Lowest Greenville boasts great ceviche, pho, tacos, sushi, and even New Zealander fare. Just up the road is an enticing new Afghan restaurant. What made Greenville so diverse? Can we replicate that success in other parts of Dallas?
By Brian Reinhart | February 9, 2023|9:30 am D Magazine
One of the constant struggles of the Dallas dining scene is its fight against our region’s ingrained segregation. Certain racial and cultural groups live in certain parts of Dallas and its suburbs, often not by choice, and their foods often stick with them.
But now look at the recent transformation of Lowest Greenville Avenue, which reaches a symbolic peak this month. Fortune House, an Asian-American family-owned suburban dumpling spot, is now open on a high-profile Greenville block. It takes the space formerly occupied by a White-owned “American Chinese” joint with the jokey name Gung Ho.
That address’s transition is a neat metaphor for the deeper story of Greenville Avenue’s evolution. The street is on its way to becoming one of Dallas’ best dining hubs, driven by a diversity of businesses and business owners. As Greenville becomes more inclusive of different crowds of diners, it also becomes a better place to eat.
So I talked to a few leaders of Greenville’s recent changes. I asked them big questions: what went right on Greenville? What lessons can we apply to other Dallas neighborhoods? How can Greenville model a more inclusive Dallas dining scene? It starts with urban design.
First lesson: Create a cityscape where everyone wants to be
It may sound obvious, but if you want to build a diverse neighborhood, first you need to build a good neighborhood, one that appeals to all kinds of people. Everyone, of all ages and cultures, wants to be on Lower Greenville now. This was not always the case.
Part of Greenville’s allure is its status as one of Dallas’ best food neighborhoods. Gul Rahman, co-owner of brand-new Afghan home cooking restaurant Ariana Cuisine, said that he and wife Sadia Pathan wanted to cook on Greenville because it’s the best restaurant area in town, and they wanted to cook with the best. That simple.
But Greenville’s prestige took careful planning, not luck. Consider Toby Archibald, the New Zealand-born chef who just opened Quarter Acre on Dec. 30. He told me: “I met someone the other day who said that Greenville used to be a four-lane street. I didn’t know that!”
When I recounted that story to Jon Hetzel, who represents Archibald’s landlords at Madison Partners, Hetzel laughed. Greenville was a four-lane street barely more than a decade ago. Page through old Google Street View images and you’ll see construction begin in 2011. Before that—in images from 2007 and 2008—Greenville is a windswept, dusty canyon of a street. There are no trees or pedestrians, and many of the businesses are dive bars.
To say that Greenville is attractive is misleading. Greenville was made attractive. It took political change. It took a deliberate move away from car-centric culture. Parking lanes were converted into wide sidewalks with patios. Trees were planted where cars used to drive. Crosswalks and lights were added.
Most notably, a four-lane road was reduced to two. In this case, a narrow street is, indisputably, a better street.
“Some of Lowest Greenville’s success is the pedestrian-oriented design,” Hetzel said. “The streetscape improvements were a big part of that. Another big part of that is retaining the old buildings, instead of doing a strip shopping center with two rows of parking in front.”
Next time you’re walking down Greenville, take a moment to enjoy not just the amenities but the sheer variety around you. Short blocks and narrow storefronts create an attractively diverse cityscape that changes with each step. “Outside of just restaurants, you have Joy Macarons, Boulangerie, Greenville Avenue Pizza Company, Outside Texas, and that’s just in one small building,” Hetzel pointed out. “You can walk past six different things in a row.”
One element on Greenville—beautiful historic buildings—cannot be replicated easily. But we can still learn actionable lessons. Make neighborhoods more pedestrian-friendly. Pack a large number of different business types into a small space. Offer shade, benches, bike racks, lamp posts, planter boxes, and other amenities and decorative touches. Create a neighborhood where people want to spend their leisure time.
Oh, and the biggie: deprioritize parking.
Second lesson: Parking shouldn’t come first
Greenville is still struggling with a parking battle as visitors ditch their cars in surrounding residential streets—and the residents there watch resentfully from their windows. Even here, therefore, developers have intentionally bought old buildings to tear them down and turn them into parking lots. They’re required to, in order to meet city-mandated minimum parking requirements.
Although Dallas restaurant-goers are more likely to complain about too little parking than too much, too much parking is the bigger problem. There are a few ways to see this. One of them is sheer math. Dallas requires a parking spot for every 100 square feet of a restaurant or bar. (Yes, even bars.) A standard parallel parking space is 176 square feet, while angled parking spots can rise past 200. Your parking lot can be double the size of your business. Parking is—literally—the biggest part of constructing a restaurant.
