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 place that knows your name (and phone number)
Scott Bodell had gone out to pick up pizzas from Tony’s, a once-a-week (or more) ritual for the Bodell family. In the five minutes between his leaving the restaurant and arriving home, Sylvia Bodell received a phone call.
It was Tony’s.
“Before I heard the garage door open, they were calling me saying, ‘We’ve got your husband’s credit card.’ ”
She was thankful, but not surprised. This is the kind of over-the-top customer service the Bodells have come to expect from the family-owned Italian restaurant at Northwest Highway and Ferndale.
The Bodells started eating at Tony’s when their 21-year-old son Cameron and 17-year-old son Carter were 8 and 4, “when you could still walk in and sit down at a table,” Sylvia Bodell says, adding that Tony’s is now so popular that it is perpetually packed with a line out the door.
They loved that it was BYOB and that the waiters handed their sons dough to play with while they waited for food. Sylvia remembers one instance when they had to wait longer than usual for their food, and the boys were “starving and complaining.” When it was time to pay, Tony’s wouldn’t let them.
“They told us, ‘We’re not charging you for this. You had to wait too long.’ And the next time we came in to have dinner again, they wouldn’t let us pay,” she says. “We’ve been loyal customers ever since.”
So loyal, in fact, that Scott has forgotten his wallet a couple of times when picking up food, and was told, “No problem, Scott, we’ll get ya next time.”
“They know us, and there’s a comfort that they know us. If there were a neighborhood ‘Cheers’ restaurant, they would be it. They have your name and phone numbers,” Sylvia says. “There’s a small-town atmosphere about that. It’s a nice perk to have when you live in a big city.”
The family hasn’t eaten a sit-down dinner at Tony’s in years. The boys grew up, and “our schedule got crazier,” Sylvia says. But it was the first restaurant she added to her cell phone years ago, and though “our family eats out a lot and frequents many restaurants,” she says, “once a week, we make it a point to order Tony’s.”
And she makes a special trip when Cameron, a Texas A&M junior, comes home.
“He has to have his Tony’s fix,” Sylvia says.
Soon enough, she’ll be making such trips for Carter, currently a LHHS junior.
“Now that they’re older, [Scott and I] will probably have time to go back and sit down,” Sylvia says.
Tony’s Pizza and Pasta
10233 E. Northwest Hwy
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Sylvia’s favorite for “at least 12 years” is the veggie pizza. The trick, she says, is adding eggplant and spinach. “Years ago, I think Tony asked me, ‘Do you want eggplant and spinach?’ ” She didn’t even know to ask, but after that, she was hooked. “I have found that people who have eaten at Tony’s for years have never tried it, and love it!” Another Bodell family favorite is the “modo mio” pasta with pink sauce. What’s in the pink sauce? “You’d have to ask Mama,” Sylvia says. “It’s her recipe.”
The loyal customer
When Jim Deer walks in the door of Highlands Café, the staff begins guessing what he’s planning to order.
“The cook sees me in the back of the line, and I’ll mouth which choice I’m going to want, so he goes ahead and gets it started,” Deer says.
That’s the perk of being a regular, and Deer and his wife, Rachael, are definitely that, at least half of the time.
About six months of the year, the Deers reside in Crested Butte, Colo. Deer is an avid road and mountain biker, and “the summertime exertion on my bike in Dallas is not a particularly good idea,” he says.
The months they do spend at home in Merriman Park, the Deers dine at Highlands Café four to five times a week, he says. This practice started about six months after the restaurant opened in 2004.
“We don’t cook much anymore, and I got tired of cleaning up my wife’s messes when she cooks,” Deer jokes. A neighbor told his wife about the place. “I really liked the neighborhood restaurant concept,” he says. “It’s not real trendy, and I see people I know.”
They were pleased with the food — “good, healthy, convenient and quick,” Deer says — and after years of frequenting the place, they like being on a first-name basis with the staff as well as the managing partners, Lake Highlands residents Anita Siegers and Kathy Stewart, who were among the 20 financial backers who opened the restaurant believing our neighborhood needed a casual family dining spot.
“I like to be a loyal customer. It’s sort of a personal philosophy,” Deer says. “I appreciate the fact they took the risk to put a neighborhood restaurant in. I don’t know if Anita or Kathy make any money, but they put a lot of time in.”
Deer also appreciates that the restaurant solicits feedback — and listens.
“I came back from Colorado and the soups tasted funny, and the chef told me, ‘Yeah, they changed the recipes,’ ” Deer says. “I told him I didn’t like them, and it wasn’t long before they changed them.”
9661 Audelia #105
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Because Rachael Deer doesn’t eat meat, and Jim Deer says he “needs to watch [his] waistline,” they stick to the healthier fare at Highlands Café. “I’m sort of a soup guy, and I also get the chicken Caesar wrap or quesadilla,” Jim Deer says. Rachael Deer sticks to the veggie burgers. “They’re just as good here, if not better than most places,” he says.
