Oak Cliff gets slapped around in the media more than Faye Dunaway in “Chinatown.” It’s portrayed as a capital of crime, a place where home invasions and jackings are considered sport. After all, it once was the home of three of America’s most notorious criminals: Bonnie and Clyde; and Lee Harvey Oswald.
First off, everyone argues over the borders of Oak Cliff but, taken in its broadest, most amorphous meaning, the area sprawls over a huge amount of square mileage, from I-30 south to I-20, from I-35 west to Loop 12, not including Cockrell Hill which is its own city. (The original town of Oak Cliff, which was annexed in 1903, covered much less territory.) So, if something heinous happens in one far-flung part of the Cliff, the entire neighborhood bears the burden of media disdain.
Yet this dismissal by the rest of Dallas has its silver lining. Neighborhoods that might have been plowed under for the sake of development have retained their old-school charm. Many of the old-growth trees still stand and, along with the rolling terrain and slightly higher elevation, help make the O.C. less of a mini-mall flatland than its counterparts north of the Trinity.
Now that phrases like “urban in-fill,” “in-town living,” and “walkability,” are the new urban-planning buzzwords, many are beginning to realize that Oak Cliff, especially North Oak Cliff, is so much more than its bad reputation. In addition to legendary killers, the more upstanding Stevie Ray Vaughn, Erykah Badu, Edie Brickell, Dennis Rodman, and T-Bone Walker also once called it home. And these days, there seems to be some sort of festival almost every weekend, whether it’s the Oak Cliff Art Crawl , the Oak Cliff Block Party Peace Festival, the Oak Cliff Mardi Gras, the Oak Cliff Earth Day Festival, or Cyclesomatic.
Is Oak Cliff the "Austin" of Dallas?
The federal government was impressed enough with the idea of restoring trolley service between downtown and Oak Cliff to award a $23 million grant to help fund an idea proposed by the Oak Cliff Transit Authority. More recently, Mark Cuban announced a large multi-use office/housing/sports complex to be built in South Oak Cliff. With all this activity, it’s not unusual now to see Oak Cliff described as the “Austin” or the “Brooklyn” of Dallas. (Though it should be noted there are continue troubled neighborhoods within Oak Cliff and there’s been some tension between old-time residents and the newcomers.)
This turnaround in attitude is helped by a mini-explosion of restaurants, bars, and galleries that are starting to draw the curious from all over the Metroplex.
So, here are some suggestions on where to hangout when visiting the Cliff:
Bishop Arts District in Oak Cliff
(Bishop Ave. and 7th St.):
The great thing about the compact Bishop Arts District is that, with its classic storefronts, it’s prime territory for strolling. This is where revitalization started in the ‘80s when developer Jim Lake began buying up run-down buildings near what was once Dallas’ busiest trolley stop and restoring them.
Such long-time restaurants such as Hattie’s (418 N. Bishop Ave., upscale Southern cuisine); Chan Thai (312 W. 7th St., Thai); El Jordan (416 N. Bishop Ave., Mexican); Vitto’s (316 W. 7th St., Italian) and Veracruz (408 N. Bishop Ave., Mexican) -- the latter being one of my favorite Mexican restaurants in all of Dallas -- have now been joined by a myriad of newcomers including:
Espumoso Coffeehouse (408 N. Bishop, Suite 105, www.espumosocaffe.com)
Hula Hotties Cafe & Bakery (244 W. Davis St., Hawaiian)
Casa Blanca (400 W. Davis St., Tex-Mex, run by a member of the family that started Mia’s in Oak Lawn)
Dude, Sweet (408 W. 8th St., www.dudesweetchocolate.com, handmade chocolates)
Greek Cafe and Bakery (334 W. Davis St.)
Quinn’s (202 W. Davis St., www.thequinnbar.com, bar/lounge)
Zen Sushi (380 W. 7th St., www.zensushidallas.com/zs/home.html)
Eno’s (407 N. Bishop Ave., www.enospizza.com, pizzeria/bar)
In addition, secondary outposts of eateries that made their name in other parts of Dallas -- Hunky’s (321 N. Bishop Ave., burgers); Cafe Madrid (408 N. Bishop Ave., Suite 108, tapas); and Cafe Brazil (611 N. Bishop Ave., Suite 101) -- are now in Bishop Arts. Now, if there could only be a good Indian restaurant around here, things would be set.
