Old School Big D – Classic Dallas Things To Do

Classic car outside midcentury modern Statler hotel downtown Dallas TX (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

Classic car parked at the entrance of the mid-century modern Statler hotel & residences in downtown Dallas TX (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

If you’re looking for quintessential, classic Dallas things to do and see, let me take you on a little journey….

(Update: found a photo of me with my aunt)

Sheila and her Aunt Adelaide in Dallas summer of 1970 (photo by Joanne Scarborough)

Me and my Aunt Adelaide in Dallas, near her little apartment complex swimming pool that I loved so much, summer of 1970 (photo by Joanne Scarborough)

When I was young, we often visited my great-aunt Adelaide who lived in an apartment in the city. On a recent trip to Dallas, I decided to pay a return visit to a few of our favorite spots to see if they were still kicking.

Art Deco Wonderland in Fair Park

Designated a U.S. National Historic Landmark in 1986, Fair Park is a 277-acre complex that includes one of the largest collections of Art Deco art and architecture in the world.

It was the site of the 1936 Texas Centennial Exposition that celebrated the 100th anniversary of Texas independence; some say that the spending for all of that hoopla helped keep the city of Dallas from sinking as much into the grip of the Great Depression.

The Exposition buildings are still in use today for the annual State Fair of Texas, among other events, but you don’t have to wait for the fair each fall to pay a visit and wander the grounds.

Art Deco on the Esplanade at Fair Park Dallas Texas (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

Art Deco on the fountain-splashed Esplanade at Fair Park in Dallas, Texas (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

Many of the period murals on the buildings have been painstakingly restored …

Power Dam 1936 Pierre Bourdelle mural at Fair Park Dallas TX (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

“Power Dam,” 1936 – a Pierre Bourdelle mural at Fair Park in Dallas TX (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

The gilded Tower Building is hard to miss. The Cotton Bowl stadium nearby is familiar to me as a University of Texas graduate – that is where we clash with the University of Oklahoma every year in the “Red River Rivalry” football game.

The Cotton Bowl is also home to the State Fair Classic – a big football and marching band battle between two HBCUs / Historically Black Colleges and Universities – Louisiana’s Grambling State University and Prairie View A&M University, northwest of Houston.

Tower Building with Cotton Bowl in background Fair Park Dallas Texas (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

Tower Building with Cotton Bowl stadium in the background at Fair Park in Dallas, Texas (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

There are several museums and attractions in Fair Park that you can visit year-round: The African American Museum, the Children’s Aquarium at Fair Park, the Dallas Historical Society’s Hall of State, and Texas Discovery Gardens.

I also spent a lot of summer visits going to the Dallas Summer Musicals in Fair Park, and I’m pleased to report that they’re still showing at the historic Music Hall.

Southern Comfort Food at Highland Park Cafeteria

It was a treat when my great-aunt would take us to Highland Park Cafeteria, because the food was really good and there were so many choices that I always had “eyes bigger than my stomach.”

Good news – this true Dallas classic (founded in 1925) moved to a different building in 1996 from the Knox Street location that I remember as a child in the 1960’s and 1970’s, but it is still going strong.

Exterior of Highland Park Cafeteria Dallas TX (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

Entrance to the Highland Park Cafeteria in Dallas TX (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

While you’re standing in line, peruse the framed U.S. President portraits/info placards that line the walls and keep people occupied reading them while they wait to get to the food. It may be the only time that you’ll learn anything about, say, Millard Fillmore.

There is a homey feeling when you visit “HPC,” partly because many cafeteria staff members have cooked and served for a long time, including 87-year-old Ernest Bowens (“Mr. B”) who has worked there for six decades. He jokes in the Dallas News article linked above, “I’ll tell you my secret. What we put in our food is ‘come-back’ — come back for some more.”

In the line near desserts at Highland Park Cafeteria Dallas TX (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

In the line near desserts at Highland Park Cafeteria Dallas TX (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

The food is made from scratch on site, and includes standard Southern dishes that some may find puzzling.

For example, in the photo below of my tray from that day, the green item at top left is a “congeal,” which is a not-very-appetizing name for a congealed salad, usually made with Jell-O gelatin and some sort of mix-in like cottage cheese or cream cheese. It’s sweet and very good.

I had to get the Ambrosia Salad, another Southern classic made from fruit, marshmallows, coconut, and those neon-red Maraschino cherries. I know, it sounds ridiculous, but it’s addictive.

Tray of food at Highland Park Cafeteria Dallas TX (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

I got pot roast, a yeast roll, a broccoli and cheese soufflé-like dish, plus the congeal and Ambrosia Salad. Even the trays are satisfyingly vintage at the Highland Park Cafeteria in Dallas TX (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

The menu changes each day, but they always serve certain “HPC Classics” which includes entrées like Angus Beef Brisket, Smothered Steak, Chicken Fried Steak, Chicken Fried Chicken, Grilled Salmon, Fried Catfish, Baked Cod, Beef Liver and Onions, Fried Cod, Grilled Chopped Steak, Fried Chicken, Chicken Strips, Roasted Chicken, and Fish Croquette.

