Upon entering the historic 80-year-old building in the trendy Greenville neighborhood of Dallas, a covered bistro-style entryway reveals a rather small bar space with a large wine list emblazoned on a blackboard. The well-rounded by-the-glass list features thoughtful New and Old World selections from both small, family-owned vineyards and large producers. The Dallas-Fort Worth area has several local breweries, and those were also noted on the list of libations.
Before we imbibe, chef and owner Brian Luscher greets me with an overview of this well-respected eatery. A wall separates the fine-dining space with the more casual venue, but the concept of urban bistro dining resonates throughout the entire restaurant. Into the fine dining area with dimmed ambient lighting, linen tablecloths, and Old World photos and paintings that create a romantic intimate space for dining with loved ones and friends we spent several minutes speaking of his ability to keep this fresh and vital in the sometimes challenging world of a restaurateur and entrepreneur.
The Grape opened in 1972 when two culinary-adventurous friends who, after several wine-enlightened moments in Bordeaux, returned to the United States. They opened The Grape bistro to share their newfound love of wine and enlighten their Dallas friends on the finer aspects of French cuisine.
In 2007, expertise and financing came together for Luscher and his sommelier wife, Courtney. He’d spent five years in The Grape’s kitchen and even longer honing his skills at various restaurants in Dallas and Chicago, and they were ready to become owners of the Grape. Today, Luscher runs the kitchen with the same enthusiasm and drive as when he began his career 40 years ago.
The Grape’s time-tested blackboard bistro menu reveals classic steak frites, roasted natural local chicken, mustard-crusted salmon, and fresh pasta. The seasonal September menu offers innovative creations such as an Asian pear salad with black mission figs, wasabi-toasted peanuts delectably intertwined with a ginger vinaigrette; and a chili-rubbed pork chop with cream corn, green tomato jam, and blistered shishito peppers. With dishes that honor the past and the present, The Grape continues to bridge the time warp by creating a buzz both locally and nationally. Sitting down with the chef, I inquire on how he keeps the flames of food passion burning as the years and culinary trends have ebbed and waned.
The Daily Meal: Trends come and go in the restaurant business. What trends do you think are here to stay for a while?
Brian Luscher: The majority of restaurants are scaling the model down to a smaller venue, a bistro, a wine bar, or some type of smaller focused venue. We have seen menu changes, such as the tapas menu, but it also can be about the restaurant itself. We are doing that with Luscher’s Red Hots, our house hot dog. All of the sausages are handmade natural casings, locally raised antibiotic- and hormone-free meats. Local produce is used, and we make all our own mustard and pickles. And the bread is from a local father and son bakery. It’s just a great hot dog, a tribute to a good Chicago-style hot dog.
Also, there is a great desire for the freshest, seasonal ingredients. Here at The Grape, we serve the classic bistro menu on the right side of our menu, and we also offer a monthly menu that features seasonal ingredients from the many local and regional purveyors and farmers markets we have developed relationship with over the years. For example, we make all our own charcuterie in house, such as our rabbit mortadella and pork rillettes. Some things never go out of style, and that includes fresh ingredients and using really good butter and, of course, the basics of great French cooking techniques.
Being a successful restaurateur for many years not only requires exceptional skills and fortitude, but a great staff, who are essential to create a convivial atmosphere to keep customers returning. What do you look for in a person who you are considering for employment?
I am not only looking for the right qualifications but also for someone who is teachable and has certain humbleness to them. They don’t necessarily have to have the most impressive résumé, but they need an engaging willingness to work as a team player with the common goal of pleasing our guests with the best service they can provide. You can have someone with lots of experience but can be difficult to get along with or who is arrogant, and that just does not work in the long run. We are the hospitality industry and that applies to how everyone interacts and treats each other.
Speaking about putting the guest first, would you cook a beautiful filet well-done? I know there are many chefs who would refuse this request.
I know there are chefs out there who would refuse that request, but if that is truly the desire of the guest then, yes, I would do it. Our focus here is on pleasing our guests, not about what necessarily pleases the chef. A happy guest will be our best advertising. However, we may try to persuade them to try something they never considered. For example, my wife is the sommelier, and if she has a guest that would like a white zin, she will invite them to try, perhaps, a riesling or another wine that may awaken that person to other wine possibilities. We are also about educating and elevating our guests’ dining experiences. By the end of the night I want people to be satisfied, relaxed, laughing, and engaged with their friends and loved ones — not just well-fed.
Do you see yourself continuing in this location in a decade or two?
Well, in 10 years, perhaps, but I am not 20 years old and hopefully my labors will have paid off from the many years in the restaurant business.
My endeavor, especially with Luscher Red Hots, which is in the process of a national launch, is something that does require a fair amount of time and attention. I would like to spend more time pursuing a pastry program here, for which I am very interested in. I love using the seasonal fruit in pastries. I would like to spend more time mentoring other young chefs and working more with the charities that I am interested in. Overall, I am looking forward to enjoying more time with family, friends, and travel.