Billy Can Can is an adventurous gent living in Dallas in 1892. He's a writer, a man of mystery, a flirt. He has swagger, his friends say. He also isn't real.
Don't tell that to the chefs, bartenders and servers who feel like they know him. And certainly don't tell the team of restaurateurs who built him from scratch, like a saloon character in HBO series Westworld. "He could be a detective and he could be a bank robber at the same time," says Zach Smigiel, the bar manager who befriended the fictional character the moment he was hired. "He might've killed a guy."
Billy Can Can is the icon behind the modern Texas saloon expected to open June 28 in Victory Park. He's a confident risk-taker, and he is circling his horses in a neighborhood whose on-again, off-again development begs for a man-about-town as its champion. His namesake restaurant joins more than a half-dozen new eateries in development in Victory Park, most from local restaurateurs who believe it could be Dallas' next destination neighborhood.
And can it? It's far too early to tell, but Billy is ready, guns a-blazin'.
The streets in Victory Park are now two-way instead of one-way; the neighborhood has new parking garages and additional valet service; and Billy Can Can is sending a call out to his friends.
"If it comes together, if we're able to collectively make this a truly great place, it'll move the city of Dallas forward in a not-insignificant way," Dallas entrepreneur Tristan Simon tells his staff. The mastermind behind Billy Can Can doesn't often talk about his restaurants before they're open, but he allowed his staff to spend nearly 17 hours with GuideLive. As a businessman who holds the power and influence to turn Victory Park around, he's explaining to a group of servers why this restaurant -- Simon's only one in Dallas right now, despite his extensive experience with Dallas dining -- has to succeed.
"Dallas will become a more interesting and exciting place to live as a result of Billy Can Can's contribution," he tells the servers as a hush falls over the room. "That's exciting! There are only 50 people who are going to be a part of it." It's a stiff challenge: If the staff can make Billy Can Can into a lively restaurant and bar, it could change the fate of an entire neighborhood, one that is already a hot spot for high-rise apartments. (It's home to 11,500 people, says Abby Waldron, a spokeswoman for the neighborhood.)
Simon was one of the main forces behind making Henderson Avenue a dining district. The 45-year-old resident of the Cedars created Fireside Pies, the Porch, Cuba Libre and Hibiscus, among other restaurants. He brought new business and a different culture to the neighborhood. In an interview, Simon's cadence quickens when he talks about other Dallas neighborhoods like Deep Ellum and Lower Greenville that have seen growth and development after periods of decline.
But anybody who's been to the home of American Airlines Center in the past 10 years knows Simon's new project, Victory Park, is a tougher sell. Simon will beat you to the point: Victory Park has "none of that history or character or grit," he asserts.
"But I think it's OK to be new."
Simon remembers Victory Park's failed attempts over the past decade to transform itself into a notable Dallas neighborhood. He understands that he'll have to change Dallasites' perceptions of an area they might know only because of its proximity to Dallas Mavericks and Dallas Stars games or pop music concerts.
The challenges in Victory Park are widely known, not the least of which is parking.
"I used to have people call me [at Kenichi] and go, 'Oh, I thought Victory Park closed,' " says Josh Babb, a restaurateur who co-owned Kenichi during its 10-year run in Victory Park. He also owns Shooters, a Victory Park sports bar, and other restaurants in the Dallas area. His advice for fellow restaurateurs who aspire to operate in Victory Park is to convince potential customers outside the neighborhood that they'll be able to park there -- and to teach them how. "They've got to get the word out that there are places to park -- and that Victory Park is the new, beautiful Victory we were promised."
Simon sees the mission this way: "We view the Victory Park project as a culture-building project."
He uses the word family to describe the team members at his Dallas "place-creation" company Rebees -- a team who dreamed up Billy Can Can, stuffed him with history, character and grit, and placed his likeness outside of this modern Texas saloon in paved paradise.
"It's a good story about conviction," Simon says.