It is best to have your mind mostly made up before you get to the start of the offerings, because you’ll be politely mowed down by those in line behind you who have been coming for years and know EXACTLY what they want.

Another pleasant touch – live piano music in the dining area.

Stay Someplace Historic, Like The Statler

We did not spend time at the Statler when I was a kid; my great-aunt preferred the hoity-toity Adolphus Hotel down the street if we were going to get really fancy. The French Room restaurant at the Adolphus (still popular today) was the place to see and be seen in my great-aunt’s Addie’s day. My Mom remembers that in the 1950’s, the Century Room at the Adolphus would install a temporary ice rink for touring ice revue shows.

This trip, however, I spent a night at a mid-century modern historic hotel that was originally opened in 1956, closed in 2001, and then reopened in late 2017 after a US$230 million renovation.

Midcentury modern historic hotel Statler downtown Dallas TX (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

Mid-century modern historic hotel Statler in downtown Dallas TX (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

The Statler has both hotel rooms (as part of the Hilton Curio brand) and over 200 apartment residences, so there is quite a mix of people coming and going in the lovely lobby….

Lobby of midcentury modern historic hotel The Statler downtown Dallas TX (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

Lobby of the mid-century modern historic hotel The Statler in downtown Dallas TX (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

A big colorful restored mural from 1956 dominates part of the lobby….

Colorful mural by Jack Lubin 1956 lobby of midcentury modern Statler hotel downtown Dallas TX (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

Colorful mural by Jack Lubin from 1956 in the lobby of mid-century modern The Statler in downtown Dallas TX (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

There are all sorts of places to eat and drink in The Statler, including a breakfast joint called Overeasy, Fine China for “modern Chinese cuisine,” the Bourbon & Banter speakeasy that you may need to ask for directions to find plus the secret code to get in, and a fun, relaxed American cuisine place called Scout that includes a small bowling alley and pool tables.

Ask for local beers at Scout – I had a brilliantly-named Fire Ant Funeral Amber Ale (we detest fire ants in Texas!) from Dallas-based Texas Ale Project.

If you head to the top floor, you can sit at the bar in the Waterproof lounge near the pool, looking out of tall windows at Dallas city views through the big metal letters that spell “The Statler” that you saw in the nighttime photo of the building at the beginning of this section.

The pool itself is stunning….

Rooftop pool at night at The Statler hotel downtown Dallas TX (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

Rooftop pool at night at The Statler hotel downtown Dallas TX (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

There are all sorts of distinctive touches, like a chromed llama figure that pops up everywhere, and details that will make you smile, like the name “Big Dallas Hair” for the shampoo provided in your bathroom….

Bathroom toiletries at Statler hotel Dallas including Big Dallas Hair shampoo (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

Clever bathroom toiletries at The Statler hotel, including Big Dallas Hair shampoo (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

I thoroughly enjoyed my splurge staying at The Statler, where even the room key tied into the place’s mid-century roots – it said “Strangers in the Night,” a famous 1960’s song by Frank Sinatra.

Shop At the Original Neiman Marcus, & Join Ladies Who Lunch at The Zodiac Room

For many years, a well-thumbed, well-loved cookbook has held a place of honor on my parents’ shelf – Helen Corbitt’s cookbook. For 14 years starting in 1955, Corbitt ran the Zodiac Room restaurant in the original Neiman Marcus department store in downtown Dallas.

She rescued Texans from a “bleak culinary landscape” and delivered us….

“….from canned fruit cocktail, plates of fried brown food, and too much bourbon and branch into a world of airy soufflés, poached fish, chanterelle mushrooms, fresh salsify, Major Grey’s Chutney, crisp steamed vegetables, and fine wine.”

Her fluffy popovers at the Zodiac Room were legendary; or I should say, ARE legendary because you can still get them today.

And unlike in the 1950’s, you don’t have to wear a hat and gloves to eat at the Zodiac.

Find Traces of Bonnie & Clyde

My great-aunt Addie is long passed, but I wish I could ask her what she remembers hearing in the newspaper and on the radio about Bonnie and Clyde and their early 1930’s crime sprees around north Texas. Both Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow grew up in Dallas.

I highly recommend the biography Go Down Together: The True, Untold Story of Bonnie and Clyde by Jeff Guinn; I couldn’t put it down.

On my way out of town, I made a detour to see the converted Star filling station on Singleton Avenue that was Clyde’s boyhood home….

Clyde Barrow childhood home West Dallas Bonnie and Clyde (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

Childhood home of Clyde Barrow (half of the crime duo Bonnie and Clyde) in West Dallas TX. There is not an historical marker of any kind on it, and it’s private property, so proceed accordingly. (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

Here is a list of Bonnie and Clyde points of interest in and near Dallas.

If you want to see where it all ended for the crime couple, I’ve been to the spot where they were gunned down in Gibsland, Louisiana. It is pretty creepy, especially if you go at dusk as I did, and are foolish enough to sit there and re-read the section in Guinn’s book that describes how they were killed.

Do you have classic Dallas favorites yourself? Tell us about them down in the comments.

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