Forget the latest culinary craze — here’s what keep the regulars coming back, and back, and back
It’s a challenge to keep up with the trendy and innovative restaurant landscape in Dallas. Every day, it seems, brings the announcement of a new upscale taco joint or slow-food gastropub or microbrewery.
Amid the blur of media clamoring to cover the city’s latest and greatest foodie hotspots, it’s easy to forget the neighborhood restaurants that have stuck with us over the long haul.
But the regulars don’t forget.
They patronize their favorites week in and week out, sometimes daily. Their allegiance isn’t just about the food. They tend to be loyalists and creatures of habit, in contrast to those of us who have restaurant attention deficit disorder.
The neighborhood eateries with established regulars aren’t typically the ones enjoying Twitter and blogger buzz. If we lost them, however, they would leave gaping holes in the fabric of our community.
While most of us play the restaurant field, we salute the regulars who make sure our neighborhood’s dining staples will be around when we crave them.
The incognito diner
El Corazon de Tejas is where Bill Warwick escapes from it all.
He discovered the place years ago when it was still Tejano restaurant, before the recent transformation. Warwick is an accountant for a firm in downtown Dallas, so the restaurant is both convenient to his office and unknown to his co-workers.
That’s important to him. Warwick dines at El Corazon just about every day for lunch as a respite from his stressful job “so I can go back to work and not hurt anybody,” he quips.
He sits in the bar area, always in the same booth, and his waitress immediately makes him a margarita when he arrives. The servers also know to bring out chips, salsa and queso. The chips dipped in a queso-salsa mix are usually the extent of his lunch.
“I’m a very simple person,” he says.
Warwick had a different regular seat before the restaurant was redesigned. It was a spot in the bar area against the wall. Sometimes when he came in, his seat was taken, but when that person left, “they would clean that table right away and move me right back to my seat,” he says.
It helps to tip well, Warwick says of this kind of service.
“I’d be scared of what I’m eating and what I’m drinking if I didn’t,” he jokes.
When the restaurant closed recently for renovations, Warwick started dining a few blocks away at El Fenix, where a waitress who served him at Tejano works now.
“I would go in and ask for Maria, and they started sending me to the same table every day,” he says.
When El Corazon reopened, he came right back.
“I like the redesign of it,” Warwick says. “I’ve heard some people say the food isn’t as good, and I can’t really say so because I don’t order it. Actually, the queso’s better and the salsa’s better.”
When Warwick first heard about the impending changes, he says, he wasn’t nervous.
“Business is business,” he says. “And I knew I’d be coming back. It’s really the margarita I come for.”
El Corazon de Tejas
110 W. Davis
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Warwick rarely strays from his margarita, queso and salsa routine. But occasionally he splurges and orders the beef fajita nachos.
The loyal patrons
Delia and Juan Jasso moved into their Kidd Springs home 23 years ago. That’s when they first dined at the little house on 12th Street.
“Back then it was still such a transitional area, and La Calle Doce was one of the first Mexican restaurants on the mid-level price range,” Delia Jasso says. “We mostly had taquerias.”
At the time, the extent of the dining area was the two front rooms, “not even the porches, and the side area was an open space,” Jasso says. “It was small but very good. We were enamored with actually having a Mexican seafood place, because there wasn’t anything like that here at all.”
In the early days, owner Laura Sanchez would pepper Juan Jasso with questions that came up about City of Dallas processes. He was a newly elected justice of the peace so was more familiar with Dallas County, but the Jassos always tried to help Sanchez.
“We felt close to her and were there for her, and she knew that,” Delia Jasso says.
They knew both her husband, Oscar Sanchez Sr., who worked with her to open the restaurant in 1981, and her son, Oscar Sanchez Jr. Both men have since died, and their photos hang in the front of the restaurant, along with other family photos, awards and memorabilia from across the decades.
“I’m glad they’ve kept them there. It’s kind of the glue,” Jasso says. “It keeps you grounded and reminds us there are bigger things in our lives.”
