The restaurant business, especially in Dallas, wears me out. It’s mostly about celebrity chefs and having the most expensive menu, and too often, it seems, the chefs cook for fame and fortune and not to satisfy customers.
This is why I was so sad to learn that one of my favorite restaurants in Dallas, a soul food joint called Vern’s Kitchen, closed last week. I can almost recite the menu by heart: short ribs, chicken and dumplings, chicken fried steak, meat loaf, stuffed bell peppers, greens, cabbage, smothered corn, white beans and black-eyed peas, sweet potatoes, and lemon pound cake (tightly, tightly, covered with plastic wrap). How much did I like Vern’s? They didn’t serve wine, and I still went as often as I could.
So why am I spending time on a wine blog writing about a soul food restaurant that didn’t serve wine? Because a great restaurant is like a great wine. It doesn’t matter how much it costs and it doesn’t really matter what’s on the menu or what the varietal is. Is the food real? Is the wine honest? Do the people cooking the food and making the wine care?
Vern’s was honest and real, and the Freeman family, who ran it, cared. In this, it was a necessary antidote to the plastic and pre-packaged, the marketing-driven, and all of the other foolishness that the wise guys who run the restaurant business practice these days. Which is not unlike how the wine business is run, and I don’t think that’s a coincidence. They each see the consumer as columns on a spreadsheet to be manipulated one way and then another, whether by adding a cute label or rearranging the menu to satisfy the whims of a focus group. They don’t think anything of buying a bottle of wine for $6 or $8 and selling it for $28 (the practice at a well-respected and critically-acclaimed Dallas restaurant that I no longer frequent)
Vern’s was as far from that as possible. The tables and chairs didn’t always match, sometimes you had to slip a wad of napkins under a table leg, and the plastic water glasses had seen better days. The plastic squirt bottle of margarine took some getting used to. But the food was glorious, and I do not say that lightly. I am a huge food snob, and just because someone can make a cream sauce, put a chicken breast in it, and charge $25 does not impress me. I get to eat at most of the “best” restaurants in Dallas for my wine writing, and there’s no comparison. Vern’s was almost always more fun. (In fact, all but one of my favorite restaurants in Dallas are ethnic, reasonably cheap, and rarely included on any “best” lists.)
The recession did Vern’s in, as it has done to so many other quality restaurants of that kind. Its working class customers can’t afford to eat out as much in the current economic reality. Vern’s had also been forced to move a couple of years ago. Its new location, while certainly more customer friendly, never seemed to catch on. And, sadly, the Freemans, for whatever reason, didn’t come to their customers to ask for help. We would have helped. We would have done almost anything -– taken up a collection, written until our fingers gave out, anything. Vern’s was that important.
On Saturday night, I said farewell to Vern’s. I made short ribs, turnip greens, rice, jalapeno corn bread, and bread pudding. I opened a couple of Italian wines from Salento –- Castello Monaci's Liante 2006, a red blend (about $12), and Piluna 2007 (about $11), a primitivo. They were cheap, well-made, and food friendly -- and short ribs and gravy are short ribs and gravy, regardless of accent.
We toasted Vern’s and shared stories. I have two favorites, and both are about vegetables. A friend's daughter, a vegetarian, loved Vern's. How could she eat there? I asked. Even the vegetables are cooked with pork products. My friend laughed. That's something she prefers not to know, he said. The second came when I ordered only vegetables one day at lunch -- greens, black-eyed peas, smothered corn. No meat, honey? asked the the woman behind the counter. No, I said, just the vegetables. What's wrong? she wanted to know: Are you on a diet?
That was Vern's, and that will be missed.Technorati Tags: restaurants,Vern's Place,soul food