News Article | 7/1/2006

Are W’s restaurants a threat or opportunity?

Craft, the upscale restaurant, and Ghostbar, the chic lounge that just opened in the new W Hotel north of downtown, could be the first boulders in an avalanche that remakes the local dining scene. The difference between which spots survive and which get buried may be as simple as the strength of a restaurateur’s personality.

Craft, the restaurant created by New York chef Tom Colicchio, is only the first of several blockbuster names that soon will be serving dinner and drinks in or near the American Airlines Center-Victory Park development. Some industry insiders suggest the ritzy new dining and entertainment district threatens the current crop of independent, local restaurateurs. But others downplay the long-term effect, and some even speculate that Victory will spark better business for many North Texas restaurants.

“Craft will be a huge flash. Ghostbar will be a huge flash,” drawing customers to the W “from all over,” says Matthew Mabel, president of Surrender, a Dallas-based management and hospitality firm.

No one seems to disagree on the appeal of the Victory restaurants, soon to include sushi hot spot Kenichi, N9NE Steakhouse and its sibling Nove Italiano, among others. But veteran restaurateur Alberto Lombardi believes they will be “special-occasion and convention restaurants,” and their splashy openings and glitzy reputations “won’t affect the small restaurateur too much.”

At least, not those already open. But big-name restaurant clones can drive up real estate prices and make it more difficult for independent restaurateurs to finance new ventures, says New York-based restaurant writer John Mariani.

“As real estate becomes more expensive, independents find it more difficult to open,” he says. Moreover, Mr. Mariani adds, “cities tend to embrace chain restaurants with open arms. Chains are taking over everywhere.”

Developers offer tremendous financial incentives to bring in big names. Mr. Lombardi estimates they might offer “three times as much as they would give a local guy.” He owns multiple locations of Taverna Pizzeria and Risotteria as well as Cafe Toulouse and Bar.

The disparity, says Mr. Mariani, “sucks off the dollars from independents trying to do fine-dining business.” The incentive is developers’ belief that celebrity-dining venues “make it easier to sell apartments or sell out hotel rooms.”

One of Dallas’ best-known chefs, Stephan Pyles, who last year opened the Arts District restaurant that bears his name, counters that local restaurant projects usually rely on local funding, while hotel-developer money is “from a different pool.”

Likeness vs. likability

Mr. Mariani puzzles over the appeal of the celebrity-chef restaurant transplant. “It really does surprise me that the affluent people who can afford to go to the original go so gaga” when an offshoot comes to town.

Once celebrity restaurants “start to happen in every city, they aren’t special anymore,” opines Mr. Lombardi, who believes local restaurants will continue to flourish where customers know the owners and chefs who run their own their places.

Fort Worth chef Tim Love of Lonesome Dove Western Bistro says customers get excited when a restaurant with a big-city rep comes to town “because they think of New York as being mecca. If they can get a taste without going, they think that’s even better.”

He’s hoping the reverse effect will pay off when he opens a Lonesome Dove in New York City this fall.

As for heightened competition, “I’m all for it. If the water rises, all the boats go up. Competition helps all restaurants in the area,” Mr. Love contends.

Restaurants, like politics, are always local, some argue. “Figureheads from the out-of-town restaurants may visit us from time to time, but Dallas diners know our homegrown proprietors by sight, and appreciate that they are frequently seen in their dining rooms,” says Mr. Mabel.

Dallas Restaurant Association executive director Tracey Evers offers another perspective. Local restaurateurs are happy to see new venues come in, she says, because that “gives the credibility to Dallas that we’ve deserved all these years.” When hot national concepts come in, it suggests the city is a good place to do business.

“I really hope that this is just what we needed to get us back on the [national] restaurant map, says former Mansion on Turtle Creek chef Dean Fearing. “I think Dallas has been a little stagnant as far as what’s going on on the restaurant scene.”

Next year the opening of Mr. Fearing’s own new restaurant in the Ritz-Carlton hotel and residential development, also in Uptown, will add to the area’s excitement.

Neighborhood preservation

Solid neighborhood restaurants have little to fear from these new destination spots, the experts say. Mr. Lombardi notes that for most dinners out, people don’t want to spend a long time in traffic, especially after a couple of drinks.

Craft isn’t the first marquee name with multiple locations to clone here. But the Victory lineup has inspired at least one pre-emptive strike. The nearby Crescent Court last year opened a local outpost of Nobu, another New York celebrity-chef concept. Bice, an Italian import, also debuted this spring in the hotel-office-retail center.

More than Victory is pulling Dallas diners toward the new center of the city’s entertainment-dining universe. After years of suburban restaurant expansion the shift began several years ago with the opening of West Village in Uptown. Last fall Mr. Pyles opened his Arts District eatery, a real estate move considered bold by many despite his stature as the only Dallas chef with enough name recognition to rate a signature restaurant in Las Vegas (now closed).

All these changes are creating “a different atmosphere than I’ve ever felt in Dallas,” says Mr. Pyles. “There’s a whole new freshness.”

Earlier this year, Mr. Fearing made headlines when he left The Mansion on Turtle Creek, lured by the promise of an ownership stake in a new restaurant at the Ritz-Carlton, set to open in fall 2007.

By then, says Mr. Mabel, “the deck will already be reshuffled. It’s almost like he is coming in for a landing after all the movement happens.”

Five years could pass, says Mr. Mabel, before the effects of all the new development will be obvious. He recalls the shift away from McKinney Avenue by restaurants in the ’90s: “We woke up one day and it wasn’t McKinney Avenue anymore.”