Evan Smith: Your restaurant, Fearing’s, at the Ritz-Carlton in Dallas, was just named number one in the country in hotel dining by the Zagat Survey. What does recognition like that say to you?
Dean Fearing: The great thing about Zagat is that it’s the people’s award—people vote on it—unlike the AAA and the Mobil guides, where one or two critics come in, eat one or two meals with you, and decide your fate for the next year. This is the way people want to eat: No rules, come as you are, but let’s eat off of Rosenthal bone china, let’s drink out of real glassware, let’s eat with German silver.
ES: It’s about the experience as much as the food.
DF: Yet what woke me up for so many nights before we opened was, were we doing the right thing?
ES: What were you worried about?
DF: Would people get it? Would people come in and go, “This is the goofiest idea in the world. Why would you have four different atmospheres with one menu all under one roof?” What makes me sleep better at night now is the fact that people are saying, “Yes! This is the right thing!” You want to get dressed up? Come on in. You want to be in a T-shirt and flip-flops? Don’t forget your wallet. You want to be in a white-tablecloth room? We have that. You want to be in a kitchen room, loud and wild? We have that. You want to be in a glass pavilion with a gorgeous chandelier? We have that. What’s funny is that everybody has their room now. It’s like any other restaurant.
ES: Did you ever consider doing different menus?
DF: For half a second. That would be the nightmare of all time. I’d need a kitchen three times as big as the one I have now. The Royal Arms up in Toronto did that: three different rooms, three different menus, one kitchen. I remember going up there one time, and the guy said, “This is the worst mistake I ever made,” and I learned from him. Our menu fits in all the rooms. You go outside, and the menu fits. You go to the bar, and the menu fits. I finally figured out, after leaving the Mansion, that you can have a menu that’s fun and approachable and doesn’t cost an arm and a leg but everybody can find something that they want. Cutting-edge people can have their food. Regular Texans—all they want is buffalo and chicken-fried anything.
ES: When you’re opening a restaurant and have to build a menu, what do you do?
DF: You need something the customer can relate to. What I never want to do is the cross-cultural thing, where you have tempura, Southwestern, and Mexican all on one plate. But what you can have on the menu are cultural differences throughout the dishes. You can have a Japanese dish. You can have a curry dish. You can have a Southwestern dish. You can have a Mexican dish. And you need keywords to catch the eye. I knew a year before we opened that chicken-fried lobster was going to be a hit, because it catches the eye. I’ve heard it for fifteen months now: “Wow, chicken-fried lobster. Now, that’s interesting.” Jalapeño grits. Butternut-squash taquito. Chicken-fried lamb chops.
ES: The fact that you’re in Texas is obviously a framework for you.
DF: Oh, my God. It’s what everybody loves. Twenty percent of our customers come out of New York City, and what do they like? The food they could never get in New York City. They could go to Nick and Sam’s and get a steak. What they want is what they can’t get.
ES: You could always open a Fearing’s in New York City.
DF: That’s not me. I’m going to work at one restaurant.
ES: What do you mean “work”?
DF: I knew a lot of customers at the Mansion, but the problem was that I was stuck in the kitchen. This time I told everybody, “Listen, I’m going to do it different. I’m going to be on the floor—Mr. Restaurant, shaking hands, telling people what they want to eat. I’m going to hire the best people in the kitchen. We can all agree this is the menu we want and this is how we want it to taste, and everyone is going to be able to produce that nightly. But, you know, it’s not going to be me back there expediting.”
ES: You’re doing some cooking, of course.
DF: Oh, every day. But along with it goes the menu planning, because that is the magnet. There’s also the [responsibility] of attracting the people. We had great folks at the Mansion; most of my great customers today are from there. But I was only getting the top tier. I wasn’t getting below that. I kept saying, “One day I’m going to be able to capture people my age and younger, the young professionals who would never go to their parents’ restaurant, the old fuddy-duddy.” They understand the food just as well as the top tier, because they’re in the food period of their lives. You know, it all revolves around food now.
ES: These days, especially, it also revolves around price. Where would those young professionals spend more money on an average meal: the Mansion or Fearing’s?
DF: The Mansion. I had to put the food at a higher price just because we were the Mansion. I mean, we were set in stone with that price. It’s not like we were going to go cafeteria/coffee shop after our budget had been this for 28 years. That was never going to happen while I was there. What I got to accomplish [at Fearing’s] is that everybody is here. I’m grabbing the steakhouse guys and girls who would only go to the big steakhouses, because now the food is approachable. Some things that are more plain and some things that are more