“A lot of the built environment we experience in the city is due to parking code,” Hetzel said. “In the real estate world, a lot of people say the first thing you do is to solve for parking and figure everything else out after that. Which is backwards.”
In 2021, D’s Matt Goodman talked to a developer whose tenant was a takeout restaurant. The takeout spot wanted to add a couple of sit-down tables to the pre-existing space. But the tables stayed folded up because the owners couldn’t pave new parking spots. Matt also talked to entrepreneurs who wanted to open a boutique hotel in a 5,000-square-foot building. The plan failed because they couldn’t scrounge up 8,000 square feet of empty asphalt.
Here’s the next way of looking at the parking problem. The more real estate we give to parking, the less room we have for literally everything else, including restaurants.
Scroll back up and look at that satellite image of Lowest Greenville, prepared by Dallas employees with certain properties highlighted yellow. The yellow areas are “disappeared buildings that are currently parking lots.” How many possible delicious places to eat have we sacrificed to our unwillingness to consider any other forms of transportation?
“It’s a small stretch of commercial zoning,” Hetzel said. “They’re not making any more of it. And we’re full.”
Finally: as Hetzel’s comment suggests, the more parking consumes a neighborhood, the scarcer buildings become. Remaining leases grow more expensive.
This is where diversity, as a goal, reenters the story. Many minority-owned businesses have moved to the suburbs, where land is abundant and cheap. The city center has less land, and a shocking amount is underneath parking lots. How many brand-new startups can afford a lease in a neighborhood that puts parking before office space?
Excessive parking has an indirect effect on racial and class inequities by reducing the supply of available real estate, even before you mention parking’s role in encouraging White flight to suburbs, the prioritization of highways over buses and streetcars, or the overtly racist creation of parking lots around Fair Park.
The success of walkable neighborhoods like Greenville, Bishop Arts, and Deep Ellum offers lessons. Provide parking around the fringes, yes. But give people more options: make them feel comfortable walking, biking, riding the bus or train, or just calling a Lyft.
Create a space with such density of business that even if people do drive, it’s to spend a whole afternoon visiting shops, bars, restaurants, and galleries. When I visit Greenville, I don’t just eat and leave; I enjoy a scoop of ice cream, shop at Trader Joe’s, look in store windows, walk a few blocks for fun, and maybe grab a nightcap.
The longer you can get people out of their cars, the better the neighborhood will be—and the more people will want to go there. Even if they park four blocks away. Even if they don’t drive.
Third lesson: Diversity comes in many forms
Greenville Avenue is a story about minority-owned small businesses like Ngon Vietnamese Kitchen and Taquero finding homes on a central Dallas street. But it’s also a story about how a great food neighborhood comes from diversity not just of people, but of offerings.
Jimmy Park, chef-owner of Shoyo, put it best when he told me that this is a street that can accommodate both Truck Yard and Carte Blanche. You can sit outside eating a messy food trailer cheesesteak, or you can pay $250 per person for a fine-dining tasting menu. Although Carte Blanche is not “diverse” in the conventional sense (as a White-owned French-ish restaurant), several of its neighbors brought it up as an example of Greenville’s wide range of possibilities.
“You got Single Wide next to Carte Blanche,” Hetzel said. “You don’t find that in a lot of neighborhoods.”
Park’s omakase sushi spot, Shoyo, is across the street from Feng Cha, a casual boba shop. Quarter Acre is one of the first New Zealand-inspired restaurants in Texas.
“I can’t say that [diversity] was our goal and intention specifically,” Hetzel noted. “But I can say that we’ve always been really interested and excited about putting in concepts that are different than what’s already on offer.”
Fourth lesson: Find property developers who are committed to Dallas long-term
Hetzel and Madison Partners can cultivate those diverse concepts, in part, because they own so much of the street. Much of Greenville is divided between just two landlords, Madison and Andres Properties. Hetzel says the companies coordinate to make sure that, for example, they don’t lease to seven rival ice cream shops and create a sundae glut.
But there’s another underappreciated aspect to Andres and Madison’s approach to Greenville: their unwillingness to sell. Because the companies are committed to staying in Dallas, they don’t make leasing decisions based on the potential flippability of the property.
“Arguably the primary reason [landlords] choose national tenants instead of local tenants is for the credit on the lease,” Hetzel explained. “National tenants have higher creditworthiness. This is particularly important if you’re looking to sell the property after lease-up. We have no intention of ever selling the property, which gives us more flexibility to choose what we think would be the most interesting rather than what would maximize our creditworthiness for resale.”
