Toi Cunningham is a Texas native who was kind enough to answer a few questions for us about what to do in Dallas. Much of Toi’s knowledge comes from her experience through Instrata at The Ashton Uptown where she masterminded all kinds of events. Many people are known to go to Toi for advice around Dallas. Here are our Toi Cunningham Dallas lifestyle tips.
1. Where’s the best restaurant in town?
While there is no shortage of a fantastic epicurean scene, it always seems to come down to 3 things: Burgers, steak & Tex-Mex. There is a wide variety of opinions on where the best burgers, steak and Tex-Mex are in Dallas.
My personal favorite, Mario’s Salvadorian, is a well-kept secret. This Latin eatery is known for its Central American specialties, but only the true regulars know about the Mario Burger. They grind the brisket in-house and build the burgers when ordered. The bun is grilled on both sides for an even texture. It is served with two slices of bacon on top of cheddar cheese, house-marinated jalapenos, two leaves of iceberg lettuce, three slices of Roma tomato, and perfectly fanned avocado slices. The burger also comes with steak fries perfect for dipping into their spicy salsa verde. The entire meal is only $9!
Maple & Motor and Rodeo Goat are homegrown, nearby favorites. Maple & Motor was on the forefront of the re-gentrification of Dallas’ medical district and was featured on “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives,” a food reality television series hosted by Guy Fieri. You should get there early to avoid the line. Don’t expect to do take-out, and bring a friend because the portions are big enough for two! On the other hand, Rodeo Goat has great cocktails, western movie nights, amazing craft beers, and an awesome patio with games, music and dogs.
There is no shortage of steak in Dallas. It is the city that introduced the country to Steak & Ale (ask your parents, Del Frisco’s & Bob’s Steak Chophouse). My personal favorite for over 15 years has been Al Biernat’s. Al and his staff create the perfect balance of ambiance, attentive service and great steaks. Unlike most upscale steakhouses, Al Biernat’s is amazingly female friendly. We used to have an Ashton Ladies Lunch group and meet at Al’s every other Friday.
For non-meat eaters, Al also offers an amazing menu of seafood and delicious dishes. Both my mom and Dr. Phil rave about the sea bass. Some say the chicken piccatta is the best in town. Great “steak-on- a-plate” can be had in many places and most deliver an amazing meal. However, for overall experience, I recommend Al Biernat’s.
While the original El Fenix is still operating just down the street from Instrata at The Ashton Uptown. Meso Maya, led by Executive Chef Nico Sanchez, is located in the former home of Luna’s Tortillas behind the original El Fenix. It offers a contemporary menu in a historic building with an enclosed terrace that features street tacos at Taqueria La Ventana. The restaurant offers the perfect meal before a concert at The House of Blues or before heading to a game at the American Airlines Center.
Tacos run the gamut. Not long ago, Fuel City, a gas station south of downtown took the prize of having the best tacos in town. Open 24 hours, this mega fuel stop is home to tacos al pastor, picosa! But through the explosive Uptown growth came the growth in the need for the elevated taco. McKinney Avenue’s Urban Taco incorporates house-made corn tortillas and offers a chicken mole taco that will take you back to Puebla! Or just a mile north, The Velvet Taco is home to serious fusion fun with Indian spiced sauces to set the palate into overdrive.
My favorite is La Nueva Fresh & Hot, near Bachman Lake. Their corn tortillas are homemade and filled with a spicy braised pork shoulder. However, the biggest surprise is their $4 house salad – an iceberg lettuce salad with tomato, avocado, queso fresco and hardboiled egg – which serves as the perfect complement to their fiery salsa.
2. Where’s the best place to shop for clothing?
Directly across from Instrata at The Ashton Uptown is the luxurious Stanley Korshak, recently crowned the largest independent department store in the country. The staff is extremely service-oriented and knowledgeable, offering a great experience for anyone who walks through the door. I adore Salvador Martinez, a true haberdasher. He has an uncanny ability to tap into his clients’ personalities to create a very individual look and been with Korshak for over 20 years.
Neiman Marcus’ flagship store in downtown Dallas is just an eight-minute drive from Instrata. Highland Park Village is where you will find luxury boutiques from Tom Ford to Stella McCartney, with Valentino and Fendi opening this fall.
