Former Weekly associate editor Eric Griffey, who runs the popular Facebook group I Ate This Food, and I Liked It feels Fort Worth isn’t even a Top 5 food city in Texas. Courtesy of I Ate This Food, and I Liked It/Facebook

In 2022, Fort Worth became the 13th most populous city in America while maintaining the rank of the fifth most populated within the state. In theory, one would believe Fort Worth to be buzzing with an energetic and tantalizing dining scene full of new openings and news of upcoming openings, but, sitting in the shadow of neighboring Dallas, Fort Worth is often overlooked. What that loosely translates to is that without being spotlighted as a major cosmopolitan city where there is a constant flow of corporate cash, Fort Worthians rely heavily on local support without the glitzy hullabaloo.

The latest trending “hot spots” have been attached to newly opened hotels like the Crescent, Bowie House, and Sandman, while more lowkey establishments like Atlas, Gustos Burgers, and Buena Vida Taqueria have also been warmly welcomed.

Fort Worth seems to have become a magnet for regional chains from other Texas cities. Wabi House’s first location was in Dallas, and Austin’s Nickel City made Fort Worth its second home. More recently, three places — Atlas, Hudson House, and Musume — came from Dallas. Rarely do Fort Worth concepts make it outside city limits, though two do come to mind. Fuzzy’s Tacos put on a clinic for national growth, and it’s been exciting watching Coco Shrimp start its North Texas domination.

Who says our scene’s not sophisticated? Not the (Dallas) folks behind Atlas in SoMa.
Photo by Christina Berger

Dallas tends to attract and produce national chains, both fast casual and high end, although locally owned hospitality groups such as Duro Hospitality, Imperial Fizz, and Vandelay Hospitality Group have created burgeoning empires, giving Dallas something to brag about. Local restaurateurs such as Chef Marcus Paslay and his From Scratch Hospitality and Chef Felipe Armenta’s Far Out Hospitality have managed to cement multiple concepts that can rival most in Dallas either by cuisine or interior design. Armenta made a huge strategic move by hiring away Michelin-starred chef and TV personality Graham Elliot from his restaurants in the Windy City and bringing him to Cowtown.

Local veteran chef and owner Jon Bonnell of Bonnell Restaurant Group said, “With plenty of new openings this year, the number of great dining options continues to grow.”

Fort Worth is experiencing unprecedented growth as new apartments, condos, and subdivisions pop up seemingly every day, and while this is attractive to restaurateurs, quantity doesn’t necessarily equal quality. We aren’t immune to national chains. Fortunately, for the most part, they are relegated to our suburbs. Right where they belong.

Wherever you look, food is big business. In 2023, Texas achieved two milestones, according to Texas Restaurant Association CEO Emily Williams Knight. “The food service industry has become Texas’ largest private sector employer with nearly 1.5 million employees, and it finally surpassed the $100 billion annual sales threshold, with nearly $107 billion in sales.”

Unfortunately, labor woes still present an issue. Only 48% of Texas restaurants have enough staff to support the demand at the table.

“Last year was humbling for both experienced and novice restaurateurs,” said Laurie James, the Weekly’s chief food critic since 2007. “The restaurants that are the most successful seem to have deep corporate pockets — even if they’re locally owned — or at least a fairy godperson to get them through the first year of not making much money. But I’ve been saying that about restaurants every year since Bistro Louise closed — Louise even had an ample parking lot. But this town looks to the next shiny telegenic chef and hyped-up concept.”

Jeffrey Yarbrough shared Williams Knight’s sentiment. “Fort Worth’s dining scene isn’t necessarily seeing signs of economic troubles that many cities across the country are experiencing. However, labor is a whole other issue.”

A local restaurateur who has served as president of the Texas Restaurant Association, Yarbrough was instrumental in waking up Deep Ellum in the 1990s by opening Art Bar, Blind Lemon, and Club Clearview, and he created Teddy Wong’s with Chef Patrick Ru of New York City in the former Le’s Wok space on the Near Southside.

Le’s was a beloved institution on a desolate portion of Rosedale Avenue which shuttered during COVID in May 2021 due to family illnesses, leaving a marginal hole. It was one that longtime neighborhood darling Cannon Chinese was positioned to pick up — had they not closed in July 2021, turning that marginal hole into a gaping one.

And that wasn’t all for the hippest neighborhood in town.

In 2023, when local Chef Andrew Dilda announced the opening of his Eazy Monkey, there was an air of excitement at the return of Chinese cuisine to Near South. This was followed by the announcement that Le’s Wok would transition to Teddy Wong’s. If the neighborhood could support two Chinese concepts for years, it should be able to do so again. Wishful thinking.

Sadly, after mere months and amid many accusations, drama, and rumors that pitted employees against ownership and business partners against each other, Eazy Monkey quietly bit the dust while Teddy Wong’s continues to thrive as it has since doors opened last year.