Why this restaurant, and why now?
Just as every musician has a favorite musician, Billy Can Can wants to be every restaurateur's favorite restaurant. Simon created Victor Tangos in addition to a host of other well-liked restaurants and bars, not just on Henderson Avenue but also in downtown Dallas, such as CBD Provisions and Midnight Rambler in the Joule hotel. Over the years, Simon worked with restaurateur and close friend Nick Badovinus as well as billionaire oilman and filmmaker Tim Headington. In 2014, Simon sold his stake to Headington and "took a break," he says.
But when Victor Tangos closed at the end of 2017, three years after Simon left his post leading Dallas restaurants, "that one hurt," he says. He and business partner Taryn Anderson (she's "the one in charge," as Simon puts it) considered Victor Tangos one of the best places in Dallas for people in the restaurant industry to hang out.
Anyone mourning the loss of Victor might like Billy, then. Regulars might also appreciate a cocktail on the Billy Can Can menu created as an homage to a drink called the Victor Tango.
"This one matters," bar manager Smigiel says, pouring the new drink for the hundredth time two weeks before the restaurant's scheduled opening. The original Victor Tango cocktail was a mix of tequila, cucumber, mint and sugar, and many bartenders in Dallas know the simple, refreshing drink by heart. Smigiel's new iteration also has tequila and mint, but the addition of cucumber tonic and herbal liqueurs called green chartreuse and strega give the old Tango a twist.
The drink is just one indication that the team has pockets full of memories of beloved Dallas restaurants -- and something to prove at this new one.
For Simon, Billy Can Can is a jump back into restaurants in Dallas after creating mixed-use developments in Kentucky and Virginia over the past few years. This new restaurant had to be about Texas, he says.
"Texas means something. I'm interested in what it means to be a modern Texas restaurant," Simon says. "But how do you do that in a way that's more fun and irreverent? ... A touch over-the-top, even?"
It's a "jolt of culture," says Fran Mayo, a Rebees team member who grew up all over the world and likens Victory Park's glamour and newness to parts of Singapore. She rides her bike to work and is interested in how Dallas might connect its disjointed neighborhoods. Simon hired her because they have similar views on what "creative placemaking" means for Dallas.
Billy Can Can is the company's attempt to create "a living, evolving legend," Mayo says.
What's for dinner
While Billy Can Can is a modern Texas saloon -- and while Simon and his team believe in the culinary movement of modern Texas food -- the word saloon doesn't get to the seriousness of the menu.
That's on purpose: "A saloon should have a fun, playful gambling aspect to it, a burlesque aspect," says executive chef Matt Ford. He seems shy at first, but words tumble out of his mouth as he talks through the menu ideas he's been simmering for the past nine months.
His menu, crafted with chef de cuisine Michael Llanas and sous-chef Carolanne Treadwell, tells a Texas story inspired by Bonnie-and-Clyde attitude. Diners might find game like venison tartare and buffalo tenderloin; gulf seafood like snapper and oysters; and Southern classics like deviled eggs and peach cobbler.
And chili (no beans, of course): "There is nothing more quintessentially Texan," Ford says. "Oh, and a burger."
Ford is a passionate member of the team and an interesting addition because he helped open a restaurant called Craft Dallas at the W hotel in Victory Park in 2006. "As chefs, you put your heart and soul into your work," he says. He remembers the Victory Park of a decade ago as a confused neighborhood with not a lot of soul -- and one that wasn't yet embraced by many Dallasites.
"I told Tristan I was hesitant about coming to Victory Park," he says. "But if anybody can turn a district around, it's Tristan."
The restaurant details you never hear about
Most restaurateurs are obsessed with details that diners never notice. When Billy Can Can opens, visitors should look up: The room is full of surprising touches, from the stuffed white bird whose tail cascades down one column to the mounted bison head watching over the dining room. They're the creativity of interior architect Kate Murphy, a contractor who designed the stylish Sixty Vines restaurants, among others.
