A new generation of hotels, upscale restaurants, and vibrant neighborhoods once again invites you to do Dallas.
Buff Strickland A Ford truck parked in Dallas.

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.

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.

Mia's Tex-Mex

Established by Butch and Ana Enriquez in 1981, this Lemmon Avenue landmark serves homemade traditional Tex-Mex cuisine to customers ranging from Dallas Cowboys and movie stars to in-the-know tourists. Patrons can sit outside on the shaded patio or in the casual dining room adorned with colorful Mexican pottery, Christmas lights, paper flags, and piñatas. Signature dishes include house-made chiles rellenos and Butch’s original brisket tacos, served with Monterey Jack, grilled onions, and poblano peppers. The fresh mango margarita is popular, as well.

Mecca, Dallas

A North Dallas tradition since 1938, this family-owned café is located in a renovated red-brick house that maintains residential elements such as original bathtubs. The homelike atmosphere is appropriate given the Mecca’s menu of classic American comfort food that draws everyone from celebrities to several generations of local families. Simple furniture, old photos, and school banners donated by regulars create a diner-like environment where customers savor specialties such as the chicken fried steak and whole wheat blueberry pancakes (breakfast is served all day). The most famous dish, however, is the enormous homemade cinnamon roll topped with cream cheese icing.


Bob's Steak & Chop House

The original of what is now a widespread chain of steakhouses, this Lemmon Avenue landmark is outfitted with dark wood paneling, leather upholstered furniture, and dim lighting. However, despite its traditional upscale décor, Bob’s also features a lively, informal atmosphere enhanced by closely packed seating and TV screens in every room. After sipping handmade cocktails in the lounge’s round-back armchairs, diners settle at white-clothed tables to enjoy aged USDA Prime steaks paired with selections from the award-winning wine list. Favorite cuts like the filet mignon are served with potatoes and the restaurant’s signature whole glazed carrot.

Sonny Bryan's Smokehouse

Established in 1958, this family-owned barbecue joint is now a popular chain with locations throughout the Lone Star State (there’s even an outpost in Sandy, Utah). At the flagship location in Oak Lawn, huge crowds arrive at lunchtime, as they always have, seeking Sonny’s original home-smoked brisket. Patrons order from the mounted, wood-framed menu and then have a seat at an individual antique school desk or outside at a wooden picnic table. In addition to the brisket, diners also enjoy the pulled pork and oversize onion rings, and the homemade barbecue sauce, which is stored in Corona bottles and kept warm atop a heater, is good on just about everything.

York Street

Hotel St. Germain

Set in a Queen Anne-style house built in 1909 on what was originally called “Millionaires’ Row,” the Hotel St. Germain opened as a bed-and-breakfast in 1991. A butler is poised at the check-in desk to offer complimentary champagne upon arrival. The parlor and library are each adorned with turn-of-the-century French antiques. All seven individually designed suites feature a vintage canopy bed, working fireplace, and deep soaking tub. In the hotel’s elegant restaurant, overlooking a New Orleans-style courtyard, white-gloved servers deliver French cuisine on antique Limoges china.

Hotel ZaZa, Dallas

Overlooking Uptown's McKinney Avenue, ZaZa is a French Mediterranean-inspired villa that also incorporates styles from across the globe. Public spaces are adorned with crystal chandeliers and imported African prints, but the highlight here is the design of the hotel's 153 guestrooms. ZaZa is most known, however, for its 16 individually designed concept suites embodying themes like Bohemia, Moulin Rouge, East Indies, and of course, Texas—complete with leather, cowhide, and horns. For a bigger, more private option, consider staying in The Bungalows, located behind the hotel in a historic, charming neighborhood.

Rosewood Mansion on Turtle Creek

The Dallas icon of luxury, founded in 1980 when oil heiress Caroline Rose Hunt turned a circa-1925 cotton magnate's mansion into an outstanding property, undertook a full freshening up for its 30th anniversary. The updated look, by the interior design firm BAMO, includes Michael Taylor sofas, William Switzer chairs, and limed oak reception desks, befitting the original Italian Renaissance decorative scheme. The 143 rooms have been redone in calm colors and opulent fabrics, and guests manage to feel miles away from a bustling city that is just a block or two from the hotel. Don't forget to make a reservation at the esteemed Mansion Restaurant, which is famous for its tortilla soup.

The Adolphus

Established in 1912 by beer magnate Adolphus Busch, this downtown hotel has welcomed A-list guests like Queen Elizabeth II, Babe Ruth, and Donald Trump. The Beaux-Arts building, the tallest structure in Dallas upon its completion, is designed in red brick and granite with a corner turret shaped like a Budweiser beer bottle. Inside, The Adolphus is outfitted with dark wood paneling, large flower arrangements, and 17th-century Flemish tapestries. Visitors are wowed by the 422 guestrooms, which are among the city’s largest and feature Queen Anne-style furniture accented by baroque floral prints. The award-winning French Room restaurant is also a highlight.