Fort Worth is known far and wide for its Stockyards, cowboy hats, barbecue and chicken-fried steak, but over the past several years the oft-shunned other half of the DFW metroplex has made some serious advances in the culinary realm. New chef-driven restaurants are popping up seemingly every month, giving Dallas diners more and more reasons to leave their county for dinner. One such restaurant that has stood proudly in downtown Fort Worth through it all is Grace, the white-tableclothed brainchild of owner Adam Jones that opened in 2008.
With 12 years at beef legend Del Frisco's under his belt, Jones easily could've chosen to go the steakhouse route — and while you'll certainly find some beefy options on Grace's menu, the overall vibe is creative modern American fare courtesy of chef Blaine Staniford. As the restaurant fast approaches its sixth anniversary, Eater spoke to Jones and Staniford about the evolution of Fort Worth's dining scene (and diners), taking the words "local" and "seasonal" seriously, and their plans for the future.
Blaine, you worked under Marcus Samuelsson and also Michael Mina, and then in Dallas at Lola (RIP) and at Fuse, but you've been at Grace since it opened, over five years now. To what do you attribute that longevity?
BS: I think as far a chef goes, I think Grace is a large enough restaurant to where it has the ability to allow me to be creative. Just being able to do the food that I want to do — and I love being in Fort Worth, it think its just a great city and I work with an amazing owner who works his ass off. We opened another concept [Little Red Wasp] so that keeps me busy and continuing to be happy as far as my career goes. We have a really good working relationship and we have a great management team that seems to just meld really well together. It's like a family here.
AJ: Fort Worth is really well-known for barbecue, Mexican, steakhouses, [but] we're not a culinary city. We're growing into being a culinary city. When Blaine hit the ground here in 2008, we tried to do things I think that were a little too much for Fort Worth, and we basically had to change our menu and make it a little bit more Fort Worth agreeable. Now during the course of the last five or six years, Blaine's been able to introduce so many new items to this market, through wine dinners or menu changes, etc. so it's exciting to be able to be on the forefront of all that. Since we've opened, a lot of other chef-driven restaurants have opened in Fort Worth but it's fun to kind of be one of the first and see the changes. I personally have been on Main Street for 22 years now and I ran Del Frisco's for 12 years, so I've seen plenty of things happen in Fort Worth over the course of my 22 years. But what I've seen in these last few years is a phenomenal change in Fort Worth on the culinary side.
So you would say diners in Fort Worth are more sophisticated now?
AJ: When I first moved here in 1992 — and this is still true today — we're still a really, I don't know, a country club community. We're a big country club town and a lot of people still eat that way. A lot of the dinners are still done that way. That's not the food that we care to showcase. We want to showcase what's new, what's local, what's out there.
BS: And as far as Fort Worth as a market, I think it's continuing to adapt to Grace — and we've adapted to Fort Worth somewhat.
What dishes are you doing now that would not have worked when you guys first opened?
BS: It's kind of funny, when we opened in 2008, I had a halibut dish that was on the menu and we served it in like a shellfish broth with some dumplings and things like that, and people in Fort Worth were like, 'What are you doing? Why are you serving my fish in a broth?' It sounds kind of ridiculous because it's not like I was breaking any new ground, but I guess it hadn't really been done in Fort Worth. It was just a play on like a cioppino or a fisherman's stew kind of thing, and the diners just did not get it. They did not want to see their fish in a broth. And now I've got a king salmon dish served in a ragout of beans with kumquats and grilled spring onions and we pour a carrot-ginger broth over it tableside, that I would say is probably our second best-selling dish now.
You're pretty concerned with seasonality and local products. How much does that affect your menu planning?
BS: We change the menu a minimum of four times a year, with smaller changes in between. Other months [the availability of local produce] is just okay, but it's really bountiful during the summer. Recently we got in some Texas bi-color corn that's almost like candy it's just so sweet. We've got a decent crop of peaches this year. Shell beans, lady creamers, fresh black-eyed peas are all in season right now, and it's also about time for some decent tomatoes and decent melons. There's some great product here right now. So you'll see all that stuff on the menu.
AJ: Blaine always does a fantastic job of keeping it seasonal and incorporating local products, but during Go Texan week we'll be doing even more of that. [Grace is serving a four-course $49 Go Texan menu this week that benefits the Tarrant Area Food Bank; for details see here.]
Talk to me about your second restaurant, Little Red Wasp.
AJ: Basically, everything on the Little Red Wasp menu were things that I personally really enjoy. I love a Reuben, so Blaine made a killer Reuben. Just simple food. I like a thin-patty hamburger, and he's got this 44 Farms hamburger that's just fantastic. So when we created the concept we knew we wanted it to be casual — we wanted it to be open for brunch, lunch, dinner, and we're very fortunate to have it right across the street from Grace so it's really easy to manage both of them at the same time. We use a lot of local ingredients, a lot of Fort Worth companies. Renfro's, O.B. Macaroni pasta, Best Maid pickles, Penzey's spices, Brothers barbecue sauce, all these things are made right here in Fort Worth. So to be able to showcase all that is just great. The bread we get from Dallas because I really like Empire, and then the meat, all the proteins come from 44 Farms which is in Cameron, Texas just outside of Austin. Our bacon comes from Pederson's which is a Texas company. It's just a good little concept, although I'd like to get a little more steam behind it and get it known better — as a restaurateur we all fight for volume. It's an interesting location because you've got Del Frisco's, Capitol Grille, Ruth's Chris and Grace so its four high-end restaurants and we're the casual alternative on the south end of downtown. This is downtown, we get a lot of restaurant traffic down here, so our visibility is good.
So you mentioned wanting to open another restaurant in the future. Any specific details on that? And Grace and Little Red Wasp are both named for Adam's wife; do you have a third restaurant name in mind that's also after her?
AJ: Obviously the easiest thing to do is a second restaurant in the same city. You can go to a different part of the city and reproduce the Wasp again. And that'd be easy because Blaine's doing all the work — we could just do another one here in Fort Worth or even in Dallas. So there are lots of options for the Wasp concept. But if we do a third concept, is it gonna bear my wife's name? Eh. I'd probably say no. And no harm, but I'm running out of nicknames for her.
So is expanding to Dallas something you'd seriously consider, or do you think you'll stick pretty closely to Fort Worth?
AJ: When I worked for Del Frisco's I had the luxury of opening restaurants in Denver and Vegas and New York, but I like living in my own market and not in an airplane or a hotel. So I would say my first choice is Tarrant County, but the Dallas market being right here, it's easy to get there. I'm there two to three times a week to try another restaurant, and I think Dallas has a ton of opportunities. So I would never say no, that could definitely be a possibility.
· Grace [Official]