People who've never been to Dallas have strong opinions about it. They call it Big D, a free-enterprise theme park where everybody's a millionaire and men wear cowboy hats with their suits, or the Buckle on the Bible Belt, a sober, conservative town where they roll up the sidewalks at 6 p.m. Those who visit instead find a sophisticated, even complicated place. For starters, Dallas has four times as many restaurants per capita as New York City (and no, they're not all barbecue joints). There's also the Nasher Sculpture Center & Garden, designed by Renzo Piano and landscape architect Peter Walker, opening later this year with works by Alexander Calder, Willem de Kooning, and Richard Serra; a new light-rail system; and pockets of the inner city that pulsate with energy far into the wee hours. No matter the contradiction—onion rings versus foie gras, jazz and Merlot versus honky-tonk and a Bud—Dallas balances its big-city head with its small-town heart.
WHERE TO STAY The opulent, Italian Renaissance-style Mansion on Turtle Creek (2821 Turtle Creek Blvd.; 214/559-2100; www.rosewoodhotels.com; doubles from $400) is where the likes of Steven Spielberg and Gwyneth Paltrow sleep whenever they're in town. Commodious 450-square-foot rooms have a residential look, with floral fabrics and antiques (reminiscent of the Mansion's past as the home of Texas cotton tycoon Sheppard King). Ring an attendant to draw you a lavender-scented bath in your huge Italian-marble tub. • Downtown's Adolphus Hotel (1321 Commerce St.; 214/742-8200; www.hoteladolphus.com; doubles from $285) was built by beer magnate Adolphus Busch in 1912, and its lobby is a riot of florid carpeting, 17th-century Flemish tapestries, and English Regency furniture. The 428 renovated rooms, however, are much more subdued. • The Magnolia Oil (later Mobil) building downtown was once the tallest structure in the South. Now it's the 330-room Magnolia Hotel (1401 Commerce St.; 888/915-1110 or 214/915-6500; www.themagnoliahotel.com; doubles from $249), with a clean, postmodern vibe; a three-level atrium lobby; and the original elevator well—with a spectacular coffered ceiling. • The newest place in town is the hip Hotel ZaZa (2332 Leonard St.; 800/597-8399 or 214/468-8399; www.hotelzaza.com; doubles from $195), a canary-yellow edifice with themed suites such as the Metropolitan (where an urban palette of black, gray, and white predominates) and the West Indies (splashy tropical hues).
RESTAURANTS The big "power dining" scene of the 1980's and 90's has given way to smaller, more intimate neighborhood spots. York Street (6047 Lewis St.; 214/826-0968; dinner for two $80), a tiny bistro behind a nondescript storefront in East Dallas, uses locally grown produce on its inventive daily menu (freshly picked okra becomes a piquant ratatouille served with grilled monkfish). • A sleek noodle bar that takes its name—and its Asian-noir look—from Citizen Kane, Citizen (3858 Oak Lawn Ave.; 214/522-7253; dinner for two $55) serves sushi and spring rolls with a Texas spin; try the crisp duck roll with sweet chile sauce. • The most romantic meal in town can be found in the candlelit French Quarter-style rooms of the restaurant at the Hotel St. Germain (2516 Maple Ave.; 214/871-2516). A $170 prix fixe menu for two changes monthly and offers leisurely French repasts—recently, lobster bisque with tarragon, foie gras terrine in Cognac aspic, and Chilean sea bass wrapped in a crunchy potato shell with a leek confit.
NIGHTLIFE Trying to navigate Dallas's sprawl in a rental car after a drink or two is no better for the heart than breakfast at Mecca (see below). Here's a modest proposal for how to spend a night out entirely on foot. First, take a cab to the Green Room (2715 Elm St.; 214/748-7666). The cramped bar is really just an exposed-brick anteroom in one of Dallas's top restaurants, but at cocktail hour it is SRO with the Beautiful People. (Recently overheard: "I don't care if it is 100 degrees out, I'm still wearing leather!") If you want live music, walk west on Elm to Sambuca (2618 Elm St.; 214/744-0820), a sultry jazz hangout and supper club. A few blocks away is the Gypsy Tea Room (2546 Elm St.; 214/744-9779), a club with two spaces—a cozy, couch-lined boîte and a cavernous ballroom—that often hosts the famous (Willie Nelson) and the much-lesser-known (local punk band Meat Hammer or the alt-country Super Suckers). The crowd includes shorthaired hipsters grooving alongside big-haired housewives. For classic C&W, walk several blocks east on Elm to the 92-year-old Sons of Hermann Hall (3414 Elm St.; 214/747-4422), a restored dance hall where young singles and families gather to slurp down longnecks and listen to local bands. On Wednesday nights there are swing-dance classes—no partner required.
