Chicken "porchetta" with maitake mushrooms, asparagus and fava beans at Gemma. The restaurant is one of restaurant critic Leslie Brenner's 12 favorite in Dallas.

Chicken "porchetta" with maitake mushrooms, asparagus and fava beans at Gemma. The restaurant is one of restaurant critic Leslie Brenner's 12 favorite in Dallas.

Manny Rodriguez/Special Contributor

A year and a half ago, in the inaugural issue of Palate magazine, I published my first-ever list of The Best in DFW Top Ten Restaurants in Dallas. This story — which lists my 12 favorite restaurants — is not that. 

Forget about the fact that the Top Ten story is already obsolete, as two of the restaurants have closed and others have lost the chefs that helped make them so great. This is something different: my personal faves, the places I love to go.  Individually, they may not have the most amazing food (though some of them do), or an exciting wine list (though a few have that, too). They are the places I keep going back to year after year after year (with the exception of one that's new). I'd happily eat at any of them any night of any week, and not only that, I'd be excited about it. 

In terms of price, they hit a wide range — from affordable Tex-Mex and Thai to expensive steaks and tasting menus, with plenty in-between. What they have in common is great food and warm hospitality.

I'm excited to share them (in no particular order) with you!

Nonna

It's pretty remarkable that in a town that has a serious short of good Italian places, three of my favorite restaurants are Italian — and two are from the same chef. Nonna chef-owner Julian Barsotti is one of the most gifted in Dallas, and there's always something delightful to discover at his first restaurant, where the menu deliciously expresses the season. Antipasti and spuntini are wonderful, and the pastas are often spectacular. The dining room has just reopened after a top-to-bottom makeover.

Bambu Thai-Asian Cuisine

Bright, gorgeous, herbal and pure, the flavors of  Thailand's Isan region  are the draw at Bambu Thai-Asian Cuisine, Shelly Nan's friendly spot in Richardson. I've quite simply never had a lunch or dinner there that didn't wow me — and I dine there frequently. Nan's mom, Bounmee Nanthaphak, is chef. I always focus on the blackboard specials, and ask Nan or her knowledgeable servers for help.

Rafa's Cafe Mexicano

Ever get a Tex-Mex craving? Yeah, me, too. When I do,  if it's for pure pleasure, I head to Rafa's Cafe Mexicano.  Excellent margaritas, great pan-fried beef tacos, super enchiladas, friendly service — what more could you want? The place has been serving up Tex-Mex in this Lovers Lane location for 22 years.

Al Biernat's

For steaks and special occasions, there's no place like Al Biernat's. I always order the same thing: An Al's Salad (shrimp, crab, hearts of palm, tomatoes, avocado and greens) with Russian dressing, and one of the fabulous steaks — usually one of the killer bone-in cuts Al's gets from Local Yocal. Or outstanding prime rib. It's probably the only place in town I don't even want to look at the menu. The dining room, redone in 2014, always feels like the place to be, and the service is some of the best in town. Be sure to inquire about wine specials.

Small Brewpub

The atmosphere at Small Brewpub could not be more laid-back: You eat at communal picnic tables with sacks of hops as decor. I love that Misti Norris, one of Dallas' most gifted chefs, turns out her daring, delicious modern Texan plates in such an unpretentious setting. It's always great fun to see and taste what she's up to. Love the cocktails, love the house brews, love the Oak Cliff vibe, love the friendly staff.

UPDATE: September 10, 2016. The menu at Small Brewpub has been radically condensed, and Norris has announced she will soon leave the restaurant

Lucia

David and Jennifer Uygur's beloved Bishop Arts trattoria is a special place indeed. As I wrote in a recent review, I always feel lucky to snag a seat there. What do I love most – Lucia's generous and warm sense of hospitality or the delightful antipasti, pastas and more? More than five years after it splashed onto our scene, it has not lost its creative energy, nor its uncommon ability to make diners feel good. 

Tei-An

An assorted sashimi platter at Tei-An

An assorted sashimi platter at Tei-An

Tom Fox/Staff Photographer

When I came to Dallas to interview for my job in 2009, my future editors brought me to Tei-An, which was only a few months old. Good call: If Dallas has a Japanese restaurant this wonderful, I said to myself, it must be a pretty cool town. I think I decided on the spot I wanted to live here. Whether it's for a bowl of cold soba at the counter on a hot summer day, or a spectacular tasting menu with rare sakes, incredible fish flown in from Japan and insanely good Wagyu beef, a Tei-An experience is always memorable.

Lark on the Park

Part of what attracts me to Lark on the Park is the feel of the dining room: It's spacious, laid-back, breezy, light-filled (during the daytime or early evening) and just altogether delightful. Chefs Melody Bishop and Dennis Kelley take a relaxed yet thoughtful approach to their plates, which capture the deliciousness of the season.

Gemma

It always makes me happy to step inside Allison Yoder and Stephen Rogers' Henderson Avenue spot. Yoder's sense of hospitality infuses the place with tremendous warmth. Rodgers' appealing plates may not be daring and his menu isn't terribly dynamic, but what comes to the table - polished modern American comfort food —is always delicious. Gemma is a delightful, feel-good place. Big bonus: It's a great place to go after a concert or theater, as it's open till 1 a.m.

Neighborhood Services

A burger and fabulous fries at Neighborhood Services

A burger and fabulous fries at Neighborhood Services

Staff File 

It's not a steakhouse, but Nick Badovinus' original Neighborhood Services is one of the best places in town for a steak — the "funk room" Delmonico, dry-aged for as long as 60 days. And it's not a burger joint, but it serves a knock-out burger. And scary-good fries. Don't want that? There are rotating specials, great seasonal fish, hand-made pasta, splendid service, an outstanding bourbon selection and lots more.

Sprezza

This breezy, casual Roman taverna from Nonna's Barsotti may be less than six months old, but Sprezza is  already one of my favorite places to spend an evening. It seems I'm not alone: At the moment, it may be the toughest reservation in town. I love it for its laid-back feel, wonderful antipasti, pastas and pizzas and winning south Italian wine list.

FT33

Matt McCallister's Design District place has enjoyed an incredible run as the most consistently thrilling restaurant in Dallas. Though a recent dinner wasn't quite as impressive as usual (an off-night, perhaps?), at nearly four years old, FT33 is in any case still wonderful. I'm always excited to step inside the relaxed yet sophisticated dining room and discover what McCallister— a truly brilliant and passionate chef — is up to.

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