From palette to palate

Posted on 03 Aug 2012 at 8:30am

Gay designer-cum-restaurateur Ron Guest gets creative on walls and plates

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TACO KING | Ron Guest has designed spaces for other restaurateurs, but occasionally opens his own, as he did with Taco Republic. (Arnold Wayne Jones/Dallas Voice)

JOSE RALAT-MALDONADO  | Contributing Writer
ralatmaldonado@gmail.com

Food-Issue-Logo-02It’s not a long, yellow-corn tortilla road from interior designer to restaurateur. At least it wasn’t for Ron Guest.

Guest has been the eye and hand behind the insides of many iconic Dallas restaurants.

He’s the fabulously queer mind responsible for the warm wood that makes the foie gras torchon at Toulouse richer, the Carrara marble tabletops that make Taverna’s balsamic risotto with chicken rollatine sweeter; he  had put the final tile touches on Sangria Tapas y Bar (and other Lombardi Family Concepts properties where he typically plies his design skills).

Guest began his career at a residential interior design firm in 1985 before he founded his own firm, Guest Group, in 1990. His intent was to build his residential portfolio.

Then came a commission to design Toscana restaurant in 1995; Franco Bertolasi’s Mediterraneo at the Quandrangle followed in 1996. It took just two restaurant projects to realize living rooms and foyers weren’t his calling; Guest needed banquet tables and private dining rooms.

“I knew I was now doing what I absolutely loved to do. So, I transitioned from residential to hospitality and haven’t looked back,” he says.

Eventually, even matching chairs with the proper caning pattern didn’t cut it. Once inside the restaurant, it’s difficult to not look past the four tops and at the poissonnier’s station. He opened his own restaurant, Café San Miguel — which featured the style of food the Kingsville, Texas, native grew up on — in 2005.

“I tried my hand at the restaurant business because at the time, there was not an option other than Javier’s that represented true Mexican cuisine in a contemporary setting,” he says. “It felt like a natural fit. Thus, Cafe San Miguel. _IMG_4060

The bug bit me, as they say.”

Guest later sold his stake in the operation, moving on to other projects — mostly more designs. But his latest endeavor opened in January of this year: Taco Republic, a fast-casual concept offering specialty tacos, along North Central Expressway.

Another taqueria? Hardly. The gussied-up tacos served at the Richardson restaurant are more than highfalutin ingredients slapped into house-made tortillas and sold at a premium. Selections like the steak frites and “The Philly” tweak American dishes (or foreign recipes with wide popular appeal) and recast them as tacos. Guest’s take on classic doesn’t flirt with creativity to the point of being off-putting. The Thai Chihuahua’s description reads like a warning of imminent cloying disaster sparked by a basement Chinese-American restaurant’s poor attempt at diversity. What arrives, however, is a signature dish that embraces a sneaky heat and nectarous pork to create one of Dallas’ finest tacos.

Just because he’s a taco magnate, doesn’t mean he’s left the drafting board. Like his approach to design — ”I listen,” he says is a core value to his success — he realized customers in the suburbs need more than fancy tacos to nourish their Tex-Mex cravings. Guest and his Taco Republic partners then supplemented the eatery’s menu with enchiladas and margaritas; two weeks later, business increased by 30 percent.

Guest continues to work with the Lombardi clan. Most recently, Guest Group designed Bistro 31 in Highland Park Village, and the firm is designing a biergarten/grill-style concept in the Bishop Arts District for Alberto’s daughter Sarah called Oak Cliff Mercantile across from Tillman’s Roadhouse and utilize the El Padrino taco stand in front. (At the time Guest was interviewed, El Padrino had received a three-months notice to vacate the property.) He’ll also design Lombardi’s new Cafe Des Artistes, which Dallas Voice broke last week as opening in One Arts Plaza.

Guest has more culinary concepts in the planning stages but is keeping mum on them … for now. Designers, like magicians — or chefs — have their secrets. Guest will keep us guessing and coming to whatever table his talent touches, be it taco or window treatments.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition August 3, 2012.

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