Cafe Reviewed: Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Not too fancy, not too chintzy, the new ‘fast-casual’ dining-out movement is changing Fort Worth food.


Five years ago, executive chef Tim Love opened his upscale restaurant Lonesome Dove in the not-too-upscale environs of the Stockyards. How weird: Fancy food and boot-scooters don’t necessarily mix. It’s not that there aren’t some stone-cold country folks who have both money and an interest in high-end cuisine. It’s just that here in Fort Worth, there are certain cultural territories, and fine dining has always had its place — the near West Side for the country club crowd and downtown for the corporate execs and business travelers.
Love’s crossover was one of the first of its kind at the dawn of the new restaurant era. In the old era, there were hard lines between “fast food,” “casual,” and “upscale,” and upscale used to be an experience, reserved for special occasions. Now those lines are blurred. High-quality dining isn’t always as expensive as it once was: Consider that “fast” and “casual” restaurants — mainly chains, like Panera Bread and Le Madeleine — serve excellent fare at reasonable prices. On the local, independent end of the dining spectrum, top restaurateurs like Love are awakening to the realization that people who seek out gourmet quality don’t always want it in seven-course marathons. Nor do these folks necessarily want to dress up every time they go to an eatery not crowned with golden arches or feel as if a birthday or anniversary is the only allowable reason to pursue a sophisticated meal. “The food trend for upscale dining is that it has to be more comfortable,” Love said. “People want food that they know something about, but you have to upgrade it and make the setting more approachable. And people don’t want 10 servers waiting on their table.”
Since the “fast-casual” market is becoming more populous, new ma-and-pa’s are then faced with two choices: Either go “fast” or “upscale.” For non-chain restaurants, the middle ground of “fast-casual” is essentially a death trap.
Love got into the game just in time. Shiraz and the Green Lantern, two Cultural District restaurants that received much critical acclaim and offered fantastic food without robbing customers blind, shut their doors for good not long after opening. The closing of the nearby osteopathic hospital probably shoulders most of the blame for their demises, but those in the food biz locally think the kudzu-like growth of “fast-casual” chain restaurants also played a part.
You would think that the increase in competition in “fast-casual” would lead to some cream a-rising, a wealth of great food. It’s not — at least not yet, and not here. In most cities in the union, according to various industry insiders, new “fast-casual” ma-and-pa’s at least have buzz to get them off to a good start. Not so in Fort Worth, where everyone from oil barons to TCU hipsters are content to eat chicken-fried steak at Massey’s one evening, then dine on roast duck at St. Emilion’s the next.
“Here, [customers] take a wait-and-see approach,” said Terry Chandler, executive chef and owner of Fred’s Café. “They want to know the owner. They want to know a little bit more about [the restaurant]. And it takes a lot to change their habits.”
With more restaurants in the “fast-casual” middle ground, generating buzz is harder than ever. “Fast-casual” ma-and-pa eateries without the money to promote themselves or hang around long enough to earn Fort Worthians’ trust are in a pickle. “Is it hard to break the ice here?” Love asked. “Sure. Is Fort Worth a little behind other cities? Probably. Fort Worth dining is a tight-knit group. You do have to earn it more here, because there is less of the trendy factor.”
In some ways, the restaurant business is no different than most others. If you’re good and have the time to build a clientele, you’ll get to the place where Love’s Dove is. But Fort Worth is going to be erecting some steep hurdles for middle-range independent eateries over the next few years. With the ongoing development boom, you can expect to find a lot more Cowtown street corners occupied by places like Carrabba’s, Hoffbrau, and P.F. Chang’s over the next few years.

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