Best of Texas: Dallas Dining

I have a confession to make: I live in Austin, but some of my favorite restaurants are in Big D. Here are ten places that always make my mouth water.

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Illustration by Lorenzo Petrantoni

1. Dali Wine Bar & Cellar

dali’s markup policy has customers jumping for joy: Because it’s a retailer as well as a restaurant, no bottle on the list is priced at more than 200 percent cost, which is almost unheard of in this day of 300 percent markups. Not only that, the wine bar will open any bottle in the cellar if a guest commits to ordering just two glasses. That, plus the personal guidance of owner Paul Pinnell, makes it easy to take a gamble on an unknown but intriguing wine. Which is one of the huge attractions of a wine bar. But wait, there’s more. Dali really knows how to do more than serve a choice pinot noir. In this case, it means a menu that is specifically designed by chef Joel Harloff to be wine-friendly. The menu changes frequently, but loyal patrons have been seen enjoying the likes of pan-seared halibut in champagne-dill sauce sided by a sauté of zucchini and celery, plus fregola sarda (first cousin to couscous) dotted with blood orange, or pan-seared quail with wild mushrooms. Or they’re having the lamb duo: a juicy rack and a somewhat less impressive lamb sirloin accompanied by an assertive Gorgonzola dolce—laced risotto. By meal’s end, they’re sipping a cordial and relishing a slice of mascarpone cheesecake. And they are ensconced in the small, contemporary space, gazing through the tall plate-glass windows, watching people stroll or hurry by on their way to concerts or shows in this artsy part of the city. This is a place they’ll be back to soon. One Arts Plaza, 1722 Routh; 469-385-9360 or Lunch Tue—Fri 11:30—2:30. Dinner 7 days 5—10:30. Small plates offered Mon—Sat 10:30—midnight. $$—$$$

2. Fearing’s

one thing you can count on: Chef Dean Fearing did not become the star of the Dallas dining scene by truly being the simple, aw-shucks country boy he expertly portrays when making the rounds of the tables in the dazzling dining rooms of the Ritz-Carlton. He has a steel-trap intelligence, which has calculated exactly what diners want when they come to the fanciest hotel in the glitziest city in the Lone Star State. He knows, for instance, that a lot of them still crave the classy Southwestern and Mexican-accented dishes that made him famous way back in the eighties, when he put the Mansion on Turtle Creek on the map—robust creations like a mesquite-grilled, molasses-mopped prime ribeye. Or chicken-fried lamb chops. He’s all about big, monster flavors and upscale redos of rootsy dishes. But he also knows that the denizens of North Dallas, women in particular, welcome the caloric restraint of dishes like sashimi-like sliced hamachi with an avocado-wasabi purée and crisp matchsticks of Asian pear. Or perhaps the perfectly cooked soy-glazed black cod in a miso-clam broth on jasmine rice. There’s something for everyone. And they all like lolling around on cushy banquettes in the main dining room, among the acres of honey onyx and African mahogany paneling. Ritz-Carlton, 2121 McKinney Ave.; 214-922-4848 or Breakfast 7 days 6:30—11. Lunch Mon—Fri 11:30—2:30, Sat & Sun 11—3. Dinner Mon—Thur 6—10:30, Fri & Sat 6—11. $$$$

3. Five Sixty

The writer Calvin Trillin once opined, “I never eat in a restaurant that’s over a hundred feet off the ground and won’t stand still.” Sage advice, given the quality of most rotating restaurants. But Trillin wrote his famous dictum before the advent of Five Sixty, the sleekest incarnation of the sky-high restaurant atop Dallas’s Reunion Tower (you know the building—it’s the one that looks like a lit-up dandelion at night). Rotating 560 feet in the air and offering a horizon-to-horizon panorama to mesmerized diners, Five Sixty has reinvigorated the dining room as a destination for more than tourists. In the hands of Sara Johannes, a young alum of Wolfgang Puck’s (whose company runs the operation), a modern, Asian-inflected menu features the likes of grilled lamb chops with falling-to-mush Hunan-style eggplant dabbed with a chile-mint vinaigrette. She’s equally adept with specialties like Alaskan halibut accented with Thai shrimp, an Indonesian-influenced pineapple-and-chile sambal, and kaffir lime. As befits a restaurant with Pacific ties, there are a dozen brands of sake to choose from, as well as a general wine list of more than four hundred labels. The dining room glides along at a barely perceptible pace as long as you’re sitting still, marveling at the view, but if you get up and wander around, you had better drop bread crumbs—you won’t find your table where you left it when you return. 300 Reunion Blvd., 214-741-5560 or Dinner Mon—Thur 5:30—10, Fri & Sat 5—11. Closed Sun. $$$$

