Well, almost. Gay restaurateur Scott Jones’ Screen Door helps usher in the renaissance of the Downtown Arts District
On a recent warm spring night, over dishes of pasta and glasses of wine, Scott Jones teases a waitress at a Travis Walk cafÃ©. The banter is playful, but he means it when he tells her she’s just the kind of server he wants in his new restaurant: Sassy, quick-witted, friendly but not fussy. In other words, Southern (in attitude if not birthright).
If Scott Jones is feeling the stress of opening one of the most anticipated new restaurants of the year, he certainly doesn’t show it. But maybe that’s where the wine comes in.
Jones is not new to the rodeo, but even he would have to admit that the debut of Screen Door— his Southern-tinged upscale restaurant, set to start serving later this month — is on a scale unlike any other he has attempted.
In only seven years, Jones has gone from former waiter to restaurateur with amazing confidence. His signature concept, CafÃ© Italia, fuses Italian cuisine with down-home American sensibilities in a casual atmosphere. But expectations for Screen Door have raised the bar significantly.
First is the location. Screen Door will be one of the anchor restaurants in Downtown’s One Arts Plaza, alongside Paul Pinnell’s Dali Wine Cellar, the Campisi-backed Fedora and Teiichi Sakurai’s Tei An Soba. Then there’s Dallas’ burgeoning reputation as a foodie mecca. Two nearby restaurants, Stephan Pyles and Fearing’s, were declared by Esquire the best restaurants in the nation in 2006 and 2007. Can Jones possibly not feel anxiety by comparison? Not so you’d know.
"We’re very conscious of the fact we’re a destination restaurant," Jones says calmly, adding with a wave of his hand: "We’re gonna be about what we’re about."
He’s a big fan of Pyles and Fearing, but his real competition is his own ideal of what he wants Screen Door to be.
Jones is the visionary behind the restaurant’s concept, dÃ©cor and menu, which is inspired by his own Southern upbringing. And while he does not call himself a designer or a chef by trade, he sets the stage for his creative crew to work its magic.
First came the food. Among the essentials Jones insisted upon were a fresh "pasta of the day" prepared in-house, plus homemade apple butter. Screen Door will even offer an afternoon tea every Tuesday through Saturday, with each version named after a "Gone with the Wind" character.
"One is the Miss Melanie," Jones says, "one is Miss Scarlett, which comes with champagne and mint julep for a late lunch, because ‘tomorrow is another day.’"
He found a kindred spirit in executive chef Fitzgerald Dodd, but was sold on him as much for their differences as their similarities.
"He’s a straight African-American man; I’m a gay white man — we come at it from different perspectives," he says. "He went to culinary school and has worked with some of the best chefs in Dallas; I bring the gay and maybe the female point of view. We discussed the menu then I gave him free rein — I just tweak things."
He tapped some of Dallas’ top talent to perfect the space. Longtime friend Terrence Sweeney designed the plantation house-inspired interior, which George Cameron Nash then built. He approached Billy Reid to create the staff uniforms, even though the two had never met.
"I’ve been a fan of his for 15 years — I used to go to the store on Main Street and peek in the windows" of his showroom, Jones says. "I just e-mailed Billy and asked if he was the least bit interested in designing the uniforms for the restaurant and voila! He jumped on it. People are so afraid to ask those questions or cross those social lines; I’ve never been. If they turn me down, they turn me down."
Although One Arts Plaza is fully leased on the commercial side (Southland has 1,000 employees and Thompson & Knight another 800) and the residential portion is 80 percent sold, this is still an ambitious project. The Arts District’s main draws — the Wyly Theatre and Winspear Opera House — don’t officially open until November 2009, 18 months from now.
"We’re not counting on foot traffic — we need all the exposure we can get," Jones admits. "But synergy drew me to the site. [Developer] Lucy [Billingsley] has been delightful to work with, and she’s picked great people for the restaurants: Teiichi, Paul Pinnell, the Campisis. But driving this is the concept, the quality and the uniqueness. It’s been very well-received."
Indeed, Jones has recently returned from a multi-city publicity tour during which he persuaded Bon Appetit to co-sponsor a private launch party; Time magazine is also writing about the opening. How’d he manage that?
"There is not I city I went to where Dallas was not on the map for them. In their cities it’s all doom and gloom, but they know about the Arts District, Victory Park, how the real estate market hasn’t tanked here for the most part. Dallas is finally becoming what it has always said it was: once and forever, the golden child."
And Scott Jones is prepared to lead the way.
Screen Door, One Arts Plaza, 1722 Routh St., Suite 132. 214-720-9111. Screendoordallas.com. Opens for lunch May 19 and for dinner May 31.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition May 9, 2008.