In the first issue of Indulge, we wrote about two Northeast Tarrant artisan bread bakeries, one of which is still open. We wrote about two Fort Worth restaurants that serve ice wine, one of which still exists. From the cupcake craze and craft cocktails to high-dollar burgers and bacon mania, the North Texas culinary scene has, for the past decade, tantalized diners with a full plate of food trends, restaurant openings and closings, and kitchens that aren’t afraid to get crazy with kale. Fort Worth saw former industrial districts morph into hip dining destinations, breweries and food trucks open in droves, a food and wine festival take root and local chefs share their talents on national television. And, while the city solidified its Cowtown moniker with the opening of more steakhouses and burger joints than we could count, vegetarian and farm-to-table cuisine took their place at the table, too. We’ve covered every delicious development. Here’s our menu of Tarrant’s top 10 culinary story lines we’ve shared with readers through the years.
Craft Beer and Cocktails
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Fritz Rahr says Fort Worth was still very much a “Miller-Coors environment” in 2004 when he opened Rahr & Sons Brewing Company. Now there are at least a half-dozen craft breweries in Tarrant County, including Martin House Brewing Company, Grapevine Craft Brewery and Shannon Brewing Co. in Keller, with more on the way. But Rahr says it wasn’t until around 2009 that local beer drinkers began getting behind the movement, and restaurants and bars started adding more taps. Following the lead of cocktail guru Brad Hensarling, who opened The Usual in 2009 and focused on authentic Prohibition-era libations, bartenders became “mixologists” and began phasing out artificially colored and flavored concoctions and started focusing on high-quality ingredients, like fresh fruit juices, house-made bitters and small-batch liquors.
A movement that’s now mainstream, farm-to-table dining arrived in Fort Worth when Jon Bonnell opened his namesake restaurant in 2001 and sourced as much as possible from local farmers and ranchers, prominently highlighting their products in his dishes years before it was trendy to do so. Café Modern, Ellerbe Fine Foods, Clay Pigeon Food + Drink, Righteous Foods, The Classic in Roanoke and FnG Eats in Keller are just a few of the popular restaurants that have since followed suit. Now it’s not uncommon to see menus completely driven by what’s in season, with local farms, culinary artisans and food purveyors listed right on the menu.
‘District’ Destination Dining
Downtown Fort Worth, West Seventh Street and West Magnolia Avenue have morphed into popular dining destinations over the past decade thanks to mixed-used developments where patrons can live, work and play. Each continues to evolve: the West 7th development has experienced the most rapid development along with the most restaurant closings, including, most recently, Tillman’s Roadhouse, AF+B and Hacienda San Miguel. But new eateries, like FW Market + Table, Social House and Mash’d, quickly fill vacant spaces. West Magnolia Avenue has become “restaurant row,” and upscale bars like Kent & Co. Wines, Proper and Grand Cru Wine Bar & Boutique add to the street’s sophisticated yet laid-back vibe. For its part, Sundance Square now actually has a square, thanks to the fountain-filled plaza that has gained national attention and draws hundreds weekly to splash, stroll and dive into nibbles and cocktails at surrounding Taco Diner, Bird Cafe and Del Frisco’s Grille. We’d be remiss not to add Roanoke and Old Town Burleson to the list, both of which have developed into dining destinations of their own with several locally owned eateries that are worth the drive.
Ten years ago, vegetarian options were few and far between in Cowtown, with the exception of cheese enchiladas and anything from Spiral Diner, a south Fort Worth vegan restaurant that was ahead of its time in more ways than one. Now vegetarians and vegans alike have more choices than ever, thanks to chefs who love the versatility of vegetables, grains, fruit and legumes and thrive on showcasing them in new ways. At Woodshed Smokehouse, Tim Love’s barbecue eatery that features an “animal of the day,” vegetarians will find smoked cauliflower, grilled garden vegetables with penne pasta, arugula salad with smoked pecans, and more. Most burger restaurants have a vegetarian patty offering, be it quinoa, veggie or black bean, and vegetarian wine dinners are now en vogue, as proved by sold-out events hosted at Grace.
