Monday, July 15, 2024

150 Years of Eating and Drinking in Deep Ellum

Mike Snider remembers a bustling Deep Ellum dining scene from years past like it was yesterday. Decades before opening AllGood Cafe in 2000, Snider had long called Deep Ellum home. Between working shows at Sons of Hermann Hall and assisting with catering for Baker’s Ribs, Snider became familiar with the neighborhood and has seen it through its several eras. Snider recalls his memories of the neighborhood fondly, as he reflects on the Deep Ellum and its evolution with Eater Dallas on the district’s 150th anniversary. And amid changes in the neighborhood like concerns of gentrification and the closing of music venues, Snider still has faith in Deep Ellum’s local dining scene.

A diner and music venue, AllGood is known for its chicken-fried steak, which constantly shows up on “Best of Dallas lists.” The menu features hearty Southern comfort classics crafted for warming up on a cold day, including a pork chop smothered in brown gravy and served with mashed potatoes, and a meatloaf that comes with a choice of red sauce or brown gravy.

AllGood is also a hub of art and culture. Artists including Wilco, Ozzy Osbourne, and Eddie Clendening and the Blue Ribbon Boys have performed sets inside the restaurant — it’s well-known for hosting local singer-songwriters for regular gigs. Having worked behind the scenes in the local music industry for decades, Snider aims to help performing artists make as much as they can. “I’ve never made a dime from ticket sales,” says Snider. “Artists might offer me a free T-shirt or something, and that’s nice. But I’ll give them 20 bucks [for the shirt] anyhow.”

While AllGood has held strong for over 20 years, Snider can’t deny that the neighborhood has changed. With the number of music venues dwindling, chains taking the place of locally owned favorites, and rent prices increasing and pushing out artists and creative people in favor of corporate entities, many feel that Deep Ellum has lost its heart.

“Nobody can afford to live here,” says Snider. “I used to have employees who used to live in lofts nearby, but they can’t afford that anymore. It feels like New York City or San Francisco.”

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AllGood’s rock and country aesthetic, as well as its eclectic group of employees, are what Snider believes have been key to the restaurant’s survival. “People come here and see the people that work here, and they want to see that we’re unique,” he says. “We don’t have TVs, but we have unique music, and good food.”

Although Snyder is happy to welcome new faces to the neighborhood, Deep Ellum isn’t the same place he fell in love with two decades ago. “I miss the old days,” Snider says. “It’s changed for sure. It’s hard to stay here, but it goes around in a cycle.”

More optimistic about the future of dining in Deep Ellum is Richard Andreason, Rudolph’s Meat Market & Sausage Factory’s vice president of sales and marketing. Andreason has worked for Rudolph’s, which was founded by his grandfather, for 35 years.

Some of his earliest memories of Deep Ellum take place in the ’80s, when, he says, the neighborhood had a “bohemian” air. Andreason says that the neighborhood has evolved over four decades, and still has a lot to offer diners.

“I don’t think Deep Ellum has lost any of that cool,” says Andreason. “You can really get everything down here. If you are familiar with Deep Ellum, you’re still able to shop and experience music.”

Andreason posits that while Deep Ellum has changed, the experience is equally as exciting as it was in the late ’80s and early ’90s.

For over a century, Deep Ellum has served as a hub for locally owned restaurants. It was also a launching pad for hip-hop and R&B performers, including Erykah Badu and Big Tuck. The neighborhood’s roots date back to the late 19th century, with historical markers noting its significance as a freedman’s town. However, a rapidly gentrifying Deep Ellum is raising concerns that local and POC-owned businesses may be pushed out.

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Deep Ellum purists have mixed feelings about the numerous chain restaurants that have opened in recent years — among them Hattie B’s, Hawkers, Gus’s World Famous Fried Chicken, Velvet Taco, and Brooklyn Dumpling Shop. These COVID-era additions have given some diners pause about the future of local dining and small businesses in a neighborhood that has historically been home to small, local, and POC-owned businesses Deep Ellum. Fans of the old guard have remarked on X (formerly Twitter) and elsewhere that the area has too many hot chicken places, or that these quirky taco shops don’t offer traditional Mexican or Latin cuisine; however, some chains certainly fill a niche that’s missing within Dallas-Fort Worth.

Pinky Cole, who first opened the plant-based burger chain Slutty Vegan in Atlanta, Georgia, knew she wanted to open up a location in Dallas-Fort Worth this past summer, because Texas is a huge market for meat eaters. Cole brings much-needed vegan options to the neighborhood.

“As Slutty Vegan has grown and we’ve scaled the business, we have always been passionate about disrupting the industry in new ways,” says Cole. “What better way to do that than to bring delicious alternative protein options to the Deep Ellum community of Dallas? Deep Ellum has a vibrant history spanning 150 years, along with an evolving and thriving food scene, which made it the perfect place to introduce Texans to Slutty Vegan.”

Restaurant groups like Milkshake Concepts are also continuing to bring fresh restaurants to Deep Ellum, including the modern American Stirr, which also has a rooftop bar where guests can dance the night away while looking into the Dallas skyline, and Vidorra, a self-described “modern Mexican” restaurant that’s spacious enough for dancing. But in addition to launching new restaurants, the group also helped revamp a Deep Ellum favorite.

Back in 2021, Milkshake Concepts began work to expand and renovate Serious Pizza, a late-night pizzeria with grungy rock vibes, which is a favorite stop for those getting out of shows, or wrapping up an evening of drinking and dancing.

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“Our first ever office was a very little humble room at the back of Stirr, and that room looked straight out at Serious Pizza,” says Imran Sheikh, CEO of Milkshake Concepts. “During the number of nights I spent down there, it was always incredible to me the loyal following that they had, by day and especially by night. The giant pie was always something I loved to show guests of mine when they came in town from London and other places, like, ‘Look at the size of this 30-inch pizza.’”

Sheik considers Milkshake Concepts “champions of the neighborhood.” Most recently, the restaurant group opened Saaya, a Mediterranean restaurant in a lounge-style setting in the Good Latimer area, just two doors down from Citizen, a nightclub also owned by Milkshake.

The London transplant is aware of people’s aversions to the changing business makeup of Deep Ellum, but is grateful for the crowds they continue to bring in — whether they’re regulars of the neighborhood or visitors from out of town. Still, he has faith in Deep Ellum as a dining scene, both now and in the future, and only envisions its growth.

“I can say with some certainty that we’ve had a lot of success,” says Sheikh. “But I can also say that we’ve also had success in the face of some continued challenges, whether it’s parking, whether it’s crime, whether it’s reputation. We want to continue to see it evolve and grow, and see a nice mix of tenants down there, whether it’s a national retailer or restaurateur, just as much we want to support the local mom-and-pops down here.”

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