4. Mia’s Tex-Mex

Many fans of Mia’s (and believe us, the word “many” is accurate) consider it the Rock of Gibraltar of Dallas Tex-Mex restaurants. It’s been around practically forever, serving up classic dishes to crowds who come bustling in every day of the week to get their fix. Do fajitas sound like just the thing for a robust dinner or maybe a fortifying feed prior to heading out to paint the town on a Saturday night? Both the beef and the chicken versions are top-notch and served piled high on sizzling platters, surrounded by pico de gallo, guacamole, poblano chile, onions, and potato. Even more stalwart is the Lucychanga: a huge flour tortilla rolled around tender beef or chicken and then, God help us, deep-fried. Your waiter will all but stagger to the table with the platter, which includes rice and beans and an exceptional guacamole. Needless to say, Mia’s is kid-friendly, and its bright purple, orange, and cherry-red walls add a lot to the fun. There’s even a small patio to enjoy during the few fleeting days in the spring and fall when it’s really nice to be outdoors in Dallas (full disclosure: the “view” is the parking lot, not that anyone stops eating long enough to notice). 4322 Lemmon Ave., 214-526-1020 or Open 7 days 11—10. $$

5. Neighborhood Services

How in the world did a restaurant come to be named Neighborhood Services? It comes directly from the Dallas zoning code, and it’s the term that designates a residential-oriented business. For some reason, that tickled the fancy of chef-owner Nick Badovinus, and it has quickly caught on with his customers. This is where you go for upscale comfort food, like fried chicken so crisp the crunch makes your molars vibrate (we exaggerate only slightly). This is where you gravitate when you want something familiar but with pizzazz—for instance, mac and cheese made with a trio of sharp cheeses instead of the usual bland yellow stuff. You should definitely check out the burgers, made from Niman Ranch beef. At the top of the list of things that should not be missed is the so-called Fried Little Asparagus, a bounty of skinny stalks encased in a tempura-like batter (Meyer-lemon-and-dill aioli comes along for dipping). People in the mood for pizza won’t be disappointed, only here the pies are called flatbread; the one with speck, white cheddar, and sherry vinaigrette is yum-o. The room looks like a casual family rec room from the forties, and the servers wear varsity sweaters, making it all seem comfy and old-fashioned. 5027 W. Lovers Ln., 214-350-5027 or Dinner Mon—Thur 5:30—10, Fri & Sat 5:30—11. Closed Sun. $$—$$$

6. Nonna

Perhaps because the place is relatively small, you feel lucky to have snagged a table here. So reservations are a must. There’s a palpable sense of being “in” when you’re nestled into your banquette looking out on the sea of self-congratulatory smiles plastered on the faces of your fellow diners. After basking in the glow for a few minutes, turn your attention to the regional Italian dishes prepared by chef Julian Barsotti. You’ll be tempted to nibble on the warm, slightly chewy bread drizzled with olive oil and sea salt, but that instinct might be best sidelined in order to leave more room for one of the changing pasta dishes, such as cappelletti (“little hats”) stuffed with tender braised veal cheek. Or have your carbs in the form of a pizza, thin and crisp-crusted from the wood-burning oven (the one featuring house-cured pancetta and arugula, if available when you visit, is not too heavy and perfect to share). More-substantial dishes may include cheese polenta lavished with roasted mushrooms, bits of the aforementioned pancetta, and shrimp so fresh you can almost hear the Gulf breezes blowing. 4115 Lomo Alto, 214-521-1800 or Dinner Mon—Sat 5:30—10. Closed Sun. $$—$$$