Chefs on TV
In 2005, Tim Love was about the only chef who could be legitimately called a “celebrity” beyond Tarrant County. Not anymore. Thanks to the rise of reality TV, kitchens are full of local chefs and bakers who’ve gained national attention for appearances on the small screen. Notable local talent includes Catherine Ruehle, formerly of Sublime Bakery, who iced the cake competition on Food Network Challenge; Lina Biancamano of Mod Bakehouse, who competed on Bravo’s Top Chef: Just Desserts; Kalen Jane Morgenstern of FW Market + Table, a former contestant on Fox’s Hell’s Kitchen; and Billy Woodrich of Billy’s Oak Acres BBQ, who appeared on Spike TV’s Hungry Investors. Even chef Casey Thompson, who shot to fame on Bravo’s Top Chef, stopped in Fort Worth to open the much-ballyhooed Brownstone in West 7th before leaving for Napa Valley shortly thereafter.
Downtown Beef Block
Main Street means steaks in downtown Fort Worth, where the emergence of a “beef block” was a meaty development. Anchored by Del Frisco’s Double Eagle Steakhouse on one end of South Main Street, both Ruth’s Chris Steak House, a chain with New Orleans roots, and Grace, owned by former Del Frisco’s general manager Adam Jones, opened in 2008. The Capital Grille, a luxe Florida-based chain, arrived in 2012. Just up the street a bit is Mercury Chop House. These prime steakhouses battle for business from carnivorous customers, offering elegant ambiance, impressive wine lists and sizzling cuts of premium beef served on hot plates.
As if Tarrant County’s rapidly evolving restaurant scene wasn’t enough, there’s an underground culinary landscape to follow, too. Impromptu pop-up dinners in which chefs will prep multi-course meals off-site in various event spaces, often partnering with other local chefs, bartenders or breweries, occur with a week’s notice or less. Social media-savvy foodies are usually the first on the reservation list. Dinner Labs, a concept that originated in New Orleans whereby up-and-coming chefs set up one-night meals in secret locations for a members-only list, are also gaining popularity; Grace chef Blaine Staniford has been among the chefs to participate recently. The Fort Worth Food + Wine Festival hosts a chef collaboration dinner every month at Central Market Fort Worth in which two festival chefs serve alternating courses using a common theme. Such “pop-up” experiences are an enticing way to taste a chef’s food without committing to a night at a restaurant.
Diner Fare Gone Gourmet
Once upon a time, burgers and tacos were just that; the former made complete with lettuce, tomatoes and pickle chips and the latter simply served with salsa. And the cost for each never came close to double digits. Today, burgers and tacos have become a blank slate for culinary masterpieces limited only to the scope of the creator’s imagination, with higher price points to match. Rodeo Goat opened in 2012 and kick-started the gourmet burger trend by using herbed goat cheese, blackberry compote and olive tapenade. Swiss Pastry Shop — once known best for its “crunchy Black Forest cake” — now dabbles in pork belly confit, specialty hot dogs and prized Akaushi beef for its rotating burger menu. At the now-closed Tillman’s Roadhouse, a foie gras-topped burger ran for about $15. Tacos began to evolve from basic beef, chicken or pork when Fuzzy’s Taco Shop opened in 2001 and served fish tacos. But newer joints like Torchy’s Tacos, Velvet Taco and Revolver Taco Lounge have substantially upped the taco game.
Mobile kitchens became mainstream when Fort Worth food truck pioneers Taco Heads and Salsa Limon parked their brightly painted restaurants-on-wheels in busy districts near West Seventh Street and TCU. Fueled by reality TV shows like Food Network’s The Great Food Truck Race, the concept seemed to peak around 2012 when food truck parks began popping up all over Tarrant County. But many popular trucks, including The Wiener Man, Drifting Bistro, The Bacon Wagon, Good Karma Kitchen and Red Jett Sweets, all closed shortly thereafter, mainly due to the strenuous schedules required to make a profit. Clearfork Food Park and Fort Worth Food Park remain open with limited hours but draw mostly weekend crowds, and many food trucks still pop up at local festivals or can be booked for private parties.
Fort Worth Food + Wine Festival
Reata general manager Russell Kirkpatrick recognized the presence of Tarrant-area chefs and restaurateurs at food festivals around Texas and wondered why Fort Worth didn’t have a signature culinary event of its own. The inaugural Fort Worth Food + Wine Festival took place in 2014 and drew thousands over four days, proving that Fort Worth was hungry for homegrown flavor. Year two resulted in three sold-out events, including the late-night Desserts After Dark, the brunch-themed Rise + Dine tasting, and the outdoor Burgers, Brews & Blues. The festival, which raises funds for culinary scholarships, will be back for a third year next spring, and we’re told to expect a few exciting changes, including new venues and more outdoor activities.