The New Dallas

A hometown girl returns to find all her favorite things—chalupas, sarsaparilla, and a gleaming skyline—sparkling with a bright new style.

By Katy McColl, Tuesday, Oct 19, 2010, 12:00 AM

At Dallas's Belmont Hotel, in the Oak Cliff neighborhood, west of downtown (Misty Keasler)

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.

Once a month, the Dallas Museum of Art (DMA) stages a Late Nights festival, and I'm drawn downtown by the museum's punchy Twitter feed ("Ukulele on Level 4 right now"). Close to midnight, I find myself cheering on a raucous live reggae band; throughout, women are stalking the galleries in avant-garde heels; and on the ground floor, a table in the Tech Lab is laden with everything you might need to create a metallic pipe-cleaner masterpiece.

During my after-hours reverie, I'd missed entire galleries completely, so I make time on Sunday morning to revisit the DMA and also explore the Dallas Arts District's newer museums—like the Nasher Sculpture Center and The Crow Collection of Asian Art—in the light of day. At the small but exquisite Crow Collection, I admire a gleaming 15th-century Ming dynasty Buddha, and at the DMA's sculpture garden, I watch a couple unpack a picnic between a wall of rushing water and a futuristic bench designed by Zaha Hadid. Down the street, a DJ plays acid jazz in the garden of the Nasher, a "roofless museum" of modern sculpture founded by the same man who created NorthPark. I feel a wash of gratitude to be able to see so much art in the space of a few blocks; it used to be that most of the art in Dallas was dispersed among the city's commercial spaces like hotel lobbies and the mall. Tony Font, the co-owner of the Soda Gallery, had told me that his favorite place in the entire city was a hidden sculpture at the Nasher called Tending, (Blue). And there, behind a door so nondescript it could house an HVAC unit, I discover a modern-day, secular pantheon, a room with cooling granite benches tilted toward an open view of the sky. Tipped back like I'm getting my hair washed at a salon, I watch dragonflies and airplanes pass over the vivid-blue portal. It's spiritual and moving—and for 10 minutes I have it all to myself. When other folks step into the room, I welcome them with a smile, all too happy to share Dallas's new richness together.

Later that afternoon, I meet up with a former coworker named Lauren who moved here from midtown Manhattan and offered to introduce me to some of her favorite discoveries. Having grown up in Mississippi, Lauren appreciates the way Dallas combines urban amenities with a small-town pace. "I get to sit outside drinking margaritas in November with really friendly people," she explains. Our first stop happens to lead us to a couple who made a similar choice: Adam and Alicia Rico, who recently traded Brooklyn for Big D. The Ricos are owners of Bows and Arrows, a boutique and flower shop in the area just north of downtown where the Uptown, Oak Lawn, Knox-Henderson, and Lower Greenville neighborhoods bleed together into one live/eat/shop pleasure center. I chat with Alicia's parents, who sometimes help out on weekends, and buy a Lucite dachshund ring. As Lauren and I leave, we're sent off with a call of "Y'all have fun!" and I start to feel a sort of neighborly glow I never got at the Galleria mall.

A few blocks away at the Taco Joint, a gem of a Tex-Mex taqueria with album covers on the ceiling and a cheerful mural on the back wall, every table is filled with young families or Southern Methodist University students hunkered down over $2 chalupas. The guac is as great as you'd expect, rich and limey, but more important, the restaurant has pioneered what may be the world's best condiment—homemade jalapeño ranch—that sends us back for seconds.

As we cruise past blocks of valet stands and dozens of new apartment buildings—from Melrose Place–style haciendas with fountains and tiled courtyards to spare modernist cubes—I feel so confused: What used to be here? Lauren can't tell me, of course, but a few long-gone scenes start to take shape in my mind. I see scrubby lawns and dry cleaners that I don't miss so much, but I start to recall other things the construction has replaced, like the Mexican restaurant where my family and I would have dinner on Sundays beneath autographed portraits of Tom Landry–era Dallas Cowboys sporting sideburns and mustaches. For a moment I feel a slight pang of loss, but then Lauren and I stop for a cocktail at Park, which—with its outdoor fireplace, sultry chinoiserie-themed interiors, lantern-lit garden, and bocce court—cheers me right up. Instead of dye-soaked maraschino cherries, staffers use fresh blackberries and sprigs of mint for garnish. We watch a mixologist muddle thyme and strawberries for a complicated drink called a Jagger's Lips, and I am heartbroken by how good it tastes, because I will never be able to re-create it at home.

I want to repay Lauren for introducing me to these new places by taking her to Reunion Tower, but I'm slightly concerned. I'd ventured down this nostalgic path once before in the late '90s and regretted it: Between the brass railings, maroon carpeting, and wilted food, revisiting the tower that had enchanted me as a child felt deflating. But last year, after a two-year renovation, Wolfgang Puck reopened Five Sixty, as it's now called, which lured us in with the prospect of a happy hour where certain cocktails and pan-Asian appetizers only cost $5.60 apiece, instead of the usual $12 to $22. As we step off the elevator, Lauren squeezes my hand and says, "This is fabulous!" My heart skips a beat, too. Glamorous gray-velvet sofas and glinting cocktail tables spread out before us, and as the panoramic view slowly unfolds—it takes 55 minutes for the restaurant to make a single rotation—I slip right back into a state of pure wonder. High above the distant red-neon rooftop Mobil pegasus, I can make out the blue Ferris wheel at Fair Park, the Trinity River corridor, and the birds gliding far below.

LODGING
Belmont Hotel
901 Fort Worth Ave., 866/870-8010, belmontdallas.com, doubles from $109

FOOD
Tillman's Roadhouse
324 W. 7th St., 214/942-0988, tillmansroadhouse.com, table-side s'mores $14

Bolsa
614 W. Davis St., 214/367-9367, bolsadallas.com, bruschetta four for $12

Taco Joint
911 N. Peak St., 214/826-8226, thetacojoint.com, tacos from $2

Five Sixty by Wolfgang Puck
300 Reunion Blvd., 214/741-5560, wolfgangpuck.com/restaurants/fine-dining/3917, select cocktails and appetizers $5.60 on weeknights 5 p.m.–7 p.m.

ACTIVITIES
Dallas Museum of Art
1717 N. Harwood St., 214/922-1200, dm-art.org, admission $10, sculpture garden free

Nasher Sculpture Center
2001 Flora St., 214/242-5100, nashersculpturecenter.org, admission $10, joint ticket with DMA $16

The Crow Collection of Asian Art
2010 Flora St., 214/979-6430, crowcollection.com, free

SHOPPING
The Soda Gallery
408 N. Bishop Ave. #101, 214/946-7632, thesodagallery.com, six-pack from $13.50

Bows and Arrows
1925 Greenville Ave., 214/828-2697, bowsandarrowsdeluxe.com, ring $15

NIGHTLIFE
Park
1921 Henderson Ave., 214/824-3343, parkhenderson.com, Jagger's Lips cocktail $9

DALLAS'S NEW HEAT