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Texas: Low Brow vs High Brow


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#1 Richard Kilgore

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Posted 11 February 2004 - 01:27 PM

Robb -- During the Round Table, you said:

we do low brow better than high brow where I live. You don't come to Texas to hear classical music, you come here to listen to the blues and Tejano music. Likewise with food--barbecue and Tex-Mex are to haute cuisine what the blues and Tejano conjunto are to classical music.


While I agree that indigenous Texas foods are great and people who visit enjoy seeking them out, don't you think you're over stating your case a bit? After all, people do indeed come to Texas for classical music (the Dallas Symphony has one of the great music halls in the world) and art (the Kimbell and the Modern in Ft. Worth; the Dallas Museum of Art, the new Nasher Sculpture Garden -- with a Mansion at Turtle Creek outpost on the grounds, as well as The Meadows Museum -- largest collection of Spanish art outside Spain, all in Dallas; the Judd Museum in West Texas; and on and on). And Houston is not exactly bereft of "high brow" offerings that people travel to see, hear and do. There is enough interesting fine dining in the major cities to draw travelers, too. So even though I may prefer to seek out barbecue, or Tex-Mex, or steaks or the wide array of new ethnic offerings here, I don't find it necessary to ignore some of the fine chefs and restaurants in Texas that are getting national recognition.

#2 Robb Walsh

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Posted 11 February 2004 - 03:40 PM

Yes Texas has great museums, yes Texas has great classical music. Van Cliburn is one of the greatest pianists of all time. He lives in Fort Worth. And his favorite restaurant is the Old South, a 24 hour pancake house.

Forget the music metaphor, try this one: You don't go to London for the pizza. When food writers visit me, they usually aren't interested in "fine dining" restaurants. They want to go to barbecue joints, hamburger shacks, oyster bars, Mexican restaurants, and other "only in Texas" places. These places ooze character.

That's not to say we don't have any fine dining. I think Houston has one of the best innovative Indian restaurants in the country in Indika, I think Hugo's will give Rick Bayless's places in Chicago a run for their money in the Mexican department some day.

But we also have a lot of fine dining places in Texas that feel like theme restaurants. As if upscale dining were a concept so foreign to Texas that you have to make the restaurant look like its somewhere else. Take the interior of the Mansion on Turtle Creek in Dallas. English men's club? Connecticut country club? Do they still have fox hunting scenes on the walls? Or was it ducks? What's up with that?

I understand that Dallas prides itself on being cosmopolitan. And if you buy into all that, it's okay by me.

But as I explained in the Houston Fine Dining thread, I like Texas because it excels at being provincial. I would rather live in provincial Edinburgh than cosmopolitan London, I'll take sleepy Lyon over go-go Paris, and roughhewn Texas suits me better than slick "Where to Eat Now" New York.

#3 Richard Kilgore

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Posted 11 February 2004 - 05:01 PM

I'll be happy to forget the music metaphor. And since you are talking about what food writers are interested in when they visit you, well that makes perfect sense. What would be more natural.

And as I said above, my interests are similar to yours, but there are still some points you make that I am puzzled about. For example,

But we also have a lot of fine dining places in Texas that feel like theme restaurants. As if upscale dining were a concept so foreign to Texas that you have to make the restaurant look like its somewhere else. Take the interior of the Mansion on Turtle Creek in Dallas. English men's club? Connecticut country club? Do they still have fox hunting scenes on the walls? Or was it ducks? What's up with that?


So what's your idea of what The Mansion at Turtle Creek (or any other "fine dining" restaurants), should look like? After all, it's in a mansion. And aren't "fine dining" places everywhere designed to look like whatever they look like. Even Conneticut Country Clubs were designed to look like what they look like on purpose. And a few people moved to Texas from other places like Conneticut, so maybe such a design looks familiar. People may like one "theme" (design) better than another, but....

#4 Robb Walsh

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Posted 11 February 2004 - 05:40 PM

There is some incredible restaurant architecture in Texas. Check out Artista, the new restaurant in the Hobby Center in downtown Houston. Three story glass windows on the Houston skyline, towering bar, white oversize modern furniture, very bold, very unique--and great Nuevo Latino food. La Rev in San Antonio has a simple elegant interior, and serves probably the best French food in Texas.

I think its a matter of being confident.