Personally, I am a vintage junkie. Dolly Python is an East Dallas gem, selling amazing refurbished cowboy boots and hats. I recently purchased a pair of elbow-length navy gloves and a fun, fur-accented hat. Men can find stylish vintage T-shirts as well. Vintage Martini carries a wide range of clothing and accessories—even brands like Chanel, Hermes and Louis Vuitton. The price of a designer item in pristine condition is usually matched accordingly. Across from Vintage Martini is Gypsy Wagon, one of most comprehensive shops in town, with items ranging from gifts for the home to a thoughtful selection of fashionable women’s apparel with a distinct Texas style.
3. What are the best things to do around the city?
You should take a tour of AT&T Stadium, home of the Dallas Cowboys. The stadium is an architectural marvel designed by HKS Architects, and also houses an amazing art collection curated by the Jones family, the Cowboys’ owners. I had the unique opportunity to see the project as it was being built and had dinner with Jerry and Stephen Jones.
Deep Ellum, a neighborhood east of downtown, has a homegrown music scene as well as some amazing eateries. This historical district was home to Dallas’ jazz and blues movement, with great musicians like Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown. In the 80’s, it became home to the punk lifestyle and video bars. I saw The Cure, Sonic Youth, Bauhaus, The Cocteau Twins, Skinny Puppy, The Legendary Pink and even Coldplay on their first tour at the now-gone Gypsy Tea Room. It is also home to the ever growing Deep Ellum Arts festival.
One of my favorite places located in the Eastern most part of Deep Ellum is The Sons of Hermann Hall. Built over 100 years ago as a fellowship hall, it is now open to the public as venue for events & parties. But it is also home to 20+ year Wednesday night Swing Dance night as well as Thursday’s open mike nights. With its original oak floors & grand chandelier, it is not difficult to imagine Bob Wills & The Texas Playboys, Hank Williams, Patsy Cline, Faron Young, Carl Perkins all having performed there. A venue for the original Texas Troubadours.
4. Could you suggest something you think not many people know about, such as events, places to eat, etc.?
There is the architecture walking tour where you can explore buildings designed by I.M. Pei, Philip Johnson and Rezzo Piano. Dallas has one of the best art districts in the country. The Dallas Center for Architecture has a tour of the Dallas Sklyline at Klyde Warren Park. In less than 30 minutes, you can learn about some of the most notable buildings & the talent behind them.
My favorite spot is the Nasher Sculpture Center. I love sitting outside, enjoying what feels like a “backyard.” The center exhibits a private collection of modern and contemporary sculptures donated by one of the original Dallas developers, Raymond Nasher. He had a personal mission to make art approachable and accessible. His collection of contemporary paintings and sculptures can also be seen at NorthPark Center.
The Easter Pooch Parade takes place every year. For a small entry fee, pup owners dress up and the four legged participants wearing their Easter Sunday best are judged for a variety of categories. It is always a festive event where you can simultaneously walk your dogs and drink mimosas while Turtle Creek Blvd is closed between Hall Street & Lemmon Ave. Nearby are picture-perfect opportunities with azaleas in full bloom & Lee Park’s Arlington Hall in the background.
The Dallas Symphony Orchestra used to give a free concert and raise funds for the Turtle Creek Association. Now privatized, the event features live local music, food trucks and animal rescues.
Dallas is also home to one of the biggest St. Patrick’s Day Parades and Block Parties. Every year, the parade takes place the Saturday before March 17. The event has seen over 100,000 participants, with post parade performances by artists such as Snoop Dog and Three Doors Down.
The past five years Aurora Dallas has grown into a world-class interactive art experience. Aurora is the brainchild of artist Shane Pennington, spearheaded with co-founder and artist Joshua King, and co-founder Veletta Forsythe Lill (I believe she was a Dallas City Council member at one point). For only one night, the entire arts district becomes a canvas to both local and international artists who create an urban playground of new media art: light video, sound, performance, and projection. It gets bigger every year—I have been told that the next Aurora will expand over an entire weekend in October. We had a VIP group from Instrata at The Ashton Uptown attend last year, all of them receiving exclusive access to certain exhibits, food and drink, and of course the big after party!
We hope you learned something new.