18 December 2009

Chop House Betting On Hungry East Dallas Crowd

Dallas News

Dallas boosters are hungry for signs that the millions being invested in downtown's long-neglected eastern end are bearing fruit.

Karen Babb is just hungry for a good meal closer to her workplace in the Comerica Building, one of the main employment centers on Main Street.Both might get their wishes. In two weeks, restaurateur Mike Hoque, known for his seafood shops, will take a stab at steak in the $3 million Dallas Chop House, opening on the Comerica Building's ground floor.

While most of this year's "development potential" chatter has focused on downtown's glitzed up Arts District, Hoque and his partners are opening where hulking relics of bygone businesses hover nearby.

Hoque said money already plowed into buildings near Comerica, with the promise of more to come, helps him focus on the future.

 "I think we're at the beginning of the upturn," said Hoque, 36, founder and owner of DRG Concepts, a Dallas restaurant company. "All I see is big developers buying buildings around me and converting them to condos. When I see people investing $300 million around me, I feel pretty secure."

DowntownDallas, a nonprofit booster group, offers a brightly colored map with downtown divided into at least eight districts. "Eastern edge" is not one of them. Rather, the phrase over time has become a shorthand way to say, "You know, that area past Neiman Marcus with those empty buildings."

John Crawford, president of DowntownDallas, conceded that the Chop House is at "an end of downtown that has not seen as much traffic."

 That began to change in 2005 when Cleveland-based developer Forest City Enterprises struck a deal with the city to convert the Mercantile Building on Main Street, known for its clock tower, into high-end apartments. The Dallas apartments opened in March 2008, following a city subsidy of about $60 million and an investment of "substantially more than $60 million" by Forest City, said Jim Truitt, vice president of the company's residential development arm in Dallas.

Since October, the Dallas City Council has approved more than $25 million in tax-increment subsidies and federal housing loans for Forest City to restore the vacant Continental Building, also on Main Street.

The revived Merc, across the street from Comerica, is one of the biggest examples of the city's effort to boost the number of downtown dwellers.

Since 2005, the city has directed more than $100 million in public money and subsidies toward reinventing the three blocks on which the Mercantile Building, the new Main Street Garden and a future University of North Texas law school sit.

The hope was that more wallet-bearing residents would lure retailers and restaurateurs.

"It's just now that the eastern end of downtown ... can justify more restaurant activity than what we've seen in recent years," Crawford said. "In the past two ... years, the Merc alone and the [adjacent] Element added 350" apartments.

Hoque has noticed.

"People are moving into downtown," he said as he showed off the Himalayan sea salt (used to dry-age beef) and the leather-clad walls in his 5,700-square-foot steakhouse.

With the Main Street Garden park coming in, also across the street, "we cannot go anywhere but forward in this area," he said.

Only paces away from the Chop House is Hoque's Dallas Fish Market, where this year's sales are running 7 percent higher than last year's.

More than a third of sales at the Dallas Fish Market, which opened in 2007, are convention-driven, he said. He thinks the ratio at the Chop House will be higher because it will attract visiting beef eaters looking for a Texas experience. They'll find selections from executive chef Kenneth Mills such as prime strip steak and crawfish Maque Choux, served beneath Italian chandeliers and cattle-themed artwork from Fort Worth's James Spurlock.

The heavy metal restaurant – metal railings, metal hostess stand, metal art work – also is expected to draw heavily from the 3,200 workers in the Comerica Building, the bank's corporate headquarters. Babb, who has worked in the building since the 1990s, can hardly wait.

"We think it's a great idea," said Babb, an administrative assistant with Andrews Kurth, one of a dozen law firms in the building. "Our attorneys will have a place to take their clients. It's convenient. ... It's a nice place to get away from the office."  Shane Baggett, senior property manager for the building, said he didn't think there had been a restaurant in the 60-story building since the early 1990s. The previous owners wanted to attract a restaurant, he said, "but couldn't get it done."

Most restaurateurs who were approached "were afraid they'd get no night business," he said. "With the Merc and UNT coming in, there's going to be so much more night traffic. It makes sense for a restaurant to be here now."

Not all the traffic streaming into the area is sought-after.

Rich Goza is general manager of the Press Box Grill, at the base of the historic Wilson building at the corner of Elm and Ervay, one block north of Main.

Recent upgrades to Elm – new streetlights, sidewalks and greenery – have improved the look, Goza said. But he said nearby stores selling alcohol and cigarettes often attract the homeless.

"We get a lot of homeless traffic up and down Ervay," he said. "We've had minor fights and issues with them trying to come in" to solicit change.

A year ago, he said, a panhandler came into the restaurant and rebuffed attempts from a manager to get him to leave.

The man "just reared back and slapped her," Goza said. "It was not a good scene."

Crawford conceded that the area faced challenges with panhandlers a "couple of years ago." Since then, Dallas police and his group's own safety patrol have beefed up their presence, he said.

A problem now, he said, would be "a very isolated incident."

For Hoque and other restaurateurs to succeed, that message will need to get out.

"My goal is to bring people downtown once again," he said. "If we do a good enough job, people will come."

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