Last night I did not have to work too late, so we decided to go down into downtown Dallas to the Butcher Shop restaurant in the West End. The West End Marketplace opened in the mid 1980s. It's one of those prepackaged "activity centers", a building full of knick knacks, cafes, arcade games and the like, aimed at 20somethings and tourists, surrounded by older buildings converted into restaurants and bars. Lots of cities have tried some version of the West End Marketplace--I believe the West End was modeled on a once successful but ultimately failed thing in Atlanta called Atlanta Underground. The West End has been a huge success, not "hip" exactly, but entirely inoffensive, and, I must admit, fun in a kitschy, time killing way.
The Butcher Shop is one of those places where one cooks one's own steak. There's huge open pit barbecue fires, one chooses the size of one's steak from a menu filled with steaks of obscene weights, and then one is taken to a huge freezer case to pick just the right steak. I share the common vanity of all non-vegetarians that, given open flame, I can make the perfect steak, so places like this interest me.
This was not the first time we'd been to this restaurant.
In 1988, I'd been in the Butcher Shop on a Friday night, having dinner with a co-worker who always chose at dinner to put his tie off its normal kind of lapel place and move it out of harm's way in restaurants by tossing it around his neck like a scarf. The Butcher Shop was one of those places that 20something and 30something professional singles went to eat, the people that at that time everyone called "yuppies". Because Dallas is always a bit vivid, this meant kids dressed in rather old-fashioned chic nightclub attire and in Italian-cut business suits. Trust me, 1988 was a world away from today. Dallas was in the waning moments of an economic boom, folks with money "hung out" at expensive restaurants and fancy clubs, where singles who sold commercial real estate by day connected with a sort of wild abandon among electronic dance tunes, and folks with cool hung out in a warehouse district called Deep Ellum where the best music on earth was played by indie bands from Austin and Dallas seven nights a week in the most incredible set of clubs ever invented. It was a heady time indeed, a time when AIDs was barely more than a rumour, a time when the world wide web did not exist, when jobs and money seemed plentiful, and a time when the Bush in government actually made sense sometimes. I am not really at home in a world of young urban professionals and material success, or even in the much more appealing world of two bit clubs where alternative bands will blast one away with incredible tunes all night long, but I followed my usual credo that it's okay for an earnest person to be slightly out of place wherever he goes, and I lived as gracefully as one with metaphorically too many thumbs, too many thoughts and short, unmanageable hair can in such circles.
The steak place in 1988 was crowded with people cooking their steaks, and all abuzz with the youth and adventure of the moment. I was sitting in a table by the window, with my co worker, exulting about my plane ride from Los Angeles the previous evening. I was telling him about how delighted I was to meet this woman on the plane. Suddenly, I looked up, across the crowded room of hip businesspeople, and there she was. The woman I'm now married to was, by chance, also at the steak place. It seemed like Fate, Destiny, or just another day in the charmed Dallas of 1988.
She was standing at the grill, cooking her steak. She's a bit pink-complected, so the radiating heat from the massive grill (which had one of those fume vacuum things on top) was turning her face a very pleasant red. Let's omit the fact that she had a date, because although I was introduced to him, he really proved to be a minor character in this story. I went up and said "hi", and I could see her sheer delight that we had run into each other that evening. We didn't say much, we went our own way, and I saw her from afar a time or two more that July evening in the West End area, where, as is still usual, soul cover bands gave free outdoor concerts to the folks around.
Within a week, we were dating, and in less than two years we were married. So our trip last night to the Butcher Shop was more than a noble quest to fire up steaks. This was a "place" for us.
When we arrived in the restaurant last night, the ambience had changed from fourteen years ago. Gone was the sense that this was a place in which one discussed a big business deal. Gone was the sense that 20somethings and 30somethings were stopping in for a swinging steak prior to hitting a Euro-disco and trying to make a love connection. Gone was bleach blonde hair, and Italian suits, and high heels, and very yellow ties, and make-up meticulously applied to achieve the look of a fashion magazine. Gone were pinpoint oxford button down shirts worn with jeans. Gone was the sound of endless clinking of Dos Equis and Corona beer, as in that pre-micro-brewery era the Mexican beers somehow defined everyone's moments. Gone was the sense of "I'm a success, I'm with it, and I can cook a steak. I believe all these things died when the entire savings and loan industry collapsed at once, and all the financial services professionals in Dallas, a big "money moving" town, found themselves either unemployed or indicted.
Now the Butcher Shop is a quiet, simple affair. Most people opt to have the chefs cook their steaks, although one grill is still set aside for we troglodytes who still want to cook our own steaks. The place is warm and friendly and familiar and quiet and dark and nice. The place was like two people who met in the blur of excitement, and now have settled into something entirely comfortable, and intensely sustaining.
We explained to the waitress our sentimental little story, and she told us that the West End had changed. It is still fun, but it's no longer a place where singles party so much. It's a much more sedate affair.
We chose steaks, headed to the grill, got a little instruction from a man who, it turned out, was working there back in 1988, and then we cooked our steaks. I had not put Worcestershire sauce on a steak in decades, and it's just such a silly thing to do, so I drenched my steak in Worcestershire sauce, which, for some reason, suddenly seems to me to be something Pappy, my father's late father, would have done. Our steaks turned out grand, the ambience was quiet and pleasant, and, unlike 20something days, when we would have done a little nightlife after dinner, we instead drove home and made an early evening of it.
I don't always feel mentally different from that man at 28 who met his future wife on a plane and then saw her at a steak place as if Zeus himself had placed her there. My body once in a while sends me postcards that I'm older,
although I try to be just as active now as I was then. The circumstances of my life, though, have entirely changed, and I could barely imagine not being married to my wife. If our world now involves much more cable television in our tract home, and much less nightlife, that's okay. We still know how to stand at an open grill, and cook a steak, and discuss how odd it is the Cranberries had so many hits, and yet the Sundays, such a worthy band, had so few. We might have had that talk in 1988. We had that talk last night. We'll have that talk, if God wills, in 2018. It really doesn't matter how updated the floor coverings were in the Butcher Shop. It matters that we can talk, and dream and exist every day. We're aiming for well done.