restaurants, then, "atmosphere" demands more than tablecloths and candles in a darkened room. Restaurateurs have to create what a trade-show booth designer calls, referring to his own business, "a complete environment--one that gets inside the minds of the attendees and triggers the right feelings." To satisfy customers, restaurants must fulfill not just physical but psychological and emotional needs.

Some patrons want stimulation--variety, entertainment, and excitement you don't get at home. Borrowing movie lingo, Rodriguez uses the term "story line" to refer to the guiding visions for his restaurants. The story line for the upscale new Mercury at Willow Bend is "classic, modern furniture," while Taco Diner's story line imagines a feminine sensibility, as if the restaurant were owned by a woman. Different story lines suit different customers and different moods.

Other restaurateurs take the story line idea more literally, developing theme restaurants with underlying narratives. When Mike Leatherwood hired Zero 3 to design Bone Daddy's House of Smoke on Central Expressway near the Dallas-Richardson border, the premise was that a guy who owned a junkyard had opened a restaurant to sell barbeque. The imaginary owner had built the place out of the junk he had on hand. Bone Daddy's features telephone poles, old signs, complex and visible ductwork, and original folk art.

Bone Daddy's has thrived, but restaurants that lean too heavily on thematic decor can get old fast. Nationally, many celebrated theme restaurants have crashed. Planet Hollywood went bankrupt (although its restaurants are still around), and Steven Spielberg's submarine-themed Dive! in LA closed altogether. Gimmicks attract tourists and curiosity seekers, but you need more emotional resonance, not to mention better food, to sustain a clientele.

Martin defines a restaurant's atmosphere with a question: "How does a person feel when they're sitting in the space?" Different styles create different feelings--excitement, coziness, comfort, pride. Form follows emotion.

For many patrons, an attractive restaurant provides a sort of stage set, a place to look good. "The restaurant scene in Dallas is based on showing off," says a friend, pointing to M Crowd's Citizen in Oak Lawn. "It's almost impossible to walk in there and not have everybody see you," he says. "It's like everybody's on stage. The owners know very well that people in Dallas go out to be seen."

Martin offers a gentler, but compatible, interpretation. In a casual world, restaurants can provide an appropriate setting for finery. "Sometimes I want a place to wear a dress-up dress," she says. But smart design won't turn off casual customers, particularly in Dallas, where the perfectly turned-out woman is often accompanied by a man in a rumpled polo shirt. "High-end casual dining" means never having to say no to a customer, even implicitly.

To produce a high-end environment without scaring away casual diners, The Mercury blends classic, mid-century modern furnishings with unexpected touches of color and whimsy (see review on p. 95). The white leather bar stools have zippers, a "go-go boot" look, and paintings in mod colors that line the mezzanine.

"We're after a specific clientele," says Rodriguez. "But we're also warm and hospitable." The Mercury isn't going for snob appeal. "People don't need to know that it's Platner or Eames," he says. "All they have to know is they feel good in the space."

The most successful restaurant design offers more than a stage. It becomes an accessory, an expression of the patron's personal style, aspiration, and identity--a dining room of one's own, but away from home. Of course, the great advantage of eating out is that you don't have to stick to a single cuisine, or a single aesthetic. You can be modern one day, rustic the next. You can skip from Asia to Europe to Latin America, from country comfort to haute cuisine, over the course of the week.

Now that eating out is no longer a Sunday-only affair, we can change our restaurants the way we change our clothes. That means restaurant environments have become fashion. Some are fads, lasting just a season. Some are basics, the equivalent of blue jeans and polo shirts. Others are stylish classics. And, like all personal style choices, restaurant picking has its risks. When I invited Mike Cox to lunch at Taco Diner, he hated the cobalt blue tile and thought the place was too noisy. So much for my beloved oasis. At least he liked the food. Mico Rodriguez wants his customers to take his restaurants personally. "The environment I'm in is going to be an accessory to who I am," he says, recalling one of his proudest moments as a restaurateur. "A sharp guy, a Hispanic doctor told me, 'Mico, your restaurants are the way I want to live.' That brought tears to my eyes."