Unique Shopping in the Bishop Arts District
But there’s more to do in Bishop Arts than just eating. There’s also shopping for unique gifts/homeware at Bishop Street Market (419 N. Bishop Ave.) and Fete-Ish (322 W. 7th St.), sneakers (10 Footwear, 332 W. Davis St.; and vintage sodas (The Soda Gallery, 408 N. Bishop Ave.) The latter also doubles as a gallery space, especially for pop art, pun intended.
Art Galleries in Bishop Arts District
Davis Street Corridor
(Davis Street between Hampton and Bishop)
The excitement that started squarely in Bishop Arts is now spreading westward down Davis St. The restaurant Bolsa (614 W. Davis) has earned accolades for its trendy American menu and see-and-be-seen patio bar. But don’t get too lost in the yuppie fantasy.
Keep in touch with Oak Cliff’s roots by crossing the street for one of the tastiest taquerias in all of the area, El Si Hay (601 W. Davis St.), or heading for the original Gloria’s (600 W. Davis St.) Relatively new to the Davis strip are Con Fusion (642 W. Davis St.), an Asian fusion restaurant, and Oak Cliff Pizza (1315 W. Davis St.), a Brooklyn style pizzeria.
Tradewinds Social Club (2843 W. Davis) was taken over in 2009 by a former manager at Lee Harvey’s and is considered by many to be the coolest dive bar in the Metroplex. Yep, cooler than Lee Harvey’s or The Grapevine.
The Tyler Davis Art District
(aka The Tyler X+ District)
(Intersections of Kings Highway and Davis, 7th and Tyler)
If Bishop Arts is largely about feeding your face, the Tyler Davis Art District -- also called X+ because of how the intersections of Kings Highway/Davis and 7th/Tyler look from the air -- is more about feeding the spirit. This has become the focal point for the likes of the newly vocal Oak Cliff cycling community to create an area in which pedestrians and cyclists are not intimidated by auto traffic.
Formerly barren walls along 7th St. are now decorated with colorful murals and they join a crop of new and long-running businesses in the area including:
The Kessler Theater (1230 W. Davis St.) Jeff Liles, who was in on the ground floor of the Deep Ellum renaissance of the ‘80s, has teamed with investment manager Edwin Cabaniss to restore the old Kessler Theater and turn it into a performance space for popular area acts like The King Bucks and Robert Gomez.
The Oak Cliff Bicycle Company (410 N. Tyler St.), whose motto is “Keep It Wheel.”
Cliff Notes Prolonged Media Bookstore (1222 W. Davis), a place no one is going to confuse with Borders.
Coco Andre Chocolates and the Truffle Gallery (831 W. Davis St.). www.cocoandre.com
From the Ends of the Earth (839 W. Davis St.), a phenomenal gift shop featuring objects from around the globe, http://www.fromtheendsoftheearth.com/
Daniel Padilla Gallery (838 W. Davis St.), http://danielpadilla.com
The Cube Creative (409A N. Tyler St.), a contemporary art gallery.
Mighty Fine Arts (419 N. Tyler St.), a contemporary gallery that has been getting national attention for its exhibits of artists from afar afield as Baltimore and San Francisco.
The Rose Garden Upscale Resale Shop (841 W. Davis St.), a thrift store with a mission. They employ women who may have been in jail but are being re-trained. (There’s also the Rose Garden Training School).
Tara Tonini Designs (411 N. Tyler), an outlet for clothing designer Tara Tonini. www.taratonini.com
The Sylvan-Fort Worth Intersection
North of the Bishop Arts District and Tyler X+, the intersection of Fort Worth and Sylvan also is becoming a place worth exploring. On the northwest corner is The Belmont Hotel (901 W. Fort Worth Ave.), an old motor hotel that has been renovated and turned into a hipster boutique hangout. The balcony bar, with one of the best views of downtown Dallas in the city, gets packed on weekend nights. http://www.belmontdallas.com
A couple of blocks away is Jack’s Backyard (2303 Pittman St.) A bar/lounge/live music venue with a very eclectic crowd.
To keep tabs on what’s going on in the Cliff, check out these sites:
Cary Darling is an arts editor and the pop culture critic at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. He moved to Dallas in 2005 from Miami where he was arts editor at the Miami Herald. Prior to that he was an arts editor and pop-music critic at the Orange County Register in California. After living on both coasts, he decided he wanted to know what life would be like without a beach.