For most of the past quarter-century, when longtime Fort Worth residents were asked to characterize what made their city special, many pointed to the downtown area, and specifically Sundance Square.
Shops, bars, restaurants and nightclubs dot this 14-block district, which technically stretches from First to Fifth Streets, and Grove to Taylor streets. That's not to mention the world-class performance hall, the movie theater and the improvisational comedy group that all call Sundance Square home.
In the last year, though, the energy has started to shift a few miles west. Fort Worth's museums have always drawn thousands of visitors. But what was once quaintly described as the "Cultural District" -- a part of town that went to bed at 5 p.m. -- is now referred to as West 7th, and it includes an explosion of new commercial and residential developments.
The result is an intriguing urban tug of war: Sundance Square still supplies much in the way of old-fashioned charm and Cowboy-flavored class, while the West 7th corridor is all about trendy restaurants and gleaming new buildings.
We decided to devise an experiment that put both areas to the test. Each of us had to plan the ideal night out, focusing on six different categories: culture, dinner, dessert, nightlife, people-watching and shopping. We had to try at least six different places in our designated part of town. And we had to keep to a budget, spending no more than $150.
So which is it: Do you opt for the familiar comforts of the AMC Palace downtown or the more expensive experience of the West 7th Movie Tavern? Would you rather rock out on the patio at 8.0 or take in the view on the rooftop deck at Capital Bar?
Join us on a journey that gets right to the heart of the hottest debate in town.
We scheduled our date night for a Friday -- a perfect opportunity, we figured, to take advantage of one of the crown jewels of Fort Worth's cultural district, the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth. The museum's galleries stay open until 8 p.m. Fridays; and on the first Friday of every month (when we visited), the museum has live music in the lobby from 5 to 8 p.m.
The band on Oct. 1 was 3 If By Sea, a trio that played an appealing set of easy listening-style jazz. But we were more curious about the new Vernon Fisher exhibit at the Modern called "K-Mart Conceptualism." Fisher's paintings and sculptures are nuanced and witty, especially the large-scale ones in which a giant hole seems to have ripped opened in the canvas, through which another image peers out. The other benefit of visiting on Friday nights: The galleries are much less crowded than they are during weekend afternoons.
By the time we watched the sun set over Tadao Ando's magnificent reflecting pond, we agreed on two things: This date night was off to a terrific start; and there's nothing in downtown Fort Worth that could possibly compare to the magnificence of the museum district.
Total cost: $16 for two tickets. (free for Modern members and Star-Telegram Press Pass holders).
From the Modern, we headed over to the West 7th development to do some shopping: We were hoping to find a small gift with Fort Worth flavor for a friend I was going to visit in Los Angeles.
The problem was that the two Western-themed shops we were hoping to check out, Heritage Boot (2955 Crockett St., 817-882-9877) and Teskey's Uptown (2913 Crockett St., 817-332-2525), had closed for the night. Seems weird, with so much new foot traffic in the area, to be shutting your doors by 7 p.m. on a weekend night, no? Still, our shopping expedition wasn't a total failure. Back at the Modern, I had wandered into the gift shop and discovered a beautiful George Nelson petal clock, marked down from $325 to $168 -- a perfect wedding gift for a college friend tying the knot.
Total cost: $0 (we're not counting the wedding gift, purchased the following morning, against our total expenses)
We still weren't quite hungry, so we decided to relax with a drink and an appetizer while we geared up for dinner. Since part of our mission involved people-watching, we descended upon the lounge at Bailey's Prime Plus (2901 Crockett St., 817-870-1100).
We settled into the beautiful red velvet chairs at the back of the low-lit bar and ordered a pair of martinis: The "Coco Channel" chocolate martini for my partner; a classic Tanqueray version for me. I normally disdain chocolate-flavored drinks, but the Bailey's concoction is a perfect balance of sweet and potent -- it completely justifies its $12 price tag. We also ordered the almond-crusted brie appetizer, with a strawberry balsamic ginger jam; it was a terrific balance of the creamy, sweet and faintly spicy -- though, at $11, also on the steep side.
An R&B quartet performing at the front of the bar added nicely to the swanky ambience. Our only gripe: People watching was somewhat limited. We turned up around 8 p.m., but there were only about a dozen or so others in the bar. Good-looking and well-heeled patrons all -- we just wish there had been more of them.
