By BARRY SHLACHTER
While staff put finishing touches on his new restaurant, Cat City Grill, Vance Martin weighed the relative merits of opening 24 hours after Valentine’s Day.
In this grim economic climate, what’s remarkable is that Martin, owner-chef of Lili’s Bistro just down the street on Fort Worth’s Magnolia Avenue, is expanding his business horizons at all.
And he’s not alone.
Another Magnolia restaurant, Scampi’s, is enlarging its serving area and adding a bar. And new to the Tarrant market are the Cowtown Diner downtown and Wildwood Grill in Southlake, not to mention out-of-town ventures like Cooper’s barbecue, from Llano, opening in the Stockyards. From Austin comes Mandola’s, moving into Arlington, and El Arroyo, in southwest Fort Worth. Add to that Dallas concepts expanding to Fort Worth, like Tillman’s Roadhouse near West Seventh Street.
BJ’s, a California chain featuring beer from Houston’s Saint Arnold microbrewery, added area restaurants at North East Mall in November and yet another at Alliance Town Center.
Houlihan’s, a more refined version of the 1970s chain, is back with geographically wide-ranging dishes in a casual-dining restaurant at Arlington Highlands.
But for all the openings, the economy also claimed victims in Dallas-Fort Worth’s ever-more-competitive environment, which boasts a full-service restaurant for every 299 households.
Luby’s, the iconic Texas chain, closed four unprofitable cafeterias around Tarrant County last fall, while in December, Dixie House Cafe pulled out of its downtown location previously occupied by Bennigan’s, which had abandoned all its company-owned stores in summer 2008. Fuego’s was a summer flame-out.
In recent weeks, Ocean Rock, Aventino’s and Ovation served their last meals, unless someone takes over the moribund operations and resurrects the names.
"As an undercapitalized independent we were unprepared for a wobble, unable to withstand the [economic] sting," Mike Musgrove told the Star-Telegram after shutting down Ovation on the west side after 3 1/2 years. He hopes to find a buyer who can reopen it.
Derrick Paez of Aventino’s told a similar tale.
"Between my father and myself we ran out of capital," Paez said of a difficult year. "We made it happen for 11 months and didn’t think we would be closing down over the Christmas break. My daughter’s cancer had a relapse, and we just had enough."
His family planned to make good on about $500 worth of gift cards sold before the closing, said Paez, who acknowledged that the restaurant expansion and slick, New York-inspired makeover he orchestrated two years ago were out of step with local tastes.
"My vision didn’t match up with the marketplace," he said.
In downtown Fort Worth, restaurant receipts dropped 9.8 during the second quarter of 2009, the latest figures available, according to Downtown Fort Worth Inc., citing the Texas comptroller of public accounts.
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