Over time, the restaurant has expanded, and “the new back room and new patio are fabulous,” Jasso says. The former councilwoman liked to hold events and recognitions for community members in that room “because we know what we’re going to get, and there’s no one who will say no.”
Now that the Jassos are empty-nesters, they dine at La Calle Doce two or three times a week.
“It’s our home away from home,” Delia Jasso says. “We don’t really go grocery shopping anymore, and we love their food. You can always get something healthy there, so I don’t feel so bad.”
La Calle Doce
415 W. 12th
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Delia Jasso describes herself as a “plain Jane” when it comes to food. One of her favorites on the La Calle Doce menu is the chicken soup. “It has vegetables and all of the good stuff in it,” she says. She also loves the cheese and bean nachos. “If I could eat that all night, I probably would.” The fish are incredible, she says, but the servings are so large that she usually doesn’t attempt it. “And if I want to really step out, I’d order their shrimp enchiladas.” Juan Jasso is partial to the tacos al carbon and likes to take the avocado hot sauce and pickled carrots and “pour the stuff on there,” she says.
The three generations
Charles Carlisle usually eats breakfast at Norma’s Café on weekday mornings, but not on weekends.
“It’s too crowded on weekends,” the 86-year-old says.
His son, Doug Carlisle, meets him at the restaurant a couple of mornings each week. This has been their tradition for almost five years.
“It’s been about that long since my mother died,” Doug says. “He used to eat there off and on with her, but now he’s there more often — pretty much five days a week. And I was able to start taking time and meeting him there.”
Charles traveled when Doug was younger, so because of Norma’s, “I’ve probably spent more time with him over the last five years than I did the first 16,” Doug says. “That makes a difference if you do it on the back end.”
Doug, a Kimball ’66 graduate, grew up in Oak Cliff, but “I didn’t go to Norma’s until I worked at Goff’s Hamburgers in Wynnewood when I was 15,” he says. Still, even though the restaurant isn’t nostalgic for him personally, “when you’ve grown up in that area all your life, it’s always good to go back and do something,” he says. “I think as much as anything, what gets people to go is the atmosphere and the history going back to the ’50s.”
They are sometimes joined by Charles’ grandson Byron, who is Doug’s nephew. He works overnight shifts at Zale Lipshy hospital, so he heads to Norma’s after work.
The table discussion usually revolves around “what we’re planning to do that day, or what happened the night before, or what’s going on with the Rangers or the Cowboys or the government or North Korea or whatever,” Doug says.
Their waitress may be “Pam or Sherry or Pat or Lovie or any of them” because they don’t have a regular table, Doug says. “You can’t really do that there” because it’s too busy, he says.
But as often as they dine at Norma’s, the Carlisle men know pretty much all of the staff, and vice versa. The waitresses know “Mr. Charles,” as they call him, especially well.
Charles says that since he’s retired, “I don’t have to do anything, but I have to do this — I wake up every morning starving.” And Norma’s hits the spot.
His son is happy to be along for the ride.
“At his age, every day is good,” Doug says, “so the fact that I can catch some time with him, that’s important.”
1123 W. Davis
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Charles Carlisle orders the No. 2 — two eggs over easy, bacon and tomatoes instead of potatoes, since he can’t eat potatoes. Doug orders similarly, usually some version of bacon, eggs and toast. “Their whole breakfast menu is really pretty good, so you can’t go wrong,” he says.
The true believers
Tammie Kleinmann ate the first meal Hattie’s ever served more than a decade ago. Their soft opening was a fundraiser for the Kessler School, and people from all over Dallas packed into the new restaurant at the corner of Bishop and Seventh.
The Bishop Arts District back then was not the Bishop Arts of today. Many storefronts were boarded up. Kleinmann remembers an architectural salvage store across the street from Hattie’s, a hair salon “and a dog grooming place one week that was selling rugs the next.”
“I mean, it was rough. Retail didn’t exist down there, and Hattie’s just boldly went right on the corner,” she says. “Hal [Gantzler] and Tony [Alvarez] spent a ton of money creating this upscale restaurant that would make it anywhere in Dallas. They took a risk, and they were pioneers.”
