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Why Dallas is the rising star of Texas

Numbers suggest that Dallas is the number one destination in Texas, but the reality is that travellers are more interested in the state’s hipster capital, Austin. Quentin Long goes in search of a reason to visit.

There is something a little amiss with Dallas. It has exceptional brand awareness, thanks to our obsession with finding who really shot JFK (or JR for that matter) and the everyone-has-heard-of-them profile of the Dallas Cowboys, otherwise known as America’s team. Yet this awareness has not translated into the same level of desirability for travellers.

It’s not like it’s hard to get to. Dallas Fort Worth Airport is the second largest in the US and is now Qantas’ North American hub. So we should get ready to hear a lot more of the sprawling metropolis, home to over one million Texans (six million plus when you include the greater area of Dallas, Fort Worth and Arlington).

So why does Dallas fly so far under the radar? Maybe it’s the competition, which it must be said is pretty darn good.

The general consensus among travellers is that the Lone Star State’s hero destination is Austin, and Dallas and Houston compete for second place.

Austin, three hours’ drive south-west of Dallas is the king of panhandle cool. The South by Southwest music, film and interactive festival held there in spring is not to be missed. Add Quentin Tarantino’s film festival and East Austin, the hipster haven to rival NYC’s Williamsburg, and you have the most favoured city in America’s largest mainland state.

Houston, three-and-a-half hours south of Dallas, is a big oil business centre for most but heaven for geeks thanks to NASA’s space centre.

So is Dallas worthy of a stopover or is it best seen from the rear window of an Audi A4 rental en route to somewhere else?

The general consensus among travellers is that the Lone Star State’s hero destination is Austin, and Dallas and Houston compete for second place.

Austin, three hours’ drive south-west of Dallas is the king of panhandle cool. The South by Southwest music, film and interactive festival held there in spring is not to be missed. Add Quentin Tarantino’s film festival and East Austin, the hipster haven to rival NYC’s Williamsburg, and you have the most favoured city in America’s largest mainland state.

Houston, three-and-a-half hours south of Dallas, is a big oil business centre for most but heaven for geeks thanks to NASA’s space centre.

So is Dallas worthy of a stopover or is it best seen from the rear window of an Audi A4 rental en route to somewhere else?

While it is an expansive, cars-are-mandatory metropolis of freeways, I discover many pockets of delightful ’hoods. Some are better for daytime exploration whilst others should be avoided before 8pm for fear of boredom.

In many ways Dallas has something of a Jekyll and Hyde complex.

Night – Hyde is alive in Dallas

On a warm and balmy evening, close to midnight, I walk into a cranking party at Lee Harvey’s. The bar doesn’t actually belong to any area but lives squeezed between Deep Ellum and Downtown. Parking the car in a vacant lot across the road, it feels like I am walking into an open party at the local Hells Angels compound. Bright security lights illuminate half the picnic tables set up on a dusty lawn. A six-foot high fence strung with pink light bulbs encloses the entire block.

A band gets the 150 or so patrons in shorts and shirts rocking out under the stars. The front man in Elvis get-up is belting out Prince’s Why Doves Cry. It’s unquestionably local and, even better, completely unpretentious.

Around the corner from Lee Harvey’s is Dallas’ most famous after-hours district, Deep Ellum; a boom and bust neighbourhood on the southern fringe of Downtown. The name comes from applying a deep southern drawl to its main thoroughfare; Elm becomes Ellum when you are from the south.

The jazz and blues scene in Deep Ellum in the ’30s rivalled Memphis and New Orleans. It peaked again in the ’90s as an alternative artsy live music scene. Today many of the great venues are gone and the area seems to be in the bust phase of the cycle – I certainly don’t feel as comfortable on the streets of Deep Ellum as I do in the rest of Dallas.

Adair’s on Commerce Street keeps the live tradition rocking with nightly music and cheap burgers; I choose not to add my name to the walls as thousands have done before me.

Driving through Uptown after Lee Harvey’s, the crowd is startlingly different. I spy queues of young fashionable women accompanied by preppy boyfriends. They’re drawn to the Uptown quarter around McKinney Avenue with its vibrant bar scene, places like The Trophy Room and The Idle Rich. The names tell it like it is.

Earlier in the evening I had dined in what would become my favourite Dallas neighbourhood, Bishop Arts District. It’s a village oasis 10 minutes south of Downtown Dallas centred on North Bishop Avenue between 7th and 8th streets. Independent retailers mix it with relaxed bars, pizza joints, artisan providores and Boulevardier, a classic neighbourhood French-American bistro. An extensive list of mostly American wines accompany a superb bistro menu including house-made charcutiere and a specialty oyster menu freshly shucked to order.

