Every diner dreams of being a VIP, on the inside track, in the know. During our idyllic dinner, we get recognized by the maitre d, ushered past the velvet rope and escorted to the best table in the house.
Once seated for our little fantasy dinner, were handed not only the regular menu but also a secret one, reserved for insiders and regulars. We open it, confident that the items are spun from impossibly precious ingredients unicorn horns and angel wings crafted with utmost care by the top chef in the kitchen.
This is no mere consumption of calories. Its about feeling catered-to and special ideally, more special than the diners at the next table.
Understanding our elitist desires, some restaurants have devised insider specials. It could be a table set up inside the kitchen with a birds-eye view. It could be a separate menu, reserved only for those diners savvy enough to ask. It could be dishes so secret, theyre not even on the menu dishes with their own lore that you simply have to know about.
This is smart marketing. Restaurants satisfy our desire to feel important, and they get extra cachet and customers without having to spend a cent on advertising.
For some of these experiences, especially those that include personal attention from the chef, you pay a premium. Dinner at a chefs table could run from $50 to $200, depending on how many courses you get (and how deluxe those courses are). Theres usually a limited number of seats, so youll need to make a reservation.
But this elite world isnt limited to the realm of fine dining. It extends from five-star restaurants down to the humblest fast-food joints. Weve begun an investigation of the DFW food scene to expose these culinary finds. Consider this our ongoing top secret (and not-so secret) dossier. Know of some more foodie secrets? Let us know in the comments on DFW.com.
Fearings at the Ritz-Carlton: lobster taco
When chef Dean Fearing left the Rosewood Mansion on Turtle Creek in 2006, he said goodbye to the famed lobster taco. True, hed been ahead of the curve with this high-low combination of extravagant filling inside a humble taco. And yes, chunks of lobster enclosed in a tortilla, dressed with a perky yellow-tomato salsa, made for an opulent dish. But after 21 years serving lobster tacos, he needed a break. To stave off requests, he put a shrimp taco on Fearings menu. Still they asked. Time heals all wounds, and Dean likes to please diners. So if you ask real nice, a lobster taco you will get. 2121 McKinney Ave., Dallas. 214-922-4848.
Babes in Roanoke: wild plum jelly
The menu at the Roanoke Babes is smaller than at some of the other Babes: just fried chicken and chicken-fried steak. But Roanoke has a quirky little something the other Babes do not: wild plum jelly. Its a no-label brand procured by one of the owners from a grandma in Comanche. She makes it in small quantities, and the Roanoke restaurant only gets about a dozen jars at a time, so its highly prized. If you know the manager or seem like a good egg, youll get a spoonful to spread on one of Babes signature biscuits. 104 N. Oak St., Roanoke. 817-491-2900.
Grace: poached oyster
This dish started out as a real-life treat for a VIP, when one of Graces investors begged chef Blaine Staniford to make him something special that nobody else could have. Staniford came up with an oyster so lavish that it has developed a lore of its own. He poaches the oyster, puts it back in the shell, then adds king crab, creme fraiche and American sturgeon caviar. Its a one-bite thing, Staniford says. It never made it onto the menu but it has become something I do for a surprise, or for people who know to ask for it. 777 Main St., Fort Worth. 817-877-3388.
Fireside Pies Fort Worth: Wagyu beef calzone
One night, a chef at the Fort Worth Fireside Pies decided to experiment with a calzone, filling it with some serious stuff: meatballs made with Wagyu beef. The staff handed out free samples, and a few fans were born. Ultimately it wasnt added to the menu, says manager Mark Daverio, but one customer told another, who told another, and the calzone has become an in-the-know, underground favorite. 2949 Crockett St. 817-769-3590.
Spiral Diner: Bro-chos
Fort Worths vegan palace accommodates all kinds of substitutions. Dont like tofu? It will give you quinoa instead. But Spiral Diner owners Amy McNutt and James Johnston are most proud of their bro-chos: Basically, its nachos supremo an extreme concoction loaded with olives, jalapeños, vegan cheese and seitan but instead of tortilla chips, for an extra dollar or two, get it over a bed of steamed broccoli. Its a loophole to make nachos seem healthier even though theyre not really healthy at all, McNutt says. 1314 W. Magnolia Ave. 817-332-8834.
