By Laura Miller

Thirty years ago, when I was a Dallas newcomer working as a summer newspaper intern, something wondrous happened that shaped my view of the city forever: A Dallas native with a syrupy drawl and a straw cowboy hat took me on a date to the Texas Teahouse, a local honky-tonk with an outdoor beer garden and live C&W band, and after much dancing and a coupla long-neck beers, put me over his knee, spanked me hard, and yelped at the stars with tangy glee, “Damn! You’re a feisty Yankee woman.”

Dallas still likes feisty out-of-towners. Maybe it’s the city’s audacity—think Jerry Jones, Ross Perot, and T.D. Jakes—and sheer size. The Dallas-Fort Worth metro area is fourth largest in the country; its airport is bigger than Manhattan island; the shopping is divine, the museums distinguished and varied, and the sun shines most all the time, though a bit too brightly in July.

One thing we are not any more is the old Dallas stereotype. The Teahouse became condos long ago, and the spanker—we’re still friends—now wears bowties and manufactures wind turbines. It’s grating when outsiders only ask about Big Hair, the Cowboys (little or big “c”), and That Television Show. Sure, Southfork lingers on as a mopey tourist attraction, but nowadays people visit Dallas for its urbanism, architecture, art, medical centers, nightlife, glitter, skyline, opera, symphony—all its sports teams—and low airfares (Southwest and American are based here). You’ll miss the texture of the city if you don’t get to funky Deep Ellum (live music), Mockingbird Station and West Village (boutiques and art houses), Bishop Arts (eclectic food and gifts), The Cedars (jazz and Gilley’s), Highland Park (Chanel and Christmas carriage rides), and Fair Park (the Art Deco home of the annual State Fair of Texas, where millions gather for fried cookie dough, pig races, auto shows, amusement rides, the TX-OU game, and sweet-potato-pie competitions).

The biggest changes in Big D are to its downtown. After two decades in a coma, the city center is now Under Construction: The private sector raised $275 million to finish out the country’s largest arts district with new opera and theater houses; architect Santiago Calatrava is building two spidery vehicular bridges, his first in the United States; a dazzling 75-acre development called Victory Park, pulsing with nightlife, neon, flashy hotels, and condominiums, surrounds the basketball arena; Forest City Enterprises of Cleveland is transforming three blocks of abandoned office buildings into hip residential and retail; and in its infancy is the city’s biggest public works project ever: The long-neglected Trinity River through downtown will morph into lakes, wetlands, trails, and a white-water canoe course. Bricks and mortar aside, I believe food is the soul of Dallas, which reportedly has more restaurants per capita than New York. Here, the gastronomic high notes become lifelong cravings. Proof: When my Yankee relatives come to visit, they demand a stop at one of three places upon leaving the airport: the original, grimy Sonny Bryan’s Barbecue on Inwood Road, where the smoky odor permeates your clothes for the rest of the day; Snuffer’s for chiliburgers, frozen margaritas, and cheddar fries; or Joe T. Garcia’s in Fort Worth, where you simply order “the dinner” and watch as the table piles up with nachos, tacos, rice, beans, guacamole, tortillas, and enchiladas. Of course there is plenty of upscale food too—clubby steakhouses more numerous than McDonald’s, and the many food temples of resident superstar chefs like Dean Fearing and Stephen Pyles.

My litmus test for visiting any American city is whether it’s worth a detour off the AAA Triptik when you’re headed in the opposite direction. One Sonny Bryan’s brisket sandwich, one hour at the Nasher Sculpture Center downtown, one glimpse of the city’s skyline at night, makes Dallas more than worth the effort.

LAURA MILLER was a journalist for 20 years before being elected to the Dallas City Council in 1998. She served as Mayor of Dallas from 2002 to 2007.

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