Total cost: $47
Pleasantly buzzing off our drinks, we figured we didn't want to walk very far for dinner. We settled on Tillman's Roadhouse (2933 Crockett St; 817-850-9255), just a few doors down from Bailey's. It's a Southern-style upscale restaurant that has been earning raves for years at its original Oak Cliff location in Dallas.
Our simple verdict: It's a tad overpriced for what you get, but the food is solid and the service is impeccable. I ordered the rib-eye ($30), smoky-flavored and perfectly cooked medium-rare. My boyfriend opted for the seasonal vegetable trio ($19), which featured grilled eggplant, fried eggplant and baba ganoush, all expertly prepared if not quite overwhelmingly delicious.
The thing we really loved about Tillman's, though: the atmosphere. It manages to feel jovial and boisterous without sacrificing intimacy. Which is to say: You feel like you're on a date, but you also feel like you're part of a vibrant scene.
Total cost: $70
Tillman's is famous for its made-for-sharing desserts, such as the "tableside s'mores." But the point of this experiment was to try as many different places as possible, so we asked for the check and considered alternative ways to satisfy our sweet tooth. I lobbied for the ice-cream sandwiches at Sweet Sammies (825 Currie St., 817-332-0022), but the b.f. insisted on the moderately less indulgent gelato at Paciugo (2926 Crockett St; 817- 885-7725).
We tried a pineapple sorbet in a cup and a chocolate gelato in a waffle cone -- and the gelato was the far superior choice. One additional bit of advice: Snag one of the outdoor tables; it's the perfect place to hang out on a breezy night and watch your fellow revelers drift by.
Total cost: $8.49
By now, it's pushing past 11 p.m., and we're both running out of steam. But the assignment demands that we hit at least one nightspot. We head for a place that, in the year or so since it's opened, has become one of our go-to spots: Capital Bar (3017 Morton St., 817-820-0049). On a cool-but-not-yet-cold fall night like this one, Capital's rooftop patio is one of the nicest spots in town, providing gorgeous views of the Modern to the west and the downtown Fort Worth skyline to the east. (You know, that part of town no one seems to be visiting anymore.) The patio also overlooks the large outdoor stage area. After the house band took a break, a group of young people emerged in full zombie regalia to perform Michael Jackson's Thriller dance. We have no idea why -- and no one we asked seemed to know -- but it lent a charmingly surreal finish to an altogether awesome night out.
Total cost: $17 (cover charge for two, plus one drink)
We arrived home slightly exhausted, but in agreement: We should go on dates like this every Friday night. The venues were all well-populated without being suffocatingly crowded. Best of all: We barely felt like we had scratched the surface of all the offerings in the area, whereas every time we head downtown, we can't shake the been-there-done-that feeling. Sorry Sundance Square, but you might just have lost us forever.
My downtown adventure started on a Thursday afternoon, just after the Texas Rangers took a 2-0 lead in the American League Division Series. Everything seemed possible.
I set sail for the Rangers Team Shop (316 Main St.) to grab a souvenir, but with only $150 to spend for the night, I couldn't part with $30 for an ALDS T-shirt. Nor could I drop $59 for a kid-size Romo jersey at the recently opened Cowboys Pro Shop next door. So I kept walking, and wandered into Earth Bones (308 Main St., 817-332-2662), the most unique gift shop in downtown. A green skull necklace immediately caught my eye; it was perfect for my wife, who loves Halloween almost as much as she loves me. And it was only $10. Score one for downtown! The shopping scene is somewhat limited here -- Leddy's Ranch (410 Houston St.) and Retro Cowboy (406 Houston St.) are great for tourists and Jos. A. Bank (501 Houston St.) is perfect for conventioneers who spill salsa on their duds -- but Earth Bones makes up for all that. You'll want to stock up on all the pop-culture kitsch ( Star Wars thermos!) and cool jewelry you can afford.
The rooftop at Reata is one of the most majestic spots in downtown, with breathtaking views of Sundance Square and a potent potion of young professionals, TCU hotties and liquored-up tourists. Nothing in West 7th can touch it ... unless, of course, there's a private party on the roof and you're denied access. (Cue Price Is Right loser music.)
My buddy and I shifted gears and grabbed two barstools at Piranha Killer Sushi (335 W. Third St.; 817-438-0206), where the attractive post-work crowd, plus a contingent of hip clubgoers helped us get things back on track. An inspiring cocktail called the Hot Mess ($5) -- hot sake, with a splash of strawberry, sweet and sour, orange juice and 7-Up -- also helped chase away the stress of the Reata miscue. We munched on a delicious appetizer plate of pork and vegetable dumplings ($5.25), chatted with the friendly bartender, Jeremy, and occasionally spun our bar stools around to watch the sushi chefs in action. And we couldn't leave without trying the Sexy Roll ($12.95) -- shrimp tempura, ginger cream and cilantro topped with avocado, crawfish and mango. Yes, it was good for us, too.