NEXT GREAT NEIGHBORHOODS The West Village, which sits north of the Woodall Rogers Freeway (the traffic artery that divides downtown from uptown), once appeared to be just another clutch of precious European village-style apartments and stores. Lately, it has become wildly popular, thanks to an eclectic mix of tenants: art-house cinema, upscale taquería, gelato shop, noodle house, even a sumptuous flower "gallery." • In the central business district, the true downtown, it was more a matter of restoration than invention. The inner city already had two small but vibrant entertainment districts: Deep Ellum on its far east side and the West End Historical District to the far west. The problem was the huge, empty canyon in between, occupied mainly by banks, law offices, and, at night, street people. But all that changed with the construction of lofts and condos (nearly 14,000 of them carved out of old office buildings and warehouses), plus stylish restaurants and bars. By the end of 2002, downtown was growing as fast as the surrounding suburbs—big news in a city that has always sprawled.
SHOPPING BEYOND THE MALL At Highland Park Village—the nation's oldest shopping center—Lilly Dodson (33 Highland Park Village; 214/528-0528) is one of Laura Bush's favorites. The boutique sells dresses by Emilio Pucci and Carolina Herrera. • Countless variations on the not-so-plain white cotton blouse can be found at Anne Fontaine (71 Highland Park Village; 214/522-0070). • In Snider Plaza at Lovers Lane and Hillcrest Ave., Henry Jackalope [This property has closed] sells custom cowboy paraphernalia, including silver-studded belts and Rocket Shooters, brightly colored boots emblazoned with stars, Indian beaded jewelry, and other Western symbols. • If your tastes run more to Mid-Century Modern, check out the chic furniture at Legacy Trading Co. (3699 McKinney Ave.; 214/953-2222) in the West Village or the 1959 Verner Panton "heart chair" at Collage (1300 N. Industrial Blvd.; 214/828-9888). • Along Knox-Henderson Street, where about 30 shops line a six-block stretch, drop into Morgen Chocolate (4516 McKinney Ave.; 214/520-2462) for truffles filled with Mexican vanilla. • The original Neiman Marcus (1618 Main St.; 214/741-6911), which dates back to 1913, remains as potent a symbol of Texas wealth as any oil rig.
MUSEUMS HIGH AND LOW The Nasher Sculpture Center Garden doesn't open until October, but culture vultures can still get their fill at two decidedly different museums. Even after all these years, Dallas aches over the assassination of John F. Kennedy. The Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza (411 Elm St.; 214/747-6660; admission $10), located on the very floor of the former School Book Depository from which Lee Harvey Oswald allegedly fired his fateful bullets in November 1963, bears witness with an extensive, edifying collection of photos, news clips, firsthand accounts, and other evidence from the event that forever changed Dallas—and the nation. • Join the 400,000 other tourists each year who drive 20 miles northeast of downtown to tour the 8,500-square-foot estate of Southfork Ranch (3700 Hogge Rd., Parker; 972/442-7800; admission $7.95), site of the endless internecine squabbles of the Ewing clan of the eighties TV series Dallas (go on, admit it: you watched every week). You can walk through Sue Ellen's mirrored bathroom, grab a sandwich at "Miss Ellie's Deli," and even see the gun that shot J.R.
FINGER-LICKIN' GOOD: DALLAS SPECIALTIES
Even as macadamia nut crusts and towering stacks of "architectural" food have become old Dallas standbys, steak, Tex-Mex, barbecue, and "country grease" still provide the most tang for your buck. Four top spots:
Real estate deals are cut over 28-ounce slabs of beef at Bob's Steak & Chop House (4300 Lemmon Ave.; 214/528-9446; dinner for two $100), the best of the city's countless steak houses.
Fans of big breakfasts—and we do mean big—will adore Mecca (10422 Harry Hines Blvd.; 214/352-0051; breakfast for two $15; no dinner), where Dallas's finest chicken-fried steak comes with eggs, hash browns, biscuits, and cream gravy so thick you can almost chew it.
Mia's Tex Mex (4322 Lemmon Ave.; 214/526-1020; dinner for two $20), a boisterous joint with a devoted following, serves a chile relleno that includes beef, cheese, potato, and—strangely enough—raisins and almonds.
Unconcerned about cholesterol?Head for Sonny Bryan's Smokehouse (multiple locations; the original is at 2202 Inwood Rd.; 214/357-7120; lunch for two $15) for fall-off-the-bone barbecued pork ribs and beef brisket.
Dallas resident Jim Atkinson writes for Texas Monthly.