We pick the new restaurants that helped define 2012’s culinary scene


NOT FAR FROM THE TREE | The inventive dishes at Oak made it one of the best new places to eat in Dallas in 2012. (Arnold Wayne Jones/Dallas Voice)

ARNOLD WAYNE JONES  | Life+Style Editor

Restaurants change; the best restaurants want to, and you want them to. Consistency is a virtue, but so are innovation and seasonality. Diners want them to hire better chefs, better waitstaff, better managers. You want the décor to evolve. So a restaurant you like at one point in the year — perhaps even in one month of it — may be very different later. It’s just the way of the world works.

Sometimes that change is significant: Both Campo and Monica’s Nueva Cocina would have likely made my list, but aren’t around anymore. Failing within a year is always a sad thing in the restaurant biz.

That is why I steer clear of naming my “top 10 new restaurants” of the year — what I liked in February might have gone downhill by December. And so, I prefer to offer my “top 10 tables” — the experiences that I remember most from the year of restaurant dining. They showed excellence with consistency of style.

In one instance, one restaurant that opened on Dec. 30, 2011, remained near the top of the list all year. Others got off to late starts.

I typically try to draw a line in the fall of what I consider “new,” but so many good restaurants opened up near the end of 2012 that I had to fudge a bit.

Some late openers may be on next year’s list — assuming they are still around. Here then my top 10 tables of 2012.

1. Stampede 66. Stephan Pyles’ first new concept in two years may be one of his best ever, with engaging décor, an accessible price point and a style that recalls his legendary Star Canyon, without mimicking any of the menu.

2. Oak. An elegant look in the Design District seemed a no-brainer, but Oak did more than impress our eyes — it thrilled my palate from Day 1, with exquisitely conceived dishes and a menu unlike anything offered in Dallas today. Invention won the day.

3. Spoon. Top Chef evictee John Tesar has nothing to complain about: His effort at high-end seafood in Preston Center is a huge success, with clever flavor profiles. Even those who don’t think they like fish will be fooled into loving it. (Look for a full review later this month in Dallas Voice.)

4. Mr. Mesero. Don’t be fooled by its small size, restaurant row-ish location or that its predecessor was a tacky breastaurant. The founder of M Group struck out on his own and hit the sweet spot with flavorful takes on familiar Tex-Mex dishes and a margarita to die for.

5. Seasons 52. Alas, a chain; alack, one of the best! With a brilliant concept (nothing on the menu is over 600 calories, including the luscious mini-desserts), this Florida-based concept moved to Plano two years ago but finally made it to Dallas proper in 2012, giving healthy eating a good name for once.

6. FT33. If you do nothing more than stare longingly at the dishes chef Matt McCallister whips up, you’ll be impressed by this chef-driven restaurant in the Design District. Although not every item soars, the promise of what is to come will keep us interested.

7. Sissy’s. Southern cooking got its most forceful exponent, thanks to restaurateur Lisa Garza (she of Suze), who led the way in making fried chicken the hot dish of 2012. But there was so much more for a good ol’ Southerner to enjoy on this cheeky neighborhood spot.

8. Boulevardier. It’s not uncommon nowadays for restaurants to make in-house charcuterie — Brian Luscher at The Grape led the way, with Charlie Palmer and others doing it, too. To them, add Boulevardier, which offers delightful interpretations of rustic French cuisine in a bistro setting that would be at home in Paris or Manhattan.

9. Ser. We were so sad to see Nana go in 2012, but Ser opened up quickly, giving Dallas diners back their chance to look at their town from the best view in the city. Though pricey, the meats here are exceptional, and even the soups made us converts.

10. Dalat. Forget what you may have heard about this hole-in-the-wall not being “authentic” enough — Dalat’s fusion of Vietnamese cuisine with Texas influences kept my tastebuds guessing … in all the right ways.

 This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition January 11, 2013.