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Chain for Fools

Houston versus Dallas: We're family-run; they're chained up.

There are dog people and there are cat people. There are Bush people and there are Gore people. There are even Nader people, for that matter, but they probably don't want us to know who they are at this point. There are Houstonians and there are Dallasites.

We know these groups exist, but often it is difficult to put your finger on the exact differences between them. For instance, a dog person owns a dog, and a cat person has, well, a cat. Apart from that fact, do cat people have other traits that dog people do not? According to Desmond Morris, zoologist and author of both Catwatchingand Dogwatching, "Cat lovers tend to be rather different from dog lovers. As a rule, they have a stronger personality bias toward independent thought and action. Artists like cats; soldiers like dogs." But for those of us who are not anthropologists, the differences can be harder to articulate -- but we all know they're there, don't we?

In Texas, the Houstonian-versus- Dallasite difference is real. It begins with the very sounds of the terms used. "Houstonian" is a euphonious word, a classy Latinate compound. "Dallasite," on the other hand, sounds spiteful, pejorative. It rhymes with parasite (and connoisseurs of limericks all know what "Dallas" rhymes with…).

Houstonians are quick to explain the difference in artful, subjective terms. One Houston Fulbright scholar, a Rice graduate, observes, "Living in Dallas is like never graduating from high school." Columnist Molly Ivins, who grew up in Houston, simply describes Dallasites as "so earnest." There is a certain wonkiness associated with Dallas's civic leadership, which directs its members to lengthy discussions over cocktails about which church-sponsored summer camp is the most fun for one's children.

Speaking of cocktails, much of Dallas has yet to come to terms with the repeal of the Volstead Act and remains bone-dry in public and bibulous in private. Dallas is resolutely out of the cultural mainstream in many other ways as well. While Houston has a world-class ballet company that is well supported by local corporations and philanthropists, Dallas's ballet company has foundered repeatedly. As an art form, ballet tends at one and the same time to be too abstract and too disturbingly erotic for the sort of provincial who can get all choked up with real tears watching the second act of a road show revival of The Sound of Music.

Is it any wonder, then, that of all the glorious cities on earth that one can live in -- if one has $3 billion in actual cash money -- Ross Perot chooses to live in Dallas? Situated at the confluence of two Bible belts, the East-West one and the North-South one, Dallas can perhaps be best described in a paraphrase of President Kennedy's famous observation about Washington, D.C. Kennedy said the capital combined "Northern charm and Southern efficiency." Dallas combines the urbanity of the Deep South with the spontaneity of the Middle West.

Restaurant consultant Chris Tripoli, whose A La Carte Food Service Consulting Group has helped set up operations in many of Houston's top public spaces, such as Enron Field, George Bush Intercontinental Airport and the currently a-building Hobby Center, has observed a quantifiable difference between the restaurant cultures of the two cities.

"Both Houston and Dallas represent Texas real well in the national standings," Tripoli observes. "Both are in the top five cities nationally in terms of per capita restaurant expenditures, frequency of dining out, number of restaurants per capita.

"The difference that has developed over the past 20 or 25 years, though, is very interesting. In Dallas, the chain restaurants are very strong. In part, that is because the headquarters' offices of several major chains are located there. There is the Brinker chain, of course, and there are the main offices of the T.G.I. Friday's chain, known as Carlson Restaurants Worldwide, the Steak & Ale/Bennigan's chain."

Indeed, the Brinker International group includes, among others, the Chili's Grill chain, the Macaroni Grill, eatZi's, On the Border Mexican Cafe, Cozymel's and the Maggiano's Little Italy chain. Carlson Restaurants Worldwide operates the Friday's concept, plus the Front Row Sports Grill, Italianni's, the Samba Room (in Houston, the operation is called Bossa), Star Canyon, Mignon, Taqueria Canonita and Pick Up Stix, among others. The third corporation named by Tripoli, Metromedia Restaurant Group, operates the Bennigan's chain, Steak & Ale, the Ponderosa Steakhouse and the Bonanza Steakhouse chain.

If you have not been to some of these in Houston lately, there is a good reason. Per Tripoli's observation, many of these chains do not have so much as a single operation in this, the fourth-largest city in the United States. Tripoli observes about Houston: "Here the family restaurants set the style that the chains follow. Houston has family factions such as the Vallone group and the Pappas restaurants, but also smaller operations such as the various Mandola family factions, the Laurenzos, the Molinas, even the Schiller-Del Grande group. Those are mom-and-pop operations at heart. That's the way all restaurants used to be in the United States 40 or 50 years ago. There were no chains."

Tripoli also observes that the chains that do set up shop in Houston do so in peripheral neighborhoods. "Houston has so many small, well-put-together developments that are like separate towns, that the chains go there. Friday's in Houston are in the malls. Steak & Ale and Bennigan's don't play well in the inner city. The only exception is maybe the Brinker-owned eatZi's (and Maggiano's) on Post Oak Boulevard."

Houstonians, it would seem, are cat people.

 
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