The Librarian’s Guide to Dallas: Getting to Know the City

Downtown Dallas skyline as seen from the south.

This year, the American Library Association’s Midwinter Meeting will be held in my hometown of Dallas, TX.  I won’t be attending, but I thought I’d help out some of my colleagues by providing a guide to cool, fun, and bookish things to do when you’re in the Dallas area.  In this 4-part series, I’ll give you the lowdown on Dallas from the point of view of a very nerdy librarian and long-time former resident of the city.

Here’s what we’ll discuss to get you ready to make your way to the Big D.

  • Monday: Getting to Know the City.  Get yourself oriented with a guide to the major neighborhoods and figure out how to navigate the city.
  • Tuesday: Grabbing a Bite.  Check out some of the tastiest restaurants and best drink spots in town with options for your budget.
  • Wednesday: To See and to Do.  Places to shop and points of interest to see.
  • Thursday: Itineraries for Your Every Delight.  Got a few hours or even a half day to kill?  Here’s how to make the most of it!

So let’s get started, shall we?  Allow me to introduce my city to you.  I don’t say my “former” city, partly because I’m back there so often to visit family and friends, but also because it’s a place that has left an impression on me.  Even though I don’t claim the “Texan” identity, I don’t mind being associated with Dallas, which is a pretty awesome city in its own right.

One thing about Dallas is that it is very large and spread out, much as Los Angeles is.  Like Los Angeles, it also has its own unique neighborhoods.  Here, I will introduce you to some neighborhoods you might like to visit or where you might happen to find yourself and how to get to those neighborhoods, transportation-wise, as well as introduce you to some landmarks that will help you navigate the city.

The Neighborhoods

This list is by no means all-inclusive.  Dallas has so many neighborhoods, and spans many, many miles, so I will only touch on the ones I think it most likely that you might actually visit.

Bishop Arts District and Oak Cliff
This used to be the dangerous part of town.  Parts of it still are, from what I understand – I worked with a woman who lived there who was late to work on more than one occasion because the police shut her street down after a shooting.  You will likely have to go through some of these areas if you want to get to the cool parts, but I assure you it’s well worth it and not like going through what are considered the “bad” parts of LA.  When you get there, you’ll find a refreshingly bohemian neighborhood of artists, vintage clothes and furniture sellers, and stellar chefs and bar mixologists.  Places to check out: Shambhala Body Gallery for soaps and body products made in-house; Tillman’s Roadhouse for fantastic chef-driven restaurant that was previously featured on the Food Network for its Tableside Smores dessert, complete with made-in-house marshmallows in three flavors (which yours truly once had as her birthday celebration dessert); Bolsa for more tasty foods and fantastic drinks; and much more.

The area where your convention center, and likely your hotel, is located.  Downtown Dallas is not, unfortunately, the most happening place in the world.  Like many downtowns I’ve visited, it’s very much a business district that gets very quiet on the weekends.  You’ll probably be tempted to visit the West End; it’s very touristy, so just don’t get a mistaken impression about what Dallas is like based on that!  You might also find yourself near Victory Plaza, where the Dallas Mavericks (basketball) and Dallas Stars (hockey).  If you happen to find yourself down there on a night when one of the teams is playing, you’ll probably be able to connect with some of the players at the W Hotel’s Ghost Bar, right across the street.

Deep Ellum
The only reason I can think of to go here is if you want to get a tattoo or piercing or go to a dance club, though I will admit that there are a couple of good restaurants down here.  I’m thinking in particular of Local, home of one of the best champagne cocktails I’ve had in my life.  It’s champagne with a ball of rosemary grapefruit sorbet slowly melting into your glass and imparting its subtle and lovely flavors – truly a delight!

Lower Greenville
Unless you’re in a fraternity or would like to be, I’d avoid this area altogether.

At least when I lived there, sort of a more hip and trendy answer to the downtown area.  Just a few minutes north, you’ll find a much more hip neighborhood.  Uptown’s “main street” is McKinney, which runs up from downtown and further north.  Some highlights in Uptown: the West Village, featuring shopping, dining, and night life; Bread Winner’s, one of the top two places in Dallas to get brunch in my opinion and not too shabby for lunch and dinner, either; the Ginger Man, a fantastic pub for the beer lovers and also one of the few beer pubs that offers some options for the non-beer lovers as well!

Another great shopping/restaurant district that’s a little more mainstream than Bishop Arts.  Some places to check out: La Duni in a tie for best brunch spot, plus a great place for lunch or dinner and the best mojito you’ll find in Dallas; Cafe Toulouse for some of the most authentic French fare you’ll find in Dallas, with a fantastic Parisian-style patio; and Cafe Madrid for the best and widest variety of Spanish tapas in the city – don’t miss the albondigas and a nice glass of sherry or some of their fantastic sangria (this was a Lisa birthday spot on a different but equally fun year).

A neighborhood located a bit north of downtown that’s also known as “restaurant row,” as it features just about any chain restaurant you can think of, plus some innovative ones.  Some, but not as much, in the way of fine dining.

A small college town about an hour north of Dallas; I only mention it because they have an excellent library school and one of the best medical library programs in the nation.  It may well be that they will be hosting events in relation to the ALA meeting.  (Also, it is my alma mater for my MA in English and my BAs in English and French, but I got my MLIS at UCLA.  Also, Dr. Phil and Norah Jones went there, too.)

Of course Dallas is far bigger than that, stretching for miles in all four directions.  I’m leaving out tons of stuff and I’m grossly generalizing as far as the neighborhoods go, but this should give you a start, especially if you don’t have a car.  If you do have a car, here are some points of reference.

  • I-35 is the highway that borders downtown on the west and runs north-south.  Incidentally, I-35 passes through the state capitols of Texas, Oklahoma, Iowa, and Minnesota.  Drive about 4-5 hours south on I-35 and you’ll end up in Austin, the capitol of Texas.  Take it an hour north and you’ll be in Denton.
  • I-75 is the highway that borders downtown on the east and also runs north-south.  Just below downtown, it turns into I-45, which continues south to Houston.
  • I-635: you may not make it this far north, but this it the main west-east highway through the Dallas area.
  • “the tollway”: there are several tollways in Dallas and Texas in general, thank to Rick Perry’s, um, unique ideas about financing the Texas state budget, but the one that’s referred to as “the” tollway in Dallas is the Dallas North Tollway, which runs north-south and connects downtown to several interesting neighborhoods, and eventually Addison and I-635.

Public transportation in Dallas, as far as I know, is not great.  They have a bus system, but I cannot speak to its utility, as I’ve never taken it.  I think it’s probably like any city’s bus system – it will get you where you need to go, but it will probably take longer and cost more than it really ought to.  Dallas also has a very limited light rail system called DART – Dallas Area Rapid Transit.  It will get you to some of the close-by areas, but it definitely doesn’t go all over Dallas.

So that’s your down and dirty, very, very abridged version of an introduction to Dallas.  In the next few days, I’ll take you through some of the highlights for dining and shopping and general gallivanting in Dallas.  Whatever your pleasure, I bet I can get you to where you want to go in my fair former city!

Got a question or want to know where to find something?  Let me know about it in the comments, and I’ll do my best to answer!

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