Brewed: The Magnolia
The baristas at Brewed gastropub are like mixologists, making cocktails with coffee instead of booze. One of their most creative concoctions celebrates the neighborhood: the Magnolia. Served in a pint glass, it has vanilla syrup, sparkling Pellegrino, ice, cream and espresso. The result is a symphony of smoky, sweet, creamy and fizzy. We posted a photo on Instagram and it blew up so big that weve never had to put it on the menu, says barista Blake Sager. 810 W. Magnolia Ave. 817-945-1545.
Kincaids: Cowtown style
In 2010, Fort Worth burger chain Kincaids took what had been a so-called secret menu item and made it official. Cowtown-style now appears on the menu and refers to the addition of grilled jalapeños and onions. You can add them to pretty much anything on the menu. Multiple locations
Joe T. Garcias: Secret dinner menu
This Tex-Mex institution officially serves two options for dinner: fajitas or the family dinner, take it or leave it. But Joe T.s veterans know theres a set of unofficial items, too: chicken enchiladas, fajita nachos and chile con queso. Push your luck and see if there are any chile rellenos or flautas in the kitchen. And instead of the rather average margaritas everyone else gets, try ordering the Martin, a top-shelf version thatll tip off your friends to your insider status. 2201 N. Commerce St., Fort Worth. 817-626-4356.
Del Friscos Steakhouse: Burger
Del Friscos in downtown Fort Worth is a serious steakhouse with the requisite shrimp cocktail, wedge salad and bone-in rib-eye. And yet, there are times when only a burger will do. Del Friscos has a burger, but big sigh its only on the menu in the bar. The 8-ounce patty comes with lettuce, tomato, onion and pickles, with house-made barbecue-flavored potato chips, all for $9.95. Its a well-kept secret that you can order the burger in the main dining room, but youd just have to know about it, says manager Chad Sessom. Consider yourself informed. 812 Main St. 817-877-3999.
Lockhart Smokehouse: Burnt ends
Burnt ends are a signature of Kansas City barbecue wherein brisket ends are cooked and cooked until they turn crusty and almost sweet. Locally, they were first introduced by Pecan Lodge, the renowned barbecue joint at the Dallas Farmers Market, which served them on a whim. Local demand became so great that Lockhart Smokehouse, in Dallas Bishop Arts district, stepped in to fill the breach. It serves them every Thursday, beginning at 11 a.m. But they go pretty quickly, so Id definitely call ahead, says a Lockhart staffer. 400 W. Davis St., Dallas. 214-944-5521.
Woodshed Smokehouse: The Sandwich
More than a few off-menu items begin life as a staff-only item, such as the breakfast treat at Woodshed succinctly referred to as the Sandwich. Lacking a breakfast item, the staff improvised by cooking a hamburger patty, topping it with pork green chili from Lonesome Dove, plus lamb bacon, an egg, jack cheese and tomatillo salsa, wrapped in a flour tortilla. Its a distant cousin to the Amore Caliente burger on the menu at Love Shack. Friends of chef Tim Love got wind. Then, their neighbors spied it. Woodshed finally put it on the menu for $11. 3201 Riverfront Drive, Fort Worth. 817-877-4545.
Smyth: no menu
This hipster speakeasy staffed by some of Dallas most high-profile bartenders is the insider epitome. Smyth is a cocktail lounge without an actual menu. You tell the bartender what you like, and he creates a customized drink. Its also reservations-only, so you cant just drop in and be guaranteed youll get one of those made-to-order drinks. Could it be any harder? If this appeals, youll want to follow Smyths Facebook page and wait for an open table or two to be announced. 4513 Travis St., Dallas. 214-520-0900.
In-N-Out: Secret menu
Chains are the epitome of consistency and sameness. Maybe thats why people find the idea of secret menu items at these places so captivating. California-based burger chain In-N-Out was the first to trumpet an off-menu list, and it ranks as one of the worst-kept secrets in the world. It is actually listed on the website. It has no special ingredients; its just a list of gluttonous combinations in which three and four burger patties are stacked atop each other and given nicknames like 3X3. But going in and ordering your burger Protein Style (burger wrapped in lettuce instead of a bun) or Animal Style (a mustard-grilled patty with pickles, grilled onions and extra Thousand Island sauce) is still supposed to give you some cachet. Investigate these and other options at www.in-n-out.com/ menu/not-so-secret- menu.aspx
Torchys: Sacred Menu
Torchys is from Austin, so of course it has a secret menu of tacos; it calls it the Sacred Menu. Like Torchys regular menu, these tacos have whimsical names, such as the Hipster, with panko-breaded tuna, bacon and black beans; the Mad Cow, with skirt steak, black beans and corn; or Trailer Park Hillbilly Style with fried chicken, chorizo and bacon. Torchys doesnt bring in any special ingredients for this secret list. Its the arrangement that makes them so special well, that and the fact that you have to know about them.