I skipped dessert to make room for Dude Sweet Chocolate on West Eighth Street. The chocolatier sure likes to mix it up: the Szechuan pepper chocolate and candied bacon dipped in chocolate are… interesting. I feel so guilty about over-tasting the chocolate salami samples I have to make a purchase.

North of the city, Knox Henderson is a worthy alternative to Bishop Arts for a night of gallivanting. The name comes from a single road that changes moniker once it crosses the expressway. On the western side is posh Knox Street, where high-end retailers and homewares stores blend in with restaurants.

The more relaxed Henderson, on the eastern side, is my preferred area. The bars are conventional and would be called pubs in Australia but the dining is making a big impression.

Hibiscus is billed as American fine dining and two weeks before I ate there it had been ranked 14th in the Top 100 Dallas Restaurants by D Magazine. It is all-American eating with lamb ribs in a brown sugar-sherry glaze or baked Dungeness crab dip for starters. For main, I could have had Bison flank or Alaskan halibut but instead chowed down on the Original Kansas City Prime Rib (I am in Texas, after all).

Day – Dr Jekyll likes his culture

Let’s be honest, Dallas and refined artistic endeavours are not two phrases you would expect to hear in the same sentence. Yet there are some seriously sophisticated artistic spaces on offer, and in very unlikely corners.

The most surprising has to be the Cowboys’ Stadium (officially named AT&T Stadium). I am completely disorientated by the tour of the stadium’s art collection. Shouldn’t a collection of this quality be in the halls of a sophisticated (more northern) city? I did, however, complete my experience at the other end of the cultural spectrum, tossing the pigskin on the hallowed astroturf.

In the Design District, I find a gallery specialising in indigenous Australian works. Saher Saman has just opened the Read Contemporary Gallery, having recently relocated from the very fashionable Santa Fe in New Mexico. He tells me he moved to Dallas betting that the Design District would quickly develop into a new hotspot for art.

And why Aboriginal art? “These young punks who made $50-60 million in oil are looking for meaning. They feel connected, some sort of kinship for these other successful people.”

As I review my notes that evening I’m humbled when I realise we rarely see Aboriginal people as collectively successful. It took a gallery owner in Dallas to reveal that shameful insight. The delights and insights of travel are always surprising.

My favourite artistic experience in Dallas is the Renzo Piano-designed Nasher Sculpture Garden. In the heart of the Arts District (which includes the Performing Arts Center, Opera House and the Dallas Art Museum), the open-air sculpture space is a simple and serene stroll through works by the likes of Miró, Moore, Picasso and Gauguin.

Then there’s the Dallas Arboretum, 10 minutes east of the city. Set on White Rock Lake, it is a refined gentle place perfect for an afternoon stroll.

The temperature is starting to nudge 35 degrees so I run from tree shadow to tree shadow and find Alice entertaining children in the Wonderland Garden (temporary themed gardens are exhibited throughout the year, with a permanent Children’s Adventure Garden now open). The Queen of Hearts is nowhere to be seen. But she will be out later that night in Deep Ellum, I suspect.

It sounds ridiculous but it’s not until my second day in Dallas that I even think about visiting Downtown’s Dealey Plaza. Here, a conspiracy theory peddler has set up a display with books, diagrams, DVDs and other paraphernalia, all for sale of course.

He points out the grassy knoll (it’s closer than you think) and shows me gruesome photos, purportedly of JFK’s autopsy. But more interesting is observing how others interact with the location.

There’s a competing sense of reverence, revulsion and fascination. It was never my priority to see this place. I leave glad that I spent just 10 minutes here and no more: Dealey Plaza is incongruous to the artistic city I’ve seen by day and the fun, rollicking city I’ve experienced at night.

On my last day in Dallas, as I jump into my Audi rental, I realise I haven’t seen a 10 gallon hat. Before I arrived I had wondered whether there was any truth to the Dallas cliché? Apparently not.

It’s easy to forget Dallas is a southern city at heart. Its people are impeccably polite and reserved, and the city possesses graceful airs and ways. It is a surprising city of far greater depth than its reputation suggests with a distinct personality by day and night.

 

DETAILS
• How to get there
Qantas flies to Dallas Fort Worth daily from Sydney and Brisbane. Fares start from $1903 including taxes.
• Where to stay
Rosewood Crescent Hotel in Uptown is classic, elegant and sophisticated. From $347 per night; rosewoodhotels.com
• For more information visit visitdallas.com

 

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This article appeared in issue 9

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