News Article | 3/18/2009

Victory Park recruits less-pricey restaurants, bars

Dallas’ Victory Park is getting ready for a makeover. After several haunts for the well-heeled faltered, developers want to bring in restaurants and bars that cater to patrons of more modest means – Olivella’s Neo Pizza Napoletana, Bread & Butter, Naga Thai, Stop-Play-Rewind and the Hard Rock Cafe.

Are the newcomers intrepid entrepreneurs or sitting ducks? According to Charlie Green, they’re neither. He’s not only confident, he’s willing to wager $1 million that he can make money selling pizza at Victory Park.

His bullishness is based not only on the bravos he gets for the Italian fare at his tiny restaurant near Southern Methodist University, but also on what he and other newcomers see as the Victory Park do-over.

“I think some of the retail down there was just a bad idea,” said Green, 46, who plans to open Neo Pizza in Victory Park as soon as he can shore up his financing. “I don’t think those were the right concepts for there.

“How many people spend $100 on a steak before a basketball game?”

For developer Hillwood, the vision for Victory Park has always been simple: Turn a once-contaminated rail yard into a vibrant city within a city that would attract the masses not only to events at American Airlines Center, but also for day-in, day-out shopping and dining.

That daily draw has remained elusive.

Three anchor tenants – restaurants Nove Italiano and N9NE and a collection of high-end retail shops called LFT – folded, putting nearly 40,000 square feet of space back on the market. That’s 19 percent of Victory’s retail base.

“And that doesn’t count the 20,000 square feet of retail and restaurant space on the ground floor of The House, the development’s condo project opening this spring. The Hard Rock Cafe is expected to announce plans today to take over some of the House space.

Even Todd Platt, chief executive of Hillwood Investments, the Hillwood division overseeing the $4 billion project, admits that “we made some mistakes in our earlier retail planning.”

“Perhaps we addressed too high end a retail user or restaurateur,” he said.

“But we have to put this into perspective. We’re halfway into a 20-year development, and the next three years are not going to determine the ultimate fate of our future.

“As long as we don’t sacrifice quality – which we will not – over the long term, Victory will be something the city of Dallas and everybody connected to it will continue to be proud of.”

On location

Consumers should expect options that are moderately priced and designed to boost density, Platt says.

Enter Neo Pizza. Green wants to build on the success he’s experienced at his 900-square-foot nook across the street from SMU by appealing to workers and residents in Victory Park and downtown.

Sporting well-worn jeans and a slightly smudged polo, Green looks like a man with work to do. What eventually will be a block-long, 3,700-square-foot eatery with two outdoor patios is, for now, cavernous and empty.

Outside, a stiff wind skitters leaves left over from fall. It’s about the only movement along the sidewalk next to his future locale, save for two workers headed toward the new One Victory Park office tower.

Still, Green sees his venture as a winner – in part because it will have entrances both on the main drag, North Houston Street, and on Victory Park Lane, which bisects Victory Park. The Houston Street exposure, a rare configuration in Victory, will make his restaurant easily visible, even from nearby Woodall Rodgers Freeway, he said.

“It’s very close to downtown without being hidden,” he said. “It’s my belief it’s going to draw a large lunch crowd during the week.”

Green’s enthusiasm is tempered only by concern over his inability to raise the last $250,000 of the $1.1 million he needs to open Neo Pizza. Some investors who put money into other Victory ventures decided to pass on investing with him, he said.

Still, Green says he’s “not nervous about the location at all,” adding, “I’m psyched. I really like the location a lot.”

Game plan

Across High Market Street from Neo Pizza, in a corner slot once occupied by part of LFT, restaurateur Doug Brown plans to open Bread & Butter, a restaurant/wine bar/cafe that Brown pictures as “a neighborhood kind of place with some great wine values.”

He said he plans to sign a lease soon on the 2,500-square-foot space.

“This is a new breed of restaurants with local operators,” said Brown, who built a following at Amuse on South Lamar, which closed last September and has reopened as Sala.

He noted that Dallas diners are partial to home-grown talent. N9NE and Nove were owned by Las Vegas-based N9NE Group.

“The new stuff going in will be a little more appealing,” added Brown, who plans to open by early winter. “It’s geared to the everyday.”

The Christopher Martin art gallery at Victory built a following at its 4-year-old gallery on Cedar Springs. In November, its Victory outpost expanded into a space vacated by a men’s store, doubling its size.

Martin’s dad, Glenn, who runs the Victory Park location, said sales are good, thanks to aggressive marketing and special events.

“We don’t need 100 people a day to walk by to be successful,” said Glenn Martin, 67. “This has been a great place for mixers, wedding receptions, birthday parties.”

Martin said that so far, none of the newcomers has sought his advice about opening in Victory.

If they did, “I would tell them the market is good, but they have to have functions, and they have to drive people to the area.”

Victory veterans and newcomers add that success hinges largely on re-educating the public.

“A lot of people had the idea that Victory was super high-end, and it was more of a chore than it was worth,” Brown said. “It’s not going to be that way anymore, and people will only see that when these other restaurants start to open. A new breed is coming with a little different game plan.”