Because we got a late start, dinner options were limited. We considered going back to Reata -- it is one of the best restaurants in Fort Worth -- but we felt burned by the whole roof debacle. So we strolled down Third Street toward Main and the red neon sign of Cowtown Diner (305 Main St., 817-332-9555) caught our eye. Opened earlier this year by Scott Jones, a former singing waiter and the mastermind behind Screen Door in Dallas, Cowtown Diner feels like it should be a perfect fit for Fort Worth: The food is affordable with chefly flourishes; the interior is modern with classy Western touches; and our waitress even showed a bit of diner-y sass.
Just one problem: the food wasn't very well executed. My rib-eye ($23.95), blanketed in a black pepper rub, was medium rare at one end and rare on the other. And the deep-fried, bacon-wrapped deviled eggs ($8.95) -- recommended by our waitress -- were an abomination. And not in that good, State Fair kinda way. Doughy batter encased the chewy bacon and a too-firm deviled egg. We cut into a second and third egg searching for a hint of guilty pleasure flavor. No so luck. The meatloaf ($13.95) was the highlight of what we ordered, a delicate mix of beef, veal and pork. But the sides (mashed potatoes, peas and carrots) were average and overall, the food just didn't measured up to the rest of Cowtown's promise. We left wishing that we had splurged a bit and gone next door to Mercury Chop House or one of the other great downtown steakhouses.
Determined to rebound, we strolled around the corner to 8.0's patio, the best spot in downtown to sit under the stars, share a drink, ogle the waitresses and listen to live music. Texas troubadour Bruce Robison was playing, as part of the new KXT live-music series, and it sure would've been a good choice to sit a spell. But we were determined to find something a bit off the beaten path, so we headed south for Houston St. Bar and Patio (904 Houston St., 817-877-4727).
Along the way we passed The Library -- the only packed club in downtown Thursday night -- and wondered what gives? Three words: cheap drink specials.
Still hoping to capture a little rooftop magic, we climbed the steps to Houston St.'s second floor. But dang if we weren't foiled again. The roof was open, but the bar wasn't because it just wasn't a busy night. (That also might have something to do with all of the road construction at this end of Houston Street.) But I could see the potential at Houston St., so I came back Friday, and it didn't disappoint. I relaxed with a beer on one of the couches and watched college football on the crystal-clear outdoor screens. As the DJ pumped out tunes from his Mac from inside a graffitied garage area, I felt like I'd discovered a happening hideout, even it did take me two tries.
Total: $4 for a Corona in a can
Culture + dessert
Scat Jazz Lounge (111 W. Fourth St.; 817-870-9100) has been one of the most unique nightspots in downtown since opening in late 2007. From the funky neon sign above the alleyway entrance to the dark and dreamy basement club area, you'll feel like a lost member of the Rat Pack as the elevator door opens. On this Thursday night, Quamon Fowler, a promising saxophone player and all-around hepcat from Fort Worth, was playing his heart out to a small but appreciative crowd. The improvisational jazz was free-flowing if a little self-indulgent, but the overall vibe ended our evening on a strong, high-pitched note. So did the dessert-y martinis: The Thin Mint was better than any Girl Scout cookie I've ever tasted, and the White Chocolate Raspberry martini was heavenly. That's why I had two.
Downtown is still one of my favorite places to hang out, and one of the reasons I first fell in love with Fort Worth. But it's difficult to deny that West 7th has stolen some of its thunder -- at least for the moment. With the recent closings of Billy Miner's and City Streets, the adrenaline rush you used to feel walking around the heart of Sundance Square is simply not there. Friday was livelier, with a concert at Bass Hall and the MusicArte festival, a culturally rich reminder that nothing beats downtown during a festival. But we had to work overtime to craft a memorable evening. I blame the deviled eggs.
Like any good tug of war, though, I suspect downtown will be pulling harder soon, especially when Super Bowl XLV festivities ramp up in February and ESPN drops anchor in Sundance Square. Frankie's Sports Bar is coming to downtown. So is a new multiclub venue called Lone Star in the City Streets space. And Saviano's, a new Italian restaurant is moving in, too (see review, page 17.)
So, watch out, West 7th. Come Super Bowl time, it'll be game on all over again.