#5 Richard Kilgore

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Posted 11 February 2004 - 05:53 PM

Perhaps, but sounds more like a matter of changing fashions and styles. And the architectural setting you have to work within. Modern, bold, three story windows...it's still a "theme", just a "modern" one. It'll be seen as dated and without much indigenous character some day, too.

#6 fifi

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Posted 11 February 2004 - 05:58 PM

It was read and reported a few days ago that the ever-struggling Fashion Square Center (Is that what it is called now?) has been sold and high rises are coming. Maybe now Cafe Annie can get a venue worthy of its reputation. I always felt like it was just a step up from a joint in a strip center. Same with Tony's. But then I wasn't very impressed with Tony's on any count.
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#7 fifi

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Posted 11 February 2004 - 07:27 PM

Just curious... What do you think of Rio Ranch? At least it is a rif on the only indigenous Texas architecture that I can think of. Check out the Circle View to see the interior. Their menu tries pretty hard to be Texan. Just don't order the Chicken Fried Steak! :blink:
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#8 ExtraMSG

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Posted 12 February 2004 - 01:27 AM

I don't know Houston, but in Dallas the fine dining problem seems to be that places don't maintain well. (It's obviously a problem everywhere, but it seems pronounced in Dallas.) You have people like Pyles who can't stay put or just focus. Rathburn, the same. Seems to be the norm. Maybe it's the culture where million dollar homes are demolished to build 10 million dollar homes and everything is a potential "concept" to be franchised. The Mansion is maybe a pleasant exception (though I agree on the decor), although there are some promising new places, like Lola's Tasting Room.

Even if Dallas and Houston aren't fine dining destinations like NY, Chicago, and San Francisco, are they any worse really than the second tier?

And honestly, I think there is haute cuisine in Dallas that's as good as that in the destination cities. It's just not known as such. I imagine it's the same in Houston.

I think there is a question when someone is visiting Texas as to whether they can find anything in haute cuisine that they can't get at home. But there are always regional differences, especially with the rise of local/seasonal emphases. Places like The Mansion would seem to be better representatives of this than most places you would find in SF.

In fact, why would anyone travel for haute cuisine? It's generally more similar across the nation than the low-brow foods. Dim sum in SF is going to be on average much better than that in Miami, which will have much better Cuban on average, than that in SF. Should eating out while travelling only be for low-brow?

#9 John Whiting

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Posted 12 February 2004 - 01:57 AM

In fact, why would anyone travel for haute cuisine?  It's generally more similar across the nation than the low-brow foods. 

I hope Russ won't mind if I quote a shrewd remark he once made in a Chowhound thread. I've carefully preserved it:

[T]he thing that troubles me about fusion cooking (whatever you take that to mean) is the growing uniformity I find in restaurants around the world. It gets to the point that I sometimes can't tell which city I'm in - Paris, London, Alba, LA? Roughly the same ingredients prepared in roughly the same way.


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#10 Robb Walsh

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Posted 12 February 2004 - 04:49 AM

I love Rio Ranch, which attempts to recreate an eccentric Hill Country limestone cottage in a Houston shopping center. And I like the chicken-fried steak there too!

I have lived in SF, Houston and Ft. Worth and spent a lot of time in Chicago. When it comes to restaurants, San Francisco and Chicago are in my opinion, just as provincial as Houston or Dallas. But I mean that in a good way. They shine as regional capitals. The French Laundry and Charlie Trotter's are as good or better than anything in New York. But that's just one or two restaurants. Think of all the places that open in New York in a single year! (And I hear the French Laundry's New York restaurant will open this year.) New York and Paris are international cities where the competition among high dollar restaurants is on another level. Maybe LA and London are up there too, I don't know.

#11 John Whiting

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Posted 12 February 2004 - 06:25 AM

New York and Paris are international cities where the competition among high dollar restaurants is on another level. Maybe LA and London are up there too, I don't know.


We're hardly talking food any more, and certainly not regional food. As in Russ's quoted observation above, there's a tendancy for top level restaurants to become as geographically ambiguous as airports. Furthermore, when a particular cuisine is featured, it's likely to be from half-a-world away. Even when local food is nominally featured, it's likely to have been sexed-up to the point where it's more expressive of the chef's libido than of the locale.

London is full of expensive nosheries, but the only one that's really serious about traditional English food is St John, which is modestly upper-middle in price and a long way from luxurious in decor.
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