The New Dallas
A hometown girl returns to find all her favorite thingschalupas, sarsaparilla, and a gleaming skylinesparkling with a bright new style.
The rotating-disco-ball restaurant atop Reunion Tower is a little girl's idea of glamour—at least, once upon a time it was mine. As a child in Dallas, I used to beg my father to take me there after a night out at the ballet. The tower spins a full 560 feet above ground, and as I sipped my Shirley Temple and listened to the tinkling piano music, I might as well have been at the center of the universe, there as part of Dallas's iconic skyline, outshining even the stars. One night I laid my white cardigan sweater on the windowsill, and it made the full rotation, like a horse at Saratoga, before it was time for us to leave.
When my parents divorced, Dallas became a casualty of the breakup and I moved to Massachusetts with my mom. The city where I'd enjoyed such a happy childhood was reduced to a flattened-out caricature—a place where women wore pancake makeup and lip liner while working out, and where "Too much is never enough" seemed to be the unofficial city slogan. Essentially, recreation came down to two things: eating (Tex-Mex) and shopping (at NorthPark Center). An abundance of grande dame hotels—the Mansion on Turtle Creek, the Crescent, the Adolphus—rounded out the excess. But for all the queso and the Neiman Marcus Last Call sales, the guac and the glitz, the city, I decided, lacked a certain depth. Its superficial pre-occupations led to a whole population of young people—known locally as $30,000 millionaires—who leased Lamborghinis and lived well beyond their means in an effort to keep up with the reigning nouveau riche aesthetic. Not that I was above all that. A fellow Texan once caught me applying cake eyeliner in the bathroom at Smith College in Massachusetts and crowed, "You can take the girl out of Dallas, but you can't take the Dallas out of the girl."
Eventually, friends' weddings and showers started to bring me back for whirlwind weekends, and I began to notice that the landscape of my hometown had changed. An influx of tech companies like Cisco Systems and AT&T had created a boom in the suburbs, and massive amounts of private capital went into creating a 19-block arts district in the formerly quiet downtown. Big D, as it's called, is now the only city in the world where you can stroll past four buildings designed by Pritzker Prize–winning architects in a single block. Just as exciting, however, is the renewal of older neighborhoods like Oak Cliff, where the sensibility now falls more in line with Austin or San Francisco than the denim and diamonds of before.
On my last visit, I'd been the maid of honor and a bridesmaid for two weddings taking place on the same day; I'd hardly had a second to breathe, much less sightsee. But even from the backseat of a car whipping around town, it was clear that the city deserved a fresh look. This time, I knew exactly where I wanted to stay: the Belmont Hotel, a vintage white-stucco motor lodge that's been outfitted with the quirky 10-foot-tall cacti of a desert resort. Built on a bluff in Oak Cliff, the 64-room hotel manages to be both cheap and stylish, a novel concept for Dallas. The backyard pool area, where the hotel screens blockbusters like Big and Nine to Five throughout the summer, looks out on the city's postcard-perfect skyline. As I check in, I see a handsomely scruffy guy pull up in a red Volkswagen bus with gingham curtains—a poster child for Dallas's burgeoning bohemianism.
When I was in high school, Oak Cliff's big draw was its late-night post office, where procrastinators could count on same-day postmarks until 11:55 p.m. Now the neighborhood's Bishop Arts District—a collection of art deco storefronts—makes it an ideal daytime destination, with all the requisite shops and res-taurants, albeit with a Texan twist. At Tillman's Roadhouse, a modern comfort-food joint where you can roast marshmallows table-side for s'mores, the front door has a shotgun barrel nailed to it in place of a knob. A few blocks over, I wander into The Soda Gallery, a Technicolor shop that sells rare and regional soft drinks—including 28 different kinds of root beer for about $2 a pop. Explaining the Wonka-like quality of the place, co-owner Tony Font says prior to opening the business he "spent twenty and a half years in a corporate job with lots of time to daydream during conference calls." After helping me select a Sioux City sarsaparilla, Tony decorates my mix-and-match six-pack with three colors of ribbon, using a scissor blade to curl the ends with a flourish.
Oak Cliff's most dramatic turnaround, however, belongs to Bolsa, an industrial-chic bistro housed in a former mechanic's garage. The food is so fresh, my server tells me, that the restaurant doesn't have a freezer, and the honey drizzled on my fig and prosciutto bruschetta comes from the chef's personal hives. Sitting at the bar beneath a flock of origami paper cranes made from recycled menus, I'm impressed that the restaurant has somehow sold this formerly traditional town on the locavore trend. I spot back-slapping oil tycoons at one table and young hipsters at the next, united by a shared craving for sangria and flatbread topped with roasted grapes and Dallas goat cheese.