September 15, 2010

Comfort food for the soul…

Posted in Between Us column, Business, Diversity at 6:30 pm by dinaheng

Go to Hattie’s on Sunday morning, and you’d never know there was a recession in town.

Hattie’s, an American bistro that specializes in Southern low country cuisine, is more than a sweet spot on Dallas’s culinary landscape. It’s a place where people from all different backgrounds are made to feel like family, due in no small measure to the owners, who believe that true Southern hospitality excludes no one.

“We’ve always tried to make everyone feel welcome, and make them want to come back,” says John Adams, who owns the restaurant with his wife Julie, and partners Anthony Alvarez and Hal Dantzler. “Dallas is known for glass skyscrapers, not small storefronts. We just loved the tall windows in this brick building, and were gratified to see everyone come.”

The brick building on the corner of Bishop Avenue and W. 7th Street that caught the owners’ eyes eight years ago was formerly a furniture store that had fallen on hard times.

Many of the stores in Oak Cliff, the heart of the Bishop Arts District and one of the older parts of the city, were boarded up.

The owners were going to take a smaller storefront on the block, but when the corner location opened up, they took it.

“It was a significant jump up, but we thought, if we’re going to do this, why not take a bigger chance?” Adams says. “In for a penny, in for a pound.”

The investment in the location — which meant gutting the place from the floors out, putting in a new kitchen and bathrooms — was the start of a dream that the three men had talked about for years.

The owners had met in Atlanta in 1993, where Adams was working at an advertising agency and had hired Dantzler as a producer. Dantzler and his partner Alvarez would invite Adams over for dinner, and through their common love of food, would talk about what they would do if they had a restaurant. Since Adams was from Virginia, Alvarez from Florida and Dantzler from South Carolina, all had a love for Southern food.

A few years later, Adams moved to Dallas, again hired Dantzler (who’s now an advertising executive himself), and the trio decided to make their dream a reality.

Alvarez, who had managed the American Airlines Admiral Club/Lounges and the Neiman-Marcus flagship restaurant, The Zodiac, in Dallas, knew that growing a restaurant clientele in a transitional neighborhood would mean reaching out to all in non-traditional ways.

“We never advertised, but we gave food donations and did a lot of charity work,” Alvarez says. “We do tons of benefits for the Texas Food Bank, the homeless, churches and schools. We get tons of requests, from donations to silent auctions. It’s all races and ages. We have an African-American crowd, Jewish, Caucasian. We like the diversity of people.

“There seem to be neighborhoods that are segregated elsewhere, but it’s a very mixed group of people here. In Oak Cliff, we have a melting pot of people, and the diversity makes it a great place.”

Dantzler took charge of the decor, giving the restaurant a chic, contemporary style that pays homage to the building’s tin ceiling and brick wall heritage. Working with the chefs, Dantzler and Adams contributed to the design of the menu, which is an eclectic blend of offerings at a moderate price point.

Along with the usual sandwiches and salads, there’s Low Country Shrimp and Grits, Jalapeno-Stuffed Quail, Homestyle Bacon-Wrapped Meatloaf, and the Asiago Pasta with Tomato, Bacon and Basil. Among the must-trys are the Pecan-Crusted Catfish, Buttermilk Fried Chicken, and on Sundays, the Chicken & Waffle with Chili Maple Syrup is to die for.

“Southern food varies greatly from place to place,” Adams says. “We think of low country as being places with the salt water influence, the bayous, the south coastal region. It’s food indigenous to the coastal Carolinas, Virginia, Georgia. Typically, people think of grits, rice, okra and peppers. We like to think of Hattie’s as being upscale, country food. It’s got a lot of fresh, local ingredients.”

If you listen to the conversations in the dining room, it’s clear that folks are enjoying themselves. Alvarez says people may be sticking closer to home because of the economy, but a good meal out on the town is still an affordable pleasure.

And at Hattie’s (named after Dantzler’s mother and grandmother), what’s on the menu is clearly designed to be comfort food for the soul.


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