Dallas is the most American of American cities. It’s built with oil, cheap land, unapologetic conservative greed, hardscrabble tenacity and little regard for looking backward. In 1936, Dallas Mayor R.L. Thornton said, “Dallas doesn’t give a damn about history; it only cares about the future.” So as the city grew to prominence, instead of focusing on its heritage, Dallas made up its own story through the world’s most popular primetime soap opera. Dallas also drew national attention through its football team, the Cowboys, boldly proclaiming them America’s Team. And what did Dallas do once you started to doubt the validity of that claim? Dallas built the world’s biggest stadium, complete with the world’s biggest hi-def TV and one of the state’s best art collections. Because Dallas is macho and civilized, baby!
But somewhere during the last decade, the city realized that maybe it was trying too hard. As such, it took a cue from Austin and chilled out a little—with, of course, the help of craft beer and artisanal tacos.
12:14 P.M. Dallas civic planners made it easy to get cultured by placing its most prominent museums and venues in one centrally located Arts District. Start at Nasher Sculpture Center. Head outside and stroll past, or through, large modern works from the likes of Magdalena Abakanowicz, Jonathan Borofsky, Alexander Calder, Willem de Kooning, Mark di Suvero, Joan Miró, and Richard Serra. Then walk through the new 5.2-acre Klyde Warren Park, which was built over Woodall Rodgers Freeway to connect uptown and downtown, to the only slightly newer Perot Museum of Nature and Science, opened in December 2012. The 180,000 square-foot facility contains 11 permanent exhibition halls and stands 16 floors tall—a symbol of Dallas’s desire to show off just how cultivated it is.
2:24 P.M. Learning is great, but eating is better. Fortunately, the best tacos in Dallas, and perhaps in all of Texas according to Texas Monthly, are just a couple miles away at Fuel City Tacos. At only $1.40 a piece, sample as many tacos as you can, but make sure that includes a picadillo—ground beef, garlic-seasoned potatoes, onions and cilantro wrapped up in two white-corn tortillas, with a side of green chile salsa.
The taqueria is located in a gas station—a gas station that also has a drive-through beer store, a pool, bikini-clad women, five longhorns and three jackasses. As in real live donkeys. This isn’t a truck stop—it’s a glimpse of Texas heaven.
3:19 P.M. After consuming enough meat and carbs to feed the Cowboys defensive line, lounging is necessary. For optimal outdoor day drinking, head to Lower Greenville. The area was once known as a daytime dead zone that only lit up in the late hours when college kids and delinquents took over the neighborhood dives and clubs. But that was before the city rezoned and revitalized the worst stretch of Greenville. Now it’s a locavore enclave with carefree patios and myriad dining options.
The best addition to the neighborhood is Truck Yard. If it weren’t for the troves of people and their dogs, you’d think you had stumbled onto redneck private property where all trespassers are shot. The plot is filled with mismatched lawn chairs, trailers, wood scraps, tires and rusted-out trucks. But its details (e.g., light-up retro signs, junk sculptures, hanging strands of lights and a tree-house bar) elevate it from wasteland to whimsical. It’s an ideal place to order a bucket of Dallas Blondes from the local Deep Ellum Brewing Company while relaxing on a rickety chair under the Texas sun.
4:38 P.M. Step into the Blind Butcher, a couple blocks away. The joint is heavy on the local beers and even has two on tap that have been specifically brewed for it by Franconia Brewery located about 30 minutes away in McKinney. But it also has some of the best cocktails in East Dallas. So don’t leave without ordering the Dove Tail—crafted out of mescal, grapefruit cordial and a splash of soda—and a side of spicy pig’s ears.
5:43 P.M. The last stop in the neighborhood is down the street at Ships Lounge, one of the best dives in the state. The jukebox is filled with standards and rockabilly classics, the small worn-down pool table barely fits in the back, and the walls look like someone was given 50 bucks to decorate for three holidays at once. There’s only cheap beer or wine, unless you brought in a bottle of something stronger from a nearby liquor store—which is completely acceptable.
7:33 P.M. Cross the Trinity River and head to Eno’s Pizza Tavern for the best pizza pies in Dallas. Go to the relaxed, open upstairs room and ask for the Pig Smiley, which comes loaded with local honey, spicy sausage, ham and American calabrese. Eno’s is in the heart of the quaint, picturesque Bishop Arts District of Oak Cliff. Much like Lower Greenville, Oak Cliff is undergoing a renaissance, thanks in part to the $182 million Margaret Hunt Hill Bridge that connects Downtown Dallas to West Dallas. The bridge itself (which is the first of what is expected to be a series of three Santiago Calatrava-designed, unnecessarily grandiose overpasses) was constructed with an if-you-build-it philosophy that seems to be paying off.
8:53 P.M. While you’re in the neighborhood, stop in the Texas Theater for a drink. For decades the cinema was an unused building made famous by the fact that Lee Harvey Oswald was captured there about 90 minutes after shooting JFK. But in 2010 a group of investors revived the building. After all that pizza, you’d probably pass out if you attempted to watch whatever indie film or cult classic is being shown. Instead, go to the bar, order a Shiner, pick out a record from the stack and put it in the Crosley turntable.
10:07 P.M. What’s that? You wanted to do some golfing on your vacation? It’s not too late. TopGolf is the fusion of a driving range and skeeball. Balls with microchips determine how many points you earn based on how far you hit the ball and how close it gets to the target. It’s not the same as getting in 18 holes, but at least there’s always a bar within walking distance.
11:19 P.M. Adaire’s Saloon in Deep Ellum is an ancient honky tonk covered in faded photos, neon signs, stickers and Sharpie graffiti—some of which was likely done by parents and grandparents of the current cowboy-boot wearing patrons. Lean against the bar with a Lone Star and watch couples two-step to live outlaw country music.
12:42 A.M. A few blocks down Commerce Street you’ll find Double Wide. You can’t miss it; just look for the silver tornado on top and a pack of mopeds out front. If you’re up for liquid dessert then order the infamous Yoohoo Yeehaw, which is essentially a redneck White Russian, then step outside and sit on one of the toilet-seat chairs underneath the mural of Barry Manilow playing at San Quentin. (No, Barry Manilow didn’t play at San Quentin.)
2:33 A.M. Take the after-party back to the bungalow you rented at Oak Cliff’s Belmont Hotel. The hotel was a stucco art-moderne wonder when it was built in 1946, but it went dormant for nearly 50 years before its 2005 revival. Make sure you step out onto your balcony and take in the best view of the Dallas skyline. In the distance you’ll see the gaudy glow of the flashing buildings across the Trinity River, radiating from the cocksure Dallas of yesteryear.
Jennings Brown is an associate editor at Popular Mechanics magazine. His work has appeared in Esquire, Cowboys & Indians, Cigar Aficionado, and CNN Travel.