Garden Café, a Case of Wine Controversy in Dallas

“Whenever we had a photographer,” explained Dale Wootten, owner of Dallas’ Garden Café, “we’d offer complimentary wine and cheese and promote their art.  We had a lot of birthday parties or anniversary parties or whatever and we just can’t do it anymore.”

Wootten refers to the recent rejection of a proposal that would have allowed his small café to continue hosting private events where guests could bring their own alcohol, and potentially begin selling and serving beer and wine.  “We filed the application because a lot the neighbors kept saying ‘why don’t you have wine with dinner?’ ” he said.

In the midst of my conversations with Dale and his son Mark, the café’s General Manager and lead cook, I became more curious about how the presence of wine (or lack thereof) could impact a business.  Questions from various angles formed in my head, as I tried to sort through why wine represented a restaurant’s ticket to growth, and the implications a surrounding community saw with that privilege.

Dale purchased the space that is now Garden Café in 1991, at which point he used it as an office.  Rather than pursue the completion of plans considered the highest and best use of land, Dale saw the potential of catering to his pastime of gardening in the building’s back lot.  He decided to expand his vision into a café because, he remarked, “I have always liked little places like this.”  It has evolved into a Junius Heights institution with its picturesque patio by a garden that takes up half the space.

A photo of the original building purchased by Dale Wootten in 1991

Garden Café in its current state

The limitation of offering beer and wine stems from a zoning ordinance that deemed the space a dry overlay.  Though properties can no longer receive this designation, any overlays made before 1987 still stand, and Garden Café falls into this category.

In spite of the overlay, they had been serving beer and wine at private functions and allowing guests to bring their own for nearly nine years.  The city suddenly took notice of these activities as illegal “because we had the application,” said Dale, and “the city attorney explained that what we’d been doing was illegal.”

After a vote defeated their bid for offering beer and wine, Garden Café is reassessing how they will make up for what they believe helped their business remain economically viable.  “We were going to do dinner service,” Mark Wootten began, but “it was going to be more pop-up dinners with other chefs, and we were going to do some of our own with poetry dinners.”  Mark continued that these dinners were a long tradition for the café, and he felt skeptical they could retain the same spirit they evoked, and fill up such events without the ability to bring or purchase alcohol.

A vision unfulfilled

I recently attended a pop-up dinner at a different location, hosted by My Private Chef and cooked by Nicole Van Camp.  It was a rare opportunity for me to open one of my bottles of wine in the intimate company of friends with a meal cooked by a full-time chef.  Something about this opportunity is unusually gratifying for the cook and the diners, an opportunity for everyone to literally bring something to the table and spark conversation about the different flavors around the room.

I have difficulty relating specifically to how this intimacy and curiosity manifests itself at Garden Café’s events, since I have not attended any, but I gather Mark felt similarly about such events: “the spirit of these dinners is really beautiful,” he remarked.  “In the beginning you’ve got thirty near strangers and by the end you have thirty people hanging out.”

I still find myself struggling with the role wine and beer play in fostering this unique sense of curiosity and camaraderie.  Something intangible makes us feel relieved or intrigued by a glass of rotten grape juice, so much so that it puts the economic viability of an event in question.  At the same time, however, the mere presence of alcohol in a beverage sparks controversy over our desire for intoxication.  And while beer and wine often fall under a separate category, more geared toward a food-loving, controlled crowd, they still end up privy to controversies such as the one I have described.  Would you attend an alcohol-free pop-up dinner?