The home away from home
Eleanor and John Birch originally are from Canada, but moved to Lake Highlands in 1984.
“We didn’t have parents in the city where, when it’s been a long day, we say, ‘Let’s go to Mom and Dad’s for dinner,’ ” Eleanor says.
Instead, for the last 24 years, they have found themselves saying, “It’s been a long day. Let’s go to Momo’s.”
The tradition began in 1989 after the family went to northern Italy for six weeks while John, an orthopedic surgeon at Texas Scottish Rite Hospital, studied a new technology. The couple brought along their children, 2-year-old Craig and 4-year-old Cailin, and being in a hotel for the first three weeks, they ate out quite a bit.
“All of a sudden we realized that, yes, we could take our children to restaurants,” Eleanor says.
They had noticed Momo Italian Kitchen when they moved to Lake Highlands, but thought, “We have small kids; we’ll go later,” she says. “When we got home from Italy, we thought, ‘We’ll go now.’ ”
It became a Sunday-evening tradition. The restaurant was quiet, with good food (“They’re fastidious in their preparation,” Eleanor says). Plus, Momo’s has always been family-oriented, she says, and “let the kids practice their restaurant manners in a non-threatening area.”
Cailin will turn 28 this summer, and Craig just turned 26. They both left home to pursue education and careers, but “when the kids come back, the first night we always go to Momo’s,” Eleanor says. “It’s been a big part of our life.”
Craig is preparing to move back to Dallas for an orthopedic residency. “He was saying, ‘I can get back to the Momo’s routine!’ ” Eleanor says.
“It’s kind of like home,” she says.
Momo Italian Kitchen
8989 Forest #130
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The Birches don’t order the same dish every Sunday night. “We shake it up,” Eleanor says. Over the years, they’ve tried everything on the menu. For someone who likes white sauce, she suggests the capelli d’angelo with asparagus; anyone partial to red sauce should try the shells with modo mio sauce.
The ladies who lunch
It’s easy to track down Paula Davis. Just head to Picasso’s for lunch on Tuesday or Wednesday.
Her tradition started 14 years ago with a group of 10-15 Lake Highlands moms. All of them had children in the ninth grade who were in the class of ’03, the year Davis’ daughter Meredith graduated. They attended a weekly Bible study at North Dallas Community Bible Fellowship, and began eating lunch together right afterward.
“It was easier to go to the same place,” Davis says. And if anyone missed the Bible study, “you knew we’d be there by 11:15.”
That was back when Picasso’s was on Skillman just north of LBJ. Most of the business was carry-out pizzas, but customers could also eat in and pay at the counter.
To this day, 20 or so women attend the Wednesday lunches on occasion, and “four or five of us are there every week,” Davis says. Some of the attendees’ children wound up marrying each other.
Both Davis and another Wednesday luncher attend the Tuesday lunches, too. That’s a group for class of ’07 moms, the year Davis’ son Oz graduated.
When their kids were growing up, after a football game the families would head to Picasso’s, which sometimes even stayed open late. Davis remembers one night when about 100 people packed into the former spot at Skillman and LBJ.
Owner Jennifer Albert was their waitress in the early days, and Davis is still close to Albert and her husband, Andrew.
“Jennifer and Andrew are incredible community members,” she says. “I have never asked them to support something in the neighborhood that they said no to.”
These days the restaurant is at Skillman and Walnut Hill, and their waitress is Sylvia, who has Davis’ drink on the table before she walks in.
“Because we go twice a week, we have the same waitress, we sit at the same table, I sit in the same chair, and for months on end, I eat the same food,” Davis says.
Right now, she’s on a chicken tender salad kick.
“Sometimes I don’t even look at Sylvia, and she’ll go, ‘OK, you’re having the chicken tender salad today,’ ” Davis says. “She knows which ladies like lemon, which ones like Sweet’N Low, and which ones like apricot tea.”
Not only that, but their table is kept open until the women arrive each week, and if they feel too hot or too cold, or think the music is too loud or too soft, or want the TV channel changed, the staff quickly accommodates them.
“We are treated like queens because we’re regulars there,” Davis laughs.
Davis also takes advantage of Picasso’s takeout and home delivery, and says her record is dining there five times in one week. She also has eaten there twice in one day, “but never three times,” she says.
She could win a contest for most loyal Picasso’s customer, especially if measured in Yelp check-ins.
“My daughter works for Yelp,” Davis says, “and over three years I have 150 check-ins at Picasso’s — and sometimes I even forget to check in!”
7215 Skillman #300
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Davis typically sticks to the salads at Picasso’s. “Every salad I’ve ever had was absolutely delicious,” she says. When she orders home delivery, it’s usually a pizza, most often the chicken Florentine. “And that was one I thought, ‘Chicken and spinach and tomatoes? That’s crazy.’ But it’s my favorite.”