April 1, 2014

Refining the palate: Upscale dining making a move in Arlington

Arlington leaders hope R Bar & Grill is another sign that the city’s tastes are improving.

Already, the R Bar & Grill is on the map, despite opening just one week ago.

National sports broadcaster ESPN has made reservations at the restaurant before and after the NCAA Final Four games and several college basketball fan clubs are a likely bet to watch from the bar’s TV screens.

It’s the kind of publicity the restaurant — located inside the Hilton Arlington and just minutes from AT&T Stadium — hoped to score in its first weeks.

And city leaders hope it portends a shift for the Arlington restaurant scene to one that will cater to patrons seeking higher-end dining options when attending events at AT&T Stadium or Globe Life Park where the Rangers play.

R Bar & Grill is not an upscale steakhouse like Del Frisco’s in Fort Worth or Cacharel’s in Arlington, where patrons are indulged with crisp, white tablecloths and an extensive wine list.

Instead, it is a chef-inspired destination — more like Olenjack’s Grille — with an innovative menu and entertaining collection of cocktails.

Arlington’s convention and visitors bureau, Experience Arlington, has long wanted to grow the city’s selection of unique restaurants, said Ronnie Price, president and CEO at Experience Arlington.

“We will always support good restaurant offerings, especially chef-run restaurants expanding the dining options,” he said.

Many visitors, though, like the comfort and dependability of a chain, said Cynthia Chippindale, owner/chef of Potager Café, an independent eatery that specializes in local, organically grown food.

Independent restaurants face hurdles that chains don’t because they generally lack the financial strength and national following, she said.

“People like things that they are comfortable with — that they are familiar with,” she said.

“Potager, my restaurant, has been around for five years so it’s got a little bit of an established reputation but it’s a challenge [for restaurateurs] to get to three years, which they say, if you don’t make it three years, you are underwater.”

Potager’s doesn’t count on extra business from out-of-towners in the city’s entertainment district, even though the eatery is less than a mile away from AT&T Stadium. That’s because street closures on game days can make it difficult to reach the restaurant. Instead, Chippindale said she relies on local residents to pass along word-of-mouth recommendations.

Building a brand

James Shandor, Hilton Arlington’s general manager, also hopes locals will learn to love and recommend R Bar. Shandor searched for R Bar’s culinary leader by talking with the region’s celebrity chefs, including Stephan Pyles in Dallas and Tim Love in Fort Worth. He also reached out to chef Joanne Bondy at the Gaylord Texan Resort & Convention Center in Grapevine.

Through those conversations, he learned about Michael West, who at the time was working as the sous chef at Old Hickory Steakhouse, the signature restaurant at the Gaylord. Prior to that, West spent about seven years at Ciudad, specializing in upscale contemporary Mexico City cuisine.

West is a native of Norwich, England, and moved to Arlington in 1987. He’s a graduate of Martin High School.

“He’s a local son, that’s why I liked him,” Shandor said. West still carries a slight accent from the mother country and lives in Dallas now. But he still feels at home in Arlington.

“He knows the town,” Shandor said. “He’s from here. One thing about people from Texas is they love their sons and daughters from Texas. What a great story for Arlington to have a chef who grew up right down the road from the hotel.”

Even the décor and the menu have some native influences. The grill’s floors, for example, are reclaimed wood from Texas barns, and the menu features ingredients from regional purveyors such as Dallas Mozzarella Co.; Jimmy’s Food Store; Gloria’s Tortillas and Veldhuizen Farms.

R Bar’s menu includes innovative offerings such as the Oktober pizza made with bratwurst, sauerkraut, red potato, sharp cheddar and mustard sauce, several “food truck” offerings such as street tacos made with chicken fried chicken and a half dozen chef-inspired dishes that include steaks, Texas redfish and fried Gulf oyster nachos.

It’s food prices range from $16 for a wood-fired pizza to $26 for one of the chef-inspired items on the menu.

Shandor hopes the R Bar will attract hotel guests, locals and sports enthusiasts. The restaurant can be accessed from the hotel’s lobby, but can also be entered from the hotel parking lot. The Hilton had a full-service restaurant called Conrad’s but it couldn’t be accessed from the lobby.

Food’s evolution

Chef Larry Matson, culinary director at the Art Institute of Dallas, said that even though the Interstate 30 corridor is a good demographic for chain restaurants, it doesn’t mean that independents need be shut out.

But Matson said smaller, independents, with about 60 seats, would be a more realistic goal for Arlington as it seeks more culinary variety. R Bar seats about 190, but it has an advantage over other nonchain restaurants with a ready customer base from the Hilton and the backing of the hotel’s owner, Interstate Hotels & Resorts.

Tastes in food are evolving, Matson said, and that means even stadium and ballpark fare is getting a re-do. Legends, which does the food at the stadium, is offering more fresh, healthy and made-from-scratch options than the typical stadium food, Matson said.

West said he’s hopeful Arlington residents will support the new restaurant.

“I’m not sure whether we are breaking the mold culinarily, but maybe we are a little bit for Arlington,” West said. “Maybe this will be something different for Arlington and that will be part of the attraction.”

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