7. Pappas Bros. Steakhouse

Who doesn’t wonder what it would be like to be rich? To be coddled and cosseted within an inch of your life. To have the passing thought—“That wine glass is getting a little low”—anticipated and acted upon before it fully forms. To have one’s indecision—“Do I want a ribeye or should I try the double lamb chops?”—met with a knowledgeable discussion on the merits of each. To relax amid gleaming dark wood paneling and flattering lights and know that no jarring techno music will intrude upon a civility worthy of a pre—World War II London men’s club. Pappas Bros. Steakhouse allows you to play “let’s pretend” for the cost of an excellent steak dinner. The menu does not stray terribly far from the standards, but each dish is done with utmost care, from the wedge salad embraced by a thick, garlic-tinged blue cheese dressing to the colossal sweet onion rings to the dark-roasted mushrooms kissed with rosemary. The USDA Prime steaks are dry-aged in-house for an exceptional depth of flavor. House-made desserts are the stuff of childhood dreams, only better. Moon Pie or turtle pie with an Oreo crust, anyone? The wine program is unparalleled in Dallas, if not the Southwest. If there is a better steakhouse in the city, we aren’t aware of it. 10477 Lombardy Ln., 214-366-2000 or Dinner Mon—Thur 5—10, Fri & Sat 5—11. Closed Sun. $$$$

8. Tei Tei Robata Bar

Always packed—actually, not all that surprising, given its compact size—Tei Tei tops the list of the best places to eat sushi in Dallas year after year. Sushi, sashimi, and a multitude of cooked Japanese dishes delight the well-clad, -shod, and -coiffed masses that congregate here. They come both to enjoy exceptional fish as well as make a statement that they know what’s what. For beginners, there are rolls, like the soft-shell-crab. And there is tempura, equally approachable (ain’t nobody don’t like fried food). But for serious connoisseurs, the attraction is the lineup of exceptional fish flown in daily from Japan, ranging from bluefin tuna and spiny lobster to branzini and abalone. Once you’ve explored those, you might want to range farther afield, perhaps nibbling on the duck prosciutto with fig compote, sharing an order of foie gras with lemon and sea salt, or getting really brave and having the crispy fried snapper head. A deejay mixes sounds Friday and Saturday nights, if you want a backbeat with your meal—the music bounces off the brick and wood-paneled walls, blending in the most compelling way with the excellent sake you’ve ordered. This is Japanese cuisine at its best. 2906 N. Henderson Ave., 214-828-2400 or Dinner Tue—Sun 5:30—11. Closed Mon. $$—$$$

9. Tillman’s Roadhouse

There simply is nothing else like Tillman’s in Dallas. It feels more like it blew in from Austin, or possibly Mars, what with its damask walls, fifties-style swoopy red plastic chairs, crystal chandeliers, faux trophy heads, and aqua couch. Whether the owners are aiming for the funk, retro, tattoo, or RV crowd is unclear, but they would all be welcome. This sprawling restaurant in the middle of the scruffy Bishop Arts District (great window-shopping along the way from where you park) has a menu of contemporary comfort food. And what might that mean? Well, a little of everything. Some dishes are all-American and nonthreatening, like roasted garlic chicken. Some are a little edgy, like venison Frito pie or salmon ceviche. Some are Mexican-American mix-and-match, like a chile relleno with honey-lime-ancho-glazed sweet potato, wilted baby spinach, and asparagus spears. And then there is the Big Sexy: a house-ground-sirloin-and-foie-gras burger. Desserts turn up the volume on pop nostalgia: You can cry if you want to over your birthday cake with vanilla ice cream or indulge yourself with a peanut-butter-and-chocolate-chip-cookie sandwich. 324 W. 7th, 214-942-0988 or Lunch Tue—Sat 11:30—2. Dinner Tue—Thur 5:30—10, Fri & Sat 5:30—11. Closed Sun & Mon. $$—$$$

10. York Street

There are chefs who follow every new trend. Then there are chefs who go their own way yet end up being modern and utterly distinctive. York Street’s chef-owner Sharon Hage is in the latter camp. Unlike so many top chefs, she cooks every night, and you can often spy her peeking out from the kitchen to see how her guests are taking to the latest innovative dish on the menu. On any given evening (the menu changes daily) you might find something as unusual as chestnut bisque, a thick, nutty-spicy blend with a flavor that successfully navigates the line separating sweet from savory. Or you might find something more mainstream but just as carefully prepared, such as a lovely, long-boned frenched rack of lamb from Elysian Fields Farm, in Pennsylvania, perhaps accompanied by chilled golden beets with feta cheese. Little extras make you feel special, like bowls of Marcona almonds and twee glasses of sherry the minute you sit down. A couple of caveats are in order for first-timers. You’ll want to make reservations, because the place is tiny. You might think of planning your visit for a romantic occasion, because the room is intimate, with subtle decor and gleaming mirrors. Last piece of needed information: York Street is on Lewis Street. 6047 Lewis, 214-826-0968 or Lunch Wed only 11:30—2. Dinner Tue—Sat 6—10. Closed Sun & Mon. $$$$

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