Thursday 23 January 2020

Living next door to Dallas

With direct flights from Dublin, Texas has never been closer and its most famous city is full of surprises, writes Mark Evans

Mark Evans in the Sixth Floor Museum
Music abounds in Deep Ellum
Fairmont Hotel in Dallas
Fairmont Hotel in Dallas
Truck Yard in Dallas

With a presidential impeachment, a divided Congress and Twitter wars between a partisan public, it's easy to believe that American politics has never been so brutal. But one of its darkest day of modern times took place 56 years ago in Texas.

Dallas will forever be linked to the assassination of President John F Kennedy in 1963, an event that stirs emotions to this day. And if you pay a visit to the Texas city - which is linked directly to Dublin with a summer air service - a tour, or maybe more of a piligrimage, to the site of his final hours is a must.

The Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza is situated in the old Texas Book Depository, where Lee Harvey Oswald shot - or maybe not - the 35th President of the United States.

The museum is worth a good few hours of your time: it's got so much from that era - Abraham Zapruder's camera that captured JFK's final moments, the suit worn by the police officer handcuffed to a soon-to-be-killed Oswald, and the very floor from which the fatal shots (or not) were fired at the presidential motorcade.

It's a refreshingly honest museum, showing that while many a home in JFK's ancestral land had his portrait on the wall, he wasn't always so popular in the United States, particularly in the South, with Texas voting Republican in the 1960 election.

It shows that his poll ratings were down to 59pc, and 400 death threats were made against him in November 1963 - the month of his death - alone.

Most poignantnly for me was the article that appeared on November 22 in the Dallas Morning News, which read: "Dallas hopes, Mr President, that your brief interlude here will be pleasant. The News, along with thousands in this area, has disagreed sharply with many of your policies but the opposition is not personal."

He would be dead before sunset.

While America does museums well, it tends not do dwell too long on the past. Dallas today is multicultural, cosmpolitan and boooming. Many Texans joke that they'd be happy enough apart from the US - and it's easy to see why, with wealth that woud make the state the world's 10th-richest country.

Luckily for tourists, it's also good value, and a much cheaper nightlife and sightseeing option than the big coastal cities. Back in the 1980s, downtown was a place to work, but a desert by night as the good folk escaped to the safe and leafy surburbs. Now, it's undergone a renaissance, as I could see from my hotel, the landmark Fairmont, in the heart of what's now the downtown's Arts District.

It's a short walk to a range of leading museums, with the Dallas Museum of Art on a world-class scale. You might not think of Texas for such culture, but you'll soon be put wise. It's got more than 24,000 pieces of art under one roof - from three millenniums before Christ to pop art, Renaissance, New World and Asian masterpieces. Incredibly, general admission is free, with small prices for special exhibitoins when they're in town.

Ten minutes' walk away is the Perot Museum of Art and Science, which is way more than a museum - it's got theatre movies about the likes of volcanoes, a moving platform where you can experience an earthquake and high-tech planetarium-style zones. Admission varies, but it's definitely worth it. Discounts are available, including for visitors with a CityPass book.

Okay, three museums down - and that's nowhere close to scratching the surface. In between the Museum of Art and the Perot, a great lunch stop is Meso Maya on McKinney Avenue. It's authentic Mexican food, with gargantuan portions of home-made tacos, seared chicken breast, beef tenderloin pieces and a host of specialities from the many regions of Mexico. Very popular locally.

While downtown is thriving, Dallas throws up many suprises and it's a city of eclectic suburbs. While gentrification has toned down the nightlife in cities like New York and San Francisco, it's thriving in Dallas' Deep Ellum neighbourhood, just east of downtown.

Originaly an African-American enclave, it played host to jazz and blue legends - inclding the late, great Bessie Smith - in the 1920s. In more recent times, punk names as well as Nirvana, the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Radiohead have jammed in its scores of small bars and clubs.

The Free Man Cajun Cafe & Lounge enticed us in with its New Orleans vibe and Big Easy-style band (the cheap beer was a big bonus). A great mix of people, but if that's not your scene, theres's rock, country and western, whatever, along the main drag on Commerce Street.

Handily situated next door to the Cajun bar is Cane Rosso, serving real Neapolitan-style pizza. In the land of the pizza, I've got to admit that it's got some of the best - and freshest - pies in the States, and that's saying something. Leave plenty of room because, as with most restaurants in this city of big portions, you'll be hard-pressed to make it to dessert. Actually, I reckon it's an impossibility. Pizza (14") from $13 with $3 Miller Lites on draught during happy hours.

Other neighboods? Plenty, with action in a city that, forget the cowboy cliches, seems more of a hipster heaven to me. A case in point: the Bishop Arts District, which feels more like a small town than suburb. It's got a huge array of independent stores (the big faceless franchises aren't so big in this city).

Lockhart Smokehouse is a modern take on the Texas barbecue tradition. Order meat by the half-pound - you can mix and match - and get it barbecued and washed down with a cold brew. This eatery is incredibly popular in an area that's got a lot of cute clothes stores, its own market and bookstores.

Speaking of books, The Wild Detectives in the area is part bookstore, part bar in what looks like a house out of The Waltons, porch and all. It's seriously trendy, and the kind of place where the clientele look like they probably voted for Hillary over the other guy. For a state that's seen as traditional, it's another realisation that the preconceptions can often be wide of the mark.

Okay, one more suburb - and equally cool. Greenville. A sort of Rathmines, it's a hive of activity. Get some dinner in Gung Ho, which is very in at the moment. Pan-Asian, it's got modern takes on food from Vietnam with a really fun atmosphere. Around the corner is the seriously cool Truck Yard, where the beer is cheap, served in a nice garden area where various food trucks come and go through the night, bringing pub grub to suit all tastes. Worth the trip to Dallas alone for this one.

Back near downtown, make sure to get to the Farmers Market. All the hip people go there - us too - and we picked up a lot of home-made spicy salsas and sauces while grabbing a coffee and donut. Meanwhile, the onsite farm-to-food restaurant, Mudhen, is exceptional for lunch and brunch.

If you want a US city break with a difference, where you get the feel of real Americana, look no further than Dallas.

Dallas Factfile

● GETTING THERE: The handiest connection is the coming summer's non-stop flight from Dublin to Dallas Fort Worth Airport on American Airlines' Dreamliner. The service, which ran earlier this year, starts back for the new season on May 7. (americanairlines.ie)

● WHERE TO STAY: The Fairmont hotel has been the city's go-to for generations (parts of Oliver Stone's JFK movie were filmed here too). The pool has great views over the downtown Arts District and the rooms are enormous, with our two-room suite more than enough for three of us). If you can, go for a King Suite - they have the kind of views over the city that JR Ewing enjoyed in Dallas. It's a friendly hotel too. Check for packages, including flights, with Tour America in Dublin. (touramerica.ie)

● THINGS TO DO: Visit the Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza, adult $18 for audio tour, discounts for children. (jfk.org); the Museum of Art (dma.org); and Perot Museum (perotmuseum.org).

Trips to the suburbs are short enough, but get an Uber account to keep costs down. If you're going further afield (sister city Fort Worth and dude ranches are definitely worth considering), then hire a motor as the car is still king for longer trips.

● RESTAURANTS: Meso Maya (mesomaya.com); Cane Rosso (canerosso.com); Lockhart Smokehouse (lockhartsmokehouse.com); Gung Ho (gungho.dallas.com); Mudhen Meat and Greens (mudheninthe.net); and Truck Yard (truckyard.com)

For tons more tips and ideas, visit dallas.com

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