Panera: secret menu
Panera is the latest chain to try and capture the secret-menu mystique. But a better way of describing its campaign is to say the company doesnt want to spend money on advertising and is calling it a secret menu instead. Basically, its ordering whatever Panera has minus the bread. In the real world, its called gluten-free. But customers have to ask for the special menu card. Its a secret, see.
Yao Fuzi: secret menu
This highly-rated Chinese restaurant in Plano starring chef-owner Alex Yao is not the only Asian restaurant in town to have a separate menu of dishes, such as the braised pork belly, which are either more authentic or spicy. But it is the best known. Its also written entirely in Chinese. Fortunately, the servers will help translate. 4757 W. Park Blvd., Plano. 214-473-9267.
FT33: chefs table
Chef tables, which require a reservation, can be tucked into a private room or wedged into the kitchen, but FT33 goes commando: Its chef table sits front and center in the dining room; its a rectangular table that stands higher than the others, with elevated stools that put diners on a throne. The menu is no different from any other table; it has the same avant-garde gels and foraged mushrooms as everyone elses. But what the rest dont get is a direct line-of-sight to chef Matt McCallister. As you gaze into the kitchen from your perch, you can assert your status as the foodiest foodie of them all. 1617 Hi Line Drive, Dallas. 214-741-2629.
The Wild Mushroom Restaurant: chefs table
Chef Jerrett Joslin isnt fooling around. The chefs table at The Wild Mushroom, his fine-dining restaurant in Weatherford, is a booth in the kitchen, against a wall of gleaming subway tile, affording a full view of the chefs. It seats four, but you can squeeze in six. Joslin makes it a real foodie experience, showcasing a separate menu with gastronomy tricks think sous vide duck or an edible plate made of potato to make it fun. The standard experience runs about $50 a head. Give him some advance notice and hell even roll out a cheesecake made from a recipe culled from his days at Randalls. 1917 Martin Drive, Weatherford. 817-599-4935.
Michaels Cuisine: Feed Me
Michael S. Thomson, the Michael in Michaels, first started doing the feed me concept 18 years ago. You say Feed me, then watch the dishes arrive. It runs from four to eight courses, depending on the group, and features the best of the kitchen at that moment, Thomson says. If youre a first-timer, youll get all of Michaels signature dishes, such as the pecan-crusted goat cheese salad. If youre a returning customer, you can tip off the waiter that youre ready for culinary adventures like soft-shell crab, cold-water oysters and more. 3413 W. Seventh St., Fort Worth. 817-877-3413.
Omakase at Nobu, Little Lilly Sushi, Tei-An, Five Sixty, Keiichi
Omakase, or trust the chef, is the Japanese version of feed me. Its available at most of the top sushi spots around town including Tei-An, Nobu, Keiichi in Denton and Wolfgang Pucks Five Sixty. You get a series of small courses, anywhere from three to 10 items, that reflect the chefs whim. At Little Lilly Sushi in Fort Worth, head chef Jesus Garcia says sometimes a customer will give him a budget ($35 a person, $50 a person, etc.), and hell create something just for them; call him ahead of time and hell forage for ingredients such as buffalo or lamb. Depending on the place, omakase can be the restaurants greatest hits. Sometimes it can have a theme, like tuna, or whatevers freshest. Given the innate artistry of Japanese cuisine, its practically guaranteed to be beautiful. Nobu, 400 Crescent Court, Dallas, 214-252-7000; Little Lilly Sushi, 6100 Camp Bowie Blvd., Fort Worth, 817-989-8886; Tei-An, 1722 Routh St., No. 110, Dallas, 214-220-2828; Five Sixty, 300 Reunion Blvd. E, Dallas, 214-741-5560; and Keiichi, 500 N. Elm St., Denton, 940-230-3410.