She didn't intend to decorate the restaurant, but Billy drew her in, she says. Soon, she found herself at antique stores on Dallas' Riverfront Boulevard and in parts of Forney, buying stained-glass windows and taxidermied animals.
"Hang on, my assistant is outside with the bear in the car," were her first words during an early June interview in the under-construction restaurant. Moments later, she hauled in a giant bear head and placed it on a cocktail table.
Billy Can Can's decor is full of humorous elements, as Murphy describes them, that give the place character to match Billy's gunslinger attitude. The taxidermied fox smirking in a corner looks like he's almost delighted to be dead.
The food and drink, of course, are an obsession, too. Anderson and Leslie Brenner, former Dallas Morning News restaurant critic and current Rebees team member, sampled five burgers in three evenings to help chef Ford decide which one should land on the menu.
"You can't just take a bite," Anderson says. "You have to eat through the whole burger." Sitting in a dark restaurant with paper covering the floors and ceiling tiles scattered atop some tables, Anderson and Brenner have eaten their way through parts of Ford's menu eight times and counting. In the very beginning of the process, they even tasted some of Ford's dishes in a claustrophobic hallway because the dining room was a construction zone.
"Opening a restaurant is really hard, and it's a lot of work," Anderson says in an interview during a four-hour Saturday-night tasting that ends with Texas peach cobbler. When opening most any restaurant, working on the weekends is expected. But in the case of Billy Can Can, late nights and good food are part of the DNA. "There's an energy and an atmosphere here," she says.
'There's a sound'
Simon walked into Billy Can Can several weeks before its debut, holding a bag of Ricola cough drops. The room was nearly full, with servers dining together during their orientation, and Simon found a seat in a corner among unswept floors. He didn't say much; he was saving his voice for the big speech.
It was his job to tell his servers exactly why they were there: "to make Victory Park the most vibrant and walkable district in the city," he says.
Simon was quick to remember details about his team: Mayo went to middle school in Japan and took a gap year in Beijing. He was generous in his praise, too: Chef Ford, who worked at restaurants in the Joule hotel, was Simon's "first, second and third" choice for executive chef. "And thankfully, he only said 'no' two times."
At this point, nobody was munching on the Twix or Snickers bars placed in a small pile in the middle of each table. A confident Simon told his brand-new staff that durability is essential in a restaurant. How can Billy Can Can stay relevant? he asks, tossing an unruly curl out of his eyes.
"We do this because we love to create culture and we love to make people happy," Simon says. Then he says it again. "We do this because we love to create culture and we love to make people happy."
It's impossible not to want to believe him.
"When a restaurant like this is succeeding at its mission, you hear it right away," he tells the group. "It's not just that there are people in the room and that the place is sort of humming. There's a sound. It's the sound of people enjoying their life. It's the sound of people enjoying the company of others. Relaxing. Letting loose. The sound of mirth.
"It's a very, very specific sound. And when you hear it, you know you're succeeding."
Expected to open June 28 at 2386 Victory Park Lane, Dallas. 214-272-9082. billycancan.com.
MORE AT VICTORY PARK
Other bars and restaurants already open or coming to the neighborhood include:
- IMOTO The Asian restaurant from chef Kent Rathbun, and the only one on this list that is open already
- BILLET A parking-lot bar from Brooke Humphries of Barcadia
- BURGUNDY SWINE A wine bar from sommelier Brooke Gerstein
- DIBS ON VICTORY A sports bar and restaurant from the team who opened High Fives, Ferris Wheelers and more
- MESERO A new outpost of the Mexican restaurant chain
Also in the works:
- An unnamed cafe and co-working space from Tristan Simon's team
- An unnamed 24,000-square-foot "restaurant entertainment concept" from HG Sply Co. founder Elias Pope
- CINÉPOLIS A movie theater expected to open in July
- SWEET TOOTH HOTEL A popular (and temporary) art installation closing in August