Ask almost any Dallas resident if they’ve ever dined at Dakota’s Steakhouse, and most people will say yes. It has a reputation of being the fancy place to go for special occasions like anniversaries or birthdays. Its other claim to fame is for how it flaunted the rules. Built upon the grounds of the former First Dallas Baptist Church, the property was sold with a legally-binding clause that prohibited future owners from selling alcohol onsite. To get around that rule, the steakhouse owners excavated 18 feet below street level to build the restaurant underground instead.
The experience of taking an elevator downstairs to a hidden restaurant is fun and the underground views of eight million pounds of Dakota granite are still fabulous. But like all famous institutions, Dakota’s couldn’t just coast on history anymore. Dallas became a more cosmopolitan city with a more competitive restaurant scene. The owners of Dakota’s knew they had a good thing but didn’t want to be known as just the “special occasion” restaurant anymore. This began the reinvention of one of Downtown Dallas’ most iconic restaurants.
Texas’ liquor laws were notoriously restrictive in 1984, when Dakota’s was built. Back then, patrons had to get a special permit to even order a drink at the few places that were granted liquor licenses. The scene for bars and restaurants in Downtown Dallas was much more conservative then, when the area was experiencing a massive real estate boom. But the liquor laws and the character of downtown have both relaxed since then. Along with the changes, Dakota’s is not relaxing its quality standards, but is instead adapting to the changes brought by the times.
The first step in Dakota’s reinvention: attracting top talent. They brought in both a new general manager and a new executive chef within the past six months. For their new general manager, they got Chris Farber, who brought 13 years of experience as the manager of Del Frisco’s Manhattan location, a top-grossing restaurant where countless power deals were brokered. Farber made the tough decision to leave New York City to come back to Dallas and marry his high school sweetheart and take the reins at Dakota’s.
The restaurant then tapped top local talent Taylor Kearney to run the kitchen. Named one of Zagat’s “30 Under 30,” Kearney previously had successful stints as executive chef at Cedar Grove and Front Room Tavern, with additional experience at PIC, a three-Michelin starred restaurant in France.
First steps for the duo: coordinating the front of the house and the back of the house to revamp the menu and create an unforgettable experience for diners. Farber acknowledges the dining competition in Downtown and Uptown these days and has ideas about how to redefine Dakota’s. “I truly care, and our staff truly cares, and the best way we can express that is by providing what people want: great food and meticulous service,” Farber said.
Kearney listened to customer feedback and saw the importance of modernizing the menu. “We’re expanding the cut selection and increasing the cut varieties. Instead of just one cut of Wagyu beef, we’ll have four, for example,” Kearney said. The new menu also reflects the changing tastes of upscale diners, which means that they’re bringing in more of the high-end seafood, including seafood towers. The focus in the back of the house is on “delivering a consistently good product, every single time,” said Kearney.
Dakota’s still has its famous side dishes like scalloped potatoes with havarti, bacon, and Stilton blue cheese; and roasted wild mushrooms. The cocktail menu is highly recommended, including the elderberry “75” and the “Oil Money,” Dakota’s take on the Manhattan. The extensive wine list will impress all palates, the lobster and cuts of steak are stellar, and the atmosphere is intimate.
Farber knows that to bring people back, Dakota’s will need to get the balance of great food and excellent service just right. “I’m used to doing $800,000 to a million a week [in revenue], which means you always have to be on Defcon 1 for meticulous execution, bringing everything together,” Farber said. He’s working to create that kind of seamless interaction among front and back of the house at Dakota’s.
But Farber knows that it’s all about re-establishing that reputation, one day building on top of the other. His focus is on creating amazing guest interactions, shaking everyone’s hand, and letting them know how much they’re valued. “It’s pretty special to be part of something so iconic,” Farber said. His mission aims to have Dakota’s Steakhouse far surpass its 1980s glory days.
Header image courtesy of Dakota's Steakhouse.