Kleinmann lived in Kessler Park and was a neighbor of Alvarez and Gantzler, so she watched the planning phases up close. After the restaurant opened, it was such a hit that “people started proverbially coming across the river,” she says. She believes that Hattie’s kickstarted the Bishop Arts revival.
A decade later, “I’m in such awe that everything they planned is executed every single day the doors are open,” Kleinmann says. “Everybody has bad days — everybody but Hattie’s. I know it sounds corny, but you can’t catch them on a bad day.”
Though she has moved to North Dallas, Kleinmann still dines at the restaurant three or four times a month, either with her husband and 14-year-old daughter or for girls’ night out.
“Of course, when you get six or seven girls together, we get very loud, and Tony is so sweet. He’ll even join us — pour a glass of wine, belly up to the table and chat,” Kleinmann says. “Most people would be saying, ‘Ladies, you need to keep it down.’ ”
That’s the distinction of Hattie’s, says Brian Lauten: Alvarez and the staff develop relationships with their customers.
Lauten and his wife, Amy, live in Forest Hills, and dine at Hattie’s at least once a week, usually a Tuesday or Thursday night. On the way, they sometimes pick up their good friends Amy and Barb Witherite, former Cliffites who recently moved to Lakewood.
The valet never gives a ticket to the Lautens or the Witherites. Their cars are well known. And as soon as they pull up, the bartender starts making watermelon martinis for the Lautens and Texas cosmos for the Witherites.
“That’s pretty bad,” Barb Witherite says with a laugh.
Brian Lauten is from a small town in Alabama, and when he first dined at the restaurant years ago, he immediately recognized that “Hattie’s has a real small-town feel to it.” The Lautens have favorite servers, Vann and Ross, and almost always sit in their sections. The chefs often come out to say hello during the meal. Every Thanksgiving, they prepare a soufflé that the Lautens take home and cook.
“I’m not just saying this — the people that work there are extremely genuine and sincere, and I think they really, really love their jobs,” Lauten says. “Vann has been our server for years. I won’t even look at the menu and just say, ‘What’s good tonight, man?’ Whatever he recommends is always good. I’ve never had a meal there that wasn’t outstanding.”
Recently, when Hattie’s celebrated its 10-year anniversary, Alvarez invited 250 longtime customers to the restaurant on a Monday night, when it’s normally closed.
“He personally called all of us, had all of the staff there, brought out food, had an open bar, wouldn’t let anyone pay for anything, and gave a speech to thank everyone for coming to Hattie’s,” Lauten says.
It was characteristic of the type of hospitality Alvarez has shown them over the years, he says.
“And we’re not an anomaly,” he says. “They have that kind of connection with a large following of people. I’m sure that’s a large part of why they’ve been successful.”
418 N Bishop
Order like a regular
Tammie Kleinmann’s two favorite dishes are the salmon and the Caeser salad with oysters. Her daughter, Sydney, opts for the four-cheddar mac and cheese, and her husband, Brian Nadurak, chooses quail. During lunch, Kleinmann prefers the tomato soup. And for brunch, well, “brunch will give you anxiety. We have to get one of everything, and then we have to share because we can’t decide.” Usually she and her husband order the chicken and waffles, and an egg dish, and her daughter orders sourdough French toast.
Brian Lauten loves the New Zealand lambchop. Most lambchops are made with Colorado lamb, he says, but lamb from New Zealand is “bigger, juicier and more flavorful.” Another dish, the bacon-and-jalapeño-wrapped quail, “is just absolutely di-vaine,” Lauten drawls. His wife, Amy, loves the shrimp and grits, and they both enjoy the same appetizer — a fried oyster wrapped in bacon topped with horseradish sauce.
For the Witherites, “ it’s always the chicken-fried chicken” for brunch, Barb Witherite says. They also like the crab cakes topped with poached eggs, and “everybody eats off stuff,” she says.