After Eazy Monkey’s closure, public feedback indicated that the Tex-Asian menu didn’t resonate well and was almost too creative for its own good. For my Fort Worth Weekly review, I found the food adventurous and fun, understanding that it was more of a fusion than anything else, while Teddy Wong’s is straightforward, with no frills but a unique concept on its own plus a robust wine menu. Who knew that dumplings and fermented grapes would be so compatible?

“The price of food and labor has never been higher, so making a profit in the restaurant business is more difficult than it’s ever been,” Bonnell continued. “There will be more restaurant closings as we navigate these difficult times, but the dining scene for now is alive and kicking!”

When the owner of a place in San Miguel, Mexico, that is considered to possess the world’s best rooftop patio decided to open a second location, he overlooked Dallas, Austin, and Houston — and, heck, also New York City, Paris, and Lubbock — and opened Quince here in the Fort, along the Trinity River not too far from where he took classes as a TCU undergrad. This news of owner Brian Sneed’s homecoming broke around the same time Chef Juan Ramon Cardenas Cantu announced his partnership with Fort Worth restaurant veteran Adrian Burciaga to bring the second location of Don Artemio from Saltillo, Mexico, to the Cultural District along West 7th Street. In January, Don Artemio received national recognition as a 2023 James Beard semifinalist. Quite a feat for a restaurant still in its infancy, not yet celebrating its two-year anniversary.

Adrian Burciaga brought the Don Artemio concept from Saltillo, Mexico, to the Cultural District, where the restaurant almost instantly became a 2023 James Beard semifinalist.
Courtesy LinkedIn

But then there was Chef Victor Villarreal’s La Onda. After landing on Bon Appétit’s 2022 list of best new restaurants, the Race Street eatery soon closed. Following a brief hiatus, Villarreal reincarnated his concept inside Hotel Revel for only a couple of months before shuttering again. Being on Race Street, which is not heavily trafficked as it continues to develop, could be to blame, but Tributary Café served Cajun and Creole fare on that same stretch of road for years before closing last year only when Chef Cindy Crowder Wheeler decided not to extend the lease. It makes you wonder why La Onda and its upscale menu didn’t work inside a hotel in a vibrant part of town. It had less success in a more bustling neighborhood near an intersection that sees hundreds of vehicles per day than in its slower, original spot. And the cuisine was superb.

A former Weekly associate editor has some thoughts. Runner of the popular Facebook page I Ate This Food, and I Liked It and all around bon vivant, Eric Griffey thinks geography isn’t the only thing with an impact on what happens here in our backyard.

“We don’t have a sophisticated big-city food scene,” he lamented. “That’s not to say that we don’t have some great restaurants, but it’s a tough market for small, locally owned places that don’t specialize in dead cow parts. Aside from a few outliers, we don’t really have eateries you can point to and say, “There. That is a great example of what is unique about the Fort Worth culinary arts scene.’ ”

Perhaps this lack of sophistication doomed La Onda and Magnolia Avenue’s innovative Beast & Co. when it closed in 2023 — after owner Dustin Lee berated the entire neighborhood in a social post, blaming everyone for a lack of support. Any good points he may have made about the scene in general were overshadowed by his less than gracious tack.

Is complaining about our lack of greatness a little privileged? “A large number of [Fort Worthians] don’t even have a grocery store or access to fresh produce within a mile of their homes,” said Weekly critic James, “much less a neighborhood mom-and-pop restaurant for the nights when you’ve eaten leftovers for three days and you’re done.”

Griffey also said we don’t have enough chefs baring their souls on their plates, and when they do, creativity is punished. “We are overrun by regional chains with the capital to survive rough patches. Those places are killing local character. Think about Clearfork and all the admittedly good restaurants there. You could pick up that whole development, move it to Ames, Iowa, and you wouldn’t have to change a single thing. It’s completely anodyne. Fort Worth is growing, has grown faster than its capacity to support new local restaurants, and, consequently, we’re left with a glut of McMediocrity.”

Customers can be fickle and typically stick to what they know. Often, they prefer what’s comfortable, what they’re used to. And not to knock any local business that has capitalized on the apathetic palate, but people know they can expect the same sandwich every time from one of our many burger joints or the same enchilada combo from any number of our Tex-Mex spots. Trends come and go, and Fort Worth doesn’t always lend itself to the cutting edge. But we have some of the best taquerias in the state along with an exceptional Thai, Lao, and Vietnamese dining scene in neighboring Haltom City, and that diversity is something to celebrate. And while we have much to be appreciative and grateful for, we still enjoy our meat and potatoes, and that likely won’t change anytime soon.

“If you’re passionate about food in Fort Worth, spend whatever your dining-outside budget is on locally owned restaurants,” James said. “Don’t be a jerk if the place is short-staffed either: Many of the [staff] faces I’ve seen over the years at my favorite places have decided there’s no amount of money that is worth putting up with entitled, racist, or sexist bullshit.”

Griffey summed it up best. “Until the people of this town demand better — and learn the difference — we’re stuck where we are. We’re not even a Top 5 food city in this state. Enjoy your medium-well steaks.”

Read about the full roster of tasty treats that Globe Life Field offers in And Boom Go the Sticks.