There are a lot of people in Dallas who like the Garden Café. And there are even more who like the idea of the Garden Café.
Located in Junius Heights, almost in the shadow of downtown Dallas, the small, family-friendly breakfast-lunch spot tucked away in a residential block, is a “neighborly” place which does its best to promote networking and remain a force in a “living, active neighborhood,” according to General Manager and Chef Mark Wootton. The café has a loyal following. Its supporters are unwavering with their praise for the decade-old, vegan-vegetarian friendly, low-key establishment which not only utilizes locally-sourced produce, but actually grows much of what it uses.
This is true, community-supported agriculture
The garden out back, which surrounds a well-used dining patio enjoyed by patrons much of the year, produces all of the Swiss Chard and Kale used in the café’s recipes, as well as most of the herbs, and many other seasonal produce, including okra. The recipes are not fancy; they consist mostly of omelets and “down-home” cooking, including meat loaf and catfish, the sort of food favored by Dallas attorney Dale Wootton, who opened the café as a sideline in November 2002, in a building which also housed his law practice. The garden out back has always existed there, and always was “therapy,” according to its founder.
Current Garden Manager Angela Martin, who notes that she “plants by the moon,” planned pole beans, cucumbers, okra, tomatoes and peppers to go in the ground after the final frost the end of March. And that is what keeps many people coming back to Garden Café – the fresh ingredients.
Chef Mark, who heads a team of 10 friendly employees, took over operations from his father in July 2010. Only 25 years old, he says he started working as a restaurant dishwasher when he was in high school and readily admits that preparing food did not figure in his childhood dreams. “It was mayonnaise,” he explains. When his employer began training him in the kitchen, he says, “I saw mayonnaise come together, and emulsions became an art as well as a science.” It was then he realized that he wanted to be a part of the restaurant scene.
And so, he is. In a way, he is carrying on a family tradition. His grandparents owned and operated two Dallas restaurants, one in an upscale hotel location, and the other a barbecue place. Garden Café, however, while opened as a “whim” of his father’s, has always been about simple, good food, prepared with fresh ingredients. “We have changed a whole lot of how we handle food here,” he says, noting that some less-than-glowing customer reviews bothered him when he first took over the reins from his father. Now he concentrates on freshness, quality of preparation, and taste. He admits that he receives occasional complaints; they just don’t bother him as much now. He keeps trying to improve; and he enthusiastically notes how good the simple, fresh, natural, organic food tastes.
The garden embodies the spirit of the cafe
The café has remained true to its “roots.” The younger Wootton, noting that his dad today “is more of an advisor than active in the business right now,” points out that special events are held regularly at the site, ranging from a March Sunday gardening workshop open to the public, to periodic “Poetry Night” dinners. Those gatherings feature five-course dinners, many vegetables, BYO wine or spirits, and poetry by anyone with a desire to perform in public. Those evenings are a sort of “family gathering,” a long-standing tradition begun by the elder Wootton.
There are rotating art exhibits as well; and other special programs which focus on community concerns. A panel discussion, “Freedom Through Food,” has been scheduled at the café the evening of April 4.
This is not a linen-tablecloth, fine service kind of place. But it is, indeed, a welcoming, stay-as-long-as-you-like, WiFi-available, meet-your-friends-and-neighbors kind of place. It is a beckoning, comfortable kind of place, with indoor seating for 60, and space at the outdoor garden tables for another 40 or so. If you visit, it is the kind of place where you will not remain a stranger very long.
It is just what Mark Wootton, as did his father before him, wants. It exudes community spirit.
Garden Café is located at 5310 Junius Street, in Munger Square Center, Dallas, Texas 75214. Their website is gardencafe.net. Hours are 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday; also available for private parties and special events.