“Welcome to Fort Worth,” the concierge said, as I checked into my hotel. “We have all the big city amenities here without the big city hassles.”
I know this firsthand, having lived in neighboring Dallas, or the “Big D,” for four years.
The sibling cities, known collectively as DFW, are connected by broad highways. Fort Worth, located approximately 30 miles west of Dallas, is for-locals-by-locals, genuinely friendly, and not too worried about what other people think.
These quirks are evident in the city’s culinary scene, as well.
“We have a lot of local chefs…making sincere food in places that aren’t part of big, corporate chains,” explained Bud Kennedy, the columnist behind the Fort Worth Star-Telegram‘s “Eats Beats.” “Plus, we aren’t overwhelmed with crowds. We have enough people to be fun, but not enough to be a nuisance,” he said.
Here are ten great spots that promise an only-in-Fort-Worth vibe:
> Reata: This authentic ode to Texas “cowboy cuisine” (what Bud Kennedy defines as a “nicer version of chuckwagon cooking—like starch in your jeans”) in Sundance Square is at the top of many a local’s list.
When Reata arrived on the scene in the 1990s, Kennedy says it was a pure chuckwagon joint, slinging grilled meats and chicken-fried steak. Since then, the restaurant has broadened its offerings, without losing its original ranch spirit.
As you’re eating your way through Fort Worth, know that several of the city’s top chefs cooked at Reata before opening their own restaurants.
The centerpiece of the rustic-chic space is a large split bar—one side serves coffee from local Texas roasters like Avoca; the other side slings craft brews and inventive wine cocktails such as “Fire and Cider.”
Even though you’ll stand in line for a table at peak times, the reward of tasty comfort food like fried chicken and waffles and duck-fat fries makes the wait worth it.
> Joe T. Garcia’s: Perhaps the city’s most beloved restaurant, Joe T. Garcia’s is a true Fort Worth experience.
When it first opened in 1935, the Northside eatery could accommodate only 16 patrons at a time. Now, the Tex-Mex institution can seat upwards of 1,000 on its lush open-air terrace, complete with bubbling fountains. As Buddy Kennedy advises, “Go for the sheer margarita splendor of it all.”
Despite its success, the restaurant hasn’t lost its old-school charm—or the tried-and-true family recipes that made it famous.
Set in a residential neighborhood five miles west of downtown, Bonnell’s is Elaine’s go-to spot for venison loin, elk tacos, and “oysters Texasfeller.”
We sat in the bar, which exudes a more relaxed vibe than the restaurant, and enjoyed chef Jon Bonnell’s upper-crust brand of cowboy cuisine, which displays a decidedly Creole influence, thanks to the time he spent training in New Orleans.
> Ellerbe Fine Foods: This stylishly southern farm-to-table dining spot is housed in a former gas station, without the accompanying truck-stop feel.
Instead, this lovely oasis on Magnolia Avenue evokes nostalgia for a simpler time and offers up creative, elegant dishes with an emphasis on fresh and seasonal produce.
It also keeps its diners returning with its wide-ranging menu and excellent selection of steaks, ribs, and hearty sides. Tip: After a meal here, walk to the Stockyards Hotel for a drink at the bar. The stools are saddles—giddy up!
> Café Modern: Location, location, location! At this round, glassed-in restaurant, the food is served against the backdrop of Japanese architect Tadao Ando’s iconic architecture in Fort Worth’s dynamic Cultural District.
Café Modern is located in the striking Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, and is a great spot to fuel up before or after you browse the latest exhibits.
New executive chef Denise Shavandy incorporates seasonal ingredients from local producers into culinary traditions from around the globe in her from-scratch cooking—and the menu is constantly changing, just like the art that adorns the museum’s walls.
> Woodshed Smokehouse: Chef Tim Love has been a household name in Fort Worth since opening up his flagship restaurant Lonesome Dove Western Bistro in the Stockyards in 2000. But when he won the “chili pepper” battle on the Food Network’s Iron Chef America in 2006, he drew national attention to the city’s burgeoning food scene.
Love’s latest offering—joining outdoor burger joint Love Shack and honky-tonk hot spot the White Elephant Saloon— is the Woodshed Smokehouse, and his “homage to all things grilled, roasted, and slow-cooked.”
There’s a laid-back Texas vibe at the community-oriented Woodshed, which overlooks the Trinity River and offers patrons a side of live music, backyard games, and gourmet coffee with their meat. (When I ate there, I sat under rows of twinkly lights for a Sunday brunch, and left smelling of delicious hickory smoke.)
> Cannon Chinese Kitchen: Located in a lovingly restored 1930s-era home in Fort Worth’s Southside neighborhood, Cannon Chinese Kitchen specializes in shareable eats like Szechuan Alaskan halibut and sausage-and-leek fried rice.
The owners, the Ho and Kha families, also run Shinjuku Station, a popular izakaya-style restaurant that serves traditional Japanese small plates in the city’s Magnolia District. (Harrison Ford was recently spotted there.)
> Barbecue: Barbecue is a subject that can elicit fighting words from the most docile of Texans. Nevertheless, I asked Bud Kennedy for his thoughts. “The prevailing public opinion is that you go to Angelo’s for brisket, and to Railhead for ribs,” Kennedy told me. “We also have great new spots like Billy’s Oak Acres and Heim, a craft BBQ trailer that is about to [expand with a new] restaurant.”