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!