Author Martha McCulloch-Williams wrote: “You will never get out of a pot or pan anything fundamentally better than what went into it. Cooking is not alchemy; there is no magic in the pot.”
Perhaps, but here are some venues where dining is about much more than food—a holistic experiential exploration into taste, touch, scents and surroundings. That can mean a $1/3 billion art district, molecular gastro mixologists who deconstruct classic cocktails, and interior designers considered artistic necromancers in their own right.
What happens when you blend cowboy boots, Nuevo Tex/Mex and a 3-acre herd of chef-owned restaurants in a Latino neighborhood redefined as the Bishop Arts District? You get a foot-stomping, mouthwatering block party or progressive stroll for up to 300 diners among some of South Dallas’ most unique ethnic restaurants.
“Bishop Arts is one of Dallas’ most vibrant hot spots,” proclaims Phillip Jones, president/CEO of the Dallas CVB. “Small antique stores and boutique shops coexist among restaurants of 12 tables max, but groups are buying out the area just to sample the savory tweaks these top young chefs are offering on classic Texas cuisine, such as Tillman Roadhouse’s spin on venison chili. Throw in a country-western or local Tejano band, and you’ll have a party you can’t find anywhere else.”
Dallas’ dining scene has long been nationally well known, says Jones. But local chefs, such as Dean Fearing—the “Father of Southwestern Cuisine”—have shifted the vision towards sustainability and the globally emerging Slow Food movement.
This has coincided with the huge new art district development and a focus on downtown greenspace—both designed for large group events combining food and art.
Four venues comprise the AT&T Performing Arts Center. The 2,200-seat Margot & Bill Winspear Opera House contains the Dallas Opera, Texas Ballet Theater and an outdoor amphitheater for 1,600. The 12-story Dee & Charles Wyly Theatre accommodates 600, and the redesigned Annette Strauss Square lawn seats 5,000.
Adjacent to AT&T, The Park is a new $100 million, 5-acre public park being built over an existing highway. Its tagline is: “Common Ground. Uncommon Beauty.”
“Imagine an amphitheater with fountains, greenery and seating for 2,500 right atop a freeway in the middle of downtown Dallas,” says Jones. “It will be one of the most unique new venues for private groups in the country when it opens in 2012.” A 3-minute walk from the Winspear, it will have a full service restaurant and catering options.
“Dallas has invested $350 million in the arts district. It’s the largest single investment [in a U.S. cultural facility] since Lincoln Center in the 1950s. A group can tent an area by the Winspear, as we did for 3,500 in February, and have the event catered by chef Fearing or another of Dallas’ premier chefs. Dallas’ investment truly showcases our great culinary and arts scene.”
No physical bar. No bartenders. But that doesn’t in any way preclude The Aviary from serving libations with all kinds of assorted creative twists and strange macerations. The “molecular gastronomic cocktail restaurant” creates drinks in altered appearances, such as an Old Fashioned served inside an egg-shaped chunk of ice. Wait staff then set their creative cocktails among a vignette of flowers, candles or stained glass that best complements that particular beverage. Think of it as El Bulli meets Anthropologie. The Aviary is available for private events; seating capacity is 90.
“The Aviary is the hottest ticket in Chicago,” says Meghan Risch, director of public relations for Chicago CTB. “If you are looking to impress your group with amazing food and entertainment, look no further than breakout chef Grant Achatz,” (with business partner Nick Kokonas).
Adjacent to The Aviary, the sister Next Restaurant is a 62-seat period-themed restaurant whose menu and decor changes quarterly. The theme for its April opening evoked the Escoffier cuisine of 1906 Paris. When you read this, it might be Sicily in 1949 or Hong Kong of 2036. Those are the rumors.
Sticking with the Belle Epoque, chef Dirk Flanigan spins classical cuisine on its plate at Henri, a turn-of-the-century European-style salon across from Millennium Park. Chocolate velvet-covered walls, sea green mohair-draped settees, and herringbone-patterned hardwood floors set the elegant tone for the 65-seat restaurant, but the cocktails created by mixologist Clint Rogers defy typecasting. French calvados replaces the American colonial spirit applejack to contemporize a traditional Jack Rose cocktail. Wine-based cocktails like the Venetian Mai Tai twists the classic into an exotic elixir of orange liqueur, aged rum and 100-proof almond-infused grappa.
“People are learning Chicago is more than pizza and hot dogs. We’ve become known for our innovative chefs, such as Top Chef Masters winner Rick Bayless, who says he wouldn’t dream of having his three River North area restaurants anywhere else,” says Risch. “Chicago’s abundance of distinctly different cuisine and cocktails rated the city its own Michelin Guide, only one of three in the U.S.”
“New York is a city of neighborhoods,” says Chris Heywood, VP of travel public relations for NYC & Company. “Our goal is to remove planners from the mindset that midtown Manhattan is New York City and look to these neighborhoods for authentic food and entertainment experiences. We know corporates are always seeking what’s trendy and enticing.”
Heywood points out Locanda Verde at The Greenwich Hotel in TriBeCa. The charming private event space with working fireplace, vintage mirrors and antique chairs offers a country backdrop for family-style dishes served by actor Robert DeNiro and chef Andrew Carmellini. Capacity is 60 seated.
Rustic warmth and the aromas of duck ham and Blue Foot chickens emanate from David Burke Kitchen at The James. Event space indoors and out each has a bar and seating for 130. We like the downstairs loft-inspired space with denim banquettes, black steel bar top and open kitchen.
At Mondrian, “Mr H is one of the hottest bars in NYC,” says Heywood. “Think 1930s Shanghai speakeasy.” The salon is designed with plush red sofas, distressed damask walls and blood red pagoda lights. For dinner, Imperial No. Nine is a 150-seat sustainable seafood concept with an immense crystal glass sculpture and hanging chandeliers inspired by Jean Cocteau’s La Belle et la Bete.