There are some evenings that simply call for "hanging out" - you know, just relaxing with your special "someone" or catching up with friends over good, simple food. Let me tell you about my favorite little "hangouts" in the Big "D". . .
Breadwinners Cafe (Bistro and Bakery) - If you can tear yourself away from the pastry counter, you will discover a savory menu for any time of day. Start the day with the breakfast enchiladas, breakfast burritos, or San Antonio tacos. Stop in for lunch and try one of my favorites: fresh salad sampler, fish tacos, or the French Quarter dip. Wrap up the day with the pan-fried buttermilk chicken breast or braised short ribs. A popular place, especially on the weekends, so arrive early to avoid a long wait. Reservations are only accepted for parties of six or more for breakfast, lunch, and weekends; all parties for dinner.
Dali Wine Bar (Contemporary American) - A newcomer to the dining scene, Dali is uniquely a wine store, wine bar, and restaurant, all in one. Although there is a separate dining room, it is the patio that offers great space for hanging out. The bar menu is light fare, but intricate and sophisticated in style and flavor. Proprietor and Dallas culinary icon, Paul Pinnell, will likely greet and seat you himself, and is happy to hang out with you sharing his passion for food and wine.
Patrizio (Italian) - Located in Highland Park Village, this restaurant's appeal is the garden patio. It is a very popular hangout, so get there early to get a table - reservations are not accepted. You can order a full meal on the patio, but appetizer portions are ample enough for sharing and filling up. I particularly love the bruschetta and the alfredo spinach and artichoke spalmare - mm-mm, good!
Sangria Tapas y Bar (Spanish Tapas) - This truly is a neighborhood hangout, and quite a popular one! Sangria is a fun and lively place to unwind, whether inside where the decor is casual and very Spanish, or outside on the charming patio. My tapas order is never complete without patatas bravas (crispy potatoes), shrimp empanadas (empanadas stuffed with shrimp, spinach, pinenuts and raisins), gambas al ajillo (shrimp with butter, garlic and red pepper flakes). And, of course, you must end with an order of churros (donut sticks served with hot chocolate sauce)!
I have found it isn't always necessary to spend a lot of money to have a great dining experience. Some of my favorite places are smaller neighborhood establishments with a strong local following. Here are several that make the top of my list:
Lola (New American) - This is one of my favorite neighborhood gems. Situated in a small house tucked on a back street in Uptown, Lola spans the globe to create some of the tastiest Mediterranean-influenced meals that don't cost an arm and a leg. The ambiance is quaint and friendly, but not sober. Ask to sit in Wendy's section, and tell her Julie, the Italy travel guide, sent you. ***Sadly, Lola closed its doors in October 2009. It will be greatly missed!
Mercy Wine Bar (European) - Although the focus here is on wine, something should be said for the food - it is really good. The menu consists of small plates meant to be shared and select entrees reminiscent of many of my European favorites. Inside, it is fashionably dim and dramatically designed to resemble a collage of French bistros, Italian trattorias, and big-city nightlife. Mercy is perfect for an intimate dinner for two, after work snack, or dinner with a group of friends. Ask to sit in Juan's section - he is adorable with a beautiful Columbian accent and loves serving guests.
Shinsei (Asian/Sushi) - Voted by frequent diners as one of the top sushi restaurants in Dallas, according to The Dallas Morning News. Because it is a neighborhood favorite, It is not uncommon to see party-goers, families with small children, retirement celebrations, and dinner dates taking place at Shinsei. Aside from fresh and creative sushi, the Asian dishes offer distinctive flair. Shinsei is casually elegant and full of life. And, be ready, you will be greeted and served by owners Lynae Fearing (wife of Dean Fearing, Fearing's Restaurant in Dallas' Ritz Carlton) and Tracy Rathbun (wife of Kent Rathbun, Abacus).
Suze (Mediterranean) - If you watch the Food Network, then you have probably seen co-owner, Lisa Garza, competing in The Next Food Network Star. Lisa came in second place, but now is back working alongside husband, Chef Gilbert Garza, in this wonderful neighborhood bistro. Suze has a strong following and for good reason. The place is warm and cozy - it feels as if you are sitting among friends. The staff is friendly and attentive. And, the food? . . . Well, let the crowds speak for themselves!
Trece (Mexican) - Looking for a little more than the standard Tex-Mex burrito and taco? Try the haute Mex-Mex cuisine prepared by Chef Amador Mora, who brings recipes straight from his mama's kitchen with a new level of sophistication. There are no sombreros or pinatas on the wall - this is a smart and trendy establishment. The vibe is lively, and the staff is fun and energetic. The guacamole is a must - beyond that, everyone in your party should order something different with sharing in mind - it's that good!
Dining out is one of my favorite pastimes! It's not just the act of eating food, it is the entire experience I love: dressing up, soaking up the atmosphere, consenting to the indulgence of an attentive waitstaff, and savoring divine cuisine prepared by a creative kitchen genius. I'm happy to say, Dallas is becoming a city that can satisfy the taste buds of the most discriminating foodie. So, whether you live in the Big "D" or are just traveling through, try one of my favorites for a delightful evening of food and fare.
Abacus (Contemporary American) - Chef Kent Rathbun (famously known for defeating Bobby Flay in Iron Chef America - you can watch a video of the episode on his website) intricately weaves an imaginative menu that continues to surprise me. The newly decorated dining room is sleek and elegant without layers of stuffiness. The menu is updated monthly. Nevertheless, you can count on a signature starter, lobster shooters. If you go, be sure to ask for my friend, Anne (the hostess), and tell her I sent you!
Bijoux (Contemporary French) - Voted one of the best restaurants in Dallas by Bon Appetit Magazine never disappoints. Just returning from a week in Paris, I dined here and thought I was still in France. Chef Scott Gottlich invites you to uniquely indulge in all your favorites by allowing you to order 3 or 5 of anything from the prix fixe menu. It's dining your way! So, if creme brulee is your thing, you are welcome to order 5 creme brulees for dinner! How fun is that! The ambiance is elegant, but simple, and the staff is knowledgeable and engagingly friendly.
Dragonfly (Eclectic Global) - Located in Hotel ZaZa, this is a place to see and be seen! Dragonfly attracts local and visiting celebrities, as well as a younger hip crowd. Its dramatic jewel-toned draped ceilings and equally tantalizing cuisine, makes for a fun and lively place to share dinner with friends.
Screen Door (Southern Gourmet) - OMG, this is better than anything my southern mama whipped up - and she is a fabulous cook! Chef Fitzgerald Dodd digs deep into his southern roots to create a modern-day southern menu that will make your tongue slap your brain. It is an arduous task selecting one meal item from the it-all-sounds-so-good menu. No worries. Chef Dodd will graciously divide your table's selections so that everyone can have a sample. Screen Door is beautifully and comfortably decorated, and the staff is as passionate about the food as I am.
Stephan Pyles (Southwest) - Stephan Pyles is an icon in the Dallas' dining scene. If you love bold flavors and aromatic food, you will love Stephan Pyles. It is tempting to order the signature dishes like the bone-in ribeye with red chili onion rings or the corriander-cured rack of lamb with Equadorian potato cake on every visit. Yet, if you care to branch out, you will find it all fantastic!