If Madison Partners wanted to sell the building housing Botolino Gelato, for example, they might have sought out a Cold Stone Creamery. Instead, they wanted something more fun.
“We met the owner of Botolino, and in five minutes we fell in love with his passion and immediately decided we had to make a deal with that guy,” Hetzel recalled. “We’ve found a lot of success putting in concepts that are different from your typical Dallas fare. We thought Toby [Archibald] was the best option for the [Quarter Acre] space because he was doing something different from what you could find elsewhere.” Madison Partners also leased the first-ever location of Cane Rosso, back when Neapolitan pizza was unfamiliar to Dallasites.
Park, owner of Shoyo and the upcoming casual sushi bar Kaiyo, and John Kim, one of the owners of Fortune House, credited their landlords at Andres Properties for seeking out locally-owned businesses.
Park said his plan was to focus exclusively on Shoyo for another year or two before thinking about opening a second restaurant. But then opportunity knocked.
“My landlords walked into my kitchen,” Park remembered. “They said, ‘Hey, I want to talk to you about something.’ I thought I was in trouble.” Instead, the meeting was about the space formerly occupied by Teppo. “They told me there were other sushi restaurants that wanted to come in, even a ramen restaurant that wanted to come in. But they believe in me. That’s the first thing they said to me. ‘Hey, do you have another concept in mind? I’d rather have you do it.’”
Kim echoed Park’s experience with Andres Properties. “They wanted local operators here. They said they had big name people wanting to come here, but they wanted someone local.”
Fifth lesson: Provide education and mentorship for first-time owners
To get into a high-profile, high-demand restaurant space like those on Lowest Greenville, you can’t just be a good cook. You have to understand the business.
Many restaurateurs suggest starting in a lower-rent area to establish a reputation and prove a new concept’s profitability. Tanner Agar, co-owner of Greenville spot Rye, explained to me that Rye started in McKinney for that reason—and that even with an acclaimed McKinney restaurant, many Dallas landlords were still skeptical. He then added that he didn’t even know who a wannabe restaurateur could call if they had wanted to lease the Rapscallion space.
Archibald knew, and Quarter Acre won the race. Why? Because it had a broker, a real estate expert who understood the restaurant concept and actively searched for the perfect space for him. The deal was done so quickly, a for-lease sign never went up. Kim told me that he had a similar leg up from a partner with restaurant experience, a mentor he met at church.
This is the lesson that requires the most city-wide effort. We need better support networks and education systems for enterprising new business owners. A first-timer looking to break into a top neighborhood needs a business plan good enough to convince both investors and restaurant real estate brokers. How many rising young chefs dream of owning a Greenville spot but have no idea where to start or who to call?
If the system currently favors restaurateurs savvy enough to understand the business, we need education and mentorship for those who lack that savvy. Better-educated entrepreneurs are the first step to more diverse neighborhoods.
Sixth lesson: Good neighbors make good neighborhoods
This one’s a stretch. I don’t think it is teachable. But it was, nevertheless, a persistent theme of my conversations up and down Greenville: almost everyone on the street is really freaking nice.
“Everybody has been so nice,” Park said. “Leela’s [Wine Bar], Rye, everybody is just so nice. Since my whole career started, I’ve met the nicest people here [in Dallas]. My neighbor supports us. We help each other out. Rye comes over and asks us if we have something, sometimes I go over to borrow from them. We’re transparent to each other, we look out for each other.”
“The whole neighborhood’s been super welcoming,” Archibald agreed. “They’re super glad to have you on the street.”
Kim and Karen Rubia, general manager at Fortune House, added that Greenville customers have been just as welcoming—even for the restaurant’s least Americanized dishes.
“Here so many people are a little bit more adventurous,” Rubia reported. “We’ve had people coming in wanting to try the phoenix talons—pickled chicken feet! A lot of people are ordering the Szechuan style boiling beef. I haven’t seen people ordering broccoli beef. They’ll get the beef with string beans and black bean sauce instead. The dishes that are a little more authentic are getting to shine.”
“I feel like it’s the area,” Kim added. “Greenville, people are more willing to try [new things].”
If there is one lesson we can draw from all the niceties, it’s that we can use it as a springboard to Dallas pride more generally. “I want to make Lower Greenville better,” Park said. “I want to make Dallas better. Yes, I’m not a Texas-born chef, but this is my home. My kids go to school here. I hate when people come to Dallas and say the food scene sucks. Hey, we are getting better. The food scene is getting much better. I’m trying to represent D-Town and make it dope.”
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Brian Reinhart became D Magazine’s dining critic in 2022 after six years of writing about restaurants for the Dallas Observer and the Dallas Morning News.