Dallas sparkles in the Texas sun

Eye by artist Tony Tasset stares out from the sculpture garden across from The Joule Hotel on Main Street in Dallas.
Eye by artist Tony Tasset stares out from the sculpture garden across from The Joule Hotel on Main Street in Dallas.

DALLAS — "Big Things Happen in Dallas" is the official slogan of the city's Convention & Visitors Bureau.

I'm staring at one of those big things from the window of my bedroom at the uber-chic Joule Hotel, and it's staring right back.

"It" is the 30-foot-tall sculpture of a human eyeball created by multimedia artist Tony Tasset that dominates a green space across from the hotel on Main Street.

My first thought is that the sculpture gives new meaning to the lyrics of the song The Eyes of Texas are Upon You. My second thought is how inspiring a cityscape can be when developers aren't allowed to cram every block with nondescript, run-of-the-mill buildings, thus allowing a city to develop character as well as function.

Character is something Dallas has in abundance these days. In the past, if you asked most people what the city was known for, they would likely say Neiman-Marcus department store, the Dallas Cowboys, the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and the Machiavellian Ewing clan from the eponymous television show.

While Neiman's still anchors downtown, the Cowboys are in Arlington (halfway between Dallas and Fort Worth) and the Ewings must do their dastardly deeds without the help of chief mischief-maker, J.R., who was played by the late Larry Hagman. (Though we must note, his on-screen son, Josh Henderson, has become a big Kentucky Derby fan.)

The biggest change, however, has been in the city itself. Always sophisticated, Dallas is now sexy.

Take the Joule, for starters. Hotels for hipsters are nothing new — New York, San Francisco and Miami have them in abundance. Dallas was a bit late getting on the bandwagon, preferring the classic elegance of legendary hotels such as the Adolphus and the Mansion on Turtle Creek.

The Joule may occupy a historic building, but everything else at the Adam Tihany-designed property is cutting edge, starting with the name — that's Joule (as in the international unit of energy) and not jewel (as in shiny bling). Hotel highs include two split-level penthouses and a rooftop infinity pool, and the lows feature a subterranean ESPA spa (the company's U.S. flagship) and a soon-to-open basement speakeasy, an homage to the 1920s, when the building was a bank.

Finally, the hotel-wide art collection ranges from mosaics salvaged from the bank to a large orange lobby sculpture in the shape of a chambered nautilus.

Culinary paradise

If Dallas has evolved in its architecture and design, the same can be said for its culinary scene. Steaks, barbecue and Mexican food still rule. But now serious foodies can find palate-pleasing cuisines in new restaurants across town.

My favorite was Savor, an all-glass gastropub in Klyde Warren Park, a pocket park on the edge of the Dallas Arts District. The newly opened 5.2 acre park is an urban greenspace built atop the Woodall Rodgers Freeway, connecting the Arts District with the uptown and downtown areas.

I began my lunch at Savor with a sampler of devilled eggs sprinkled with pepper relish and spiced pecan brittle, and then had difficulty deciding between the goat cheese and mushroom wrap with caramelized Vidalia onions, plum tomatoes and mixed greens, and the Lemon Sole Milanese with butternut squash and wild arugula and caper salad. I solved the dilemma by ordering a scallop and shrimp salad with spinach, avocado, mango, pickled ginger and sesame vinaigrette.

Dinner one night was at FT33 where Chef Matt McAllister, named one of Food & Wine's Best New Chefs, packs them in, even on a Thursday night. I had no difficulty deciding what to have here, going with the waiter's enthusiastic recommendation of the chicken with coconut, basil, tomato and green papaya.

Located in Dallas' Design District, FT33's décor is as innovative as its cuisine. The open kitchen provides an ongoing show and the extensive wine list has been named one of the nation's Top 100 by Wine Enthusiast magazine.

It's not uncommon for restaurants to change their menu every season, but what about a restaurant that changes its chef every season? That's exactly what happens at the "permanent pop-up" restaurants at Trinity Groves, a restaurant, retail, artist and entertainment district in West Dallas.

Designed to foster the growth of start-up concepts and businesses, Trinity Groves offers some half-dozen restaurants where diners can choose from Latin-Asian fusion, Spanish tapas, Middle Eastern, Central American and Japanese.

Hip neighborhoods and hot museum tickets

For those who love walkable neighborhoods, Dallas offers the funky Bishop Arts District and the even funkier Deep Ellum neighborhood.

A two-block area in the Oak Cliff section of South Dallas rose from the ashes of boarded-up storefronts and deserted warehouses to become the trendy Bishop Arts District. Shops, cafés, bars and galleries proliferate here, all surrounded by rehabbed craftsman-style bungalows.

You can have a hamburger at Hunky's, shop for children's clothes and toys at the Cozy Cottage and get books restored at the Book Doctor. If it's notoriety you're after, visit the Texas Theater, where Lee Harvey Oswald, alleged assassin of President John Kennedy, was arrested after he slipped inside without paying. Movie buffs who are here in June should check out the Oak Cliff Film Festival.

If you like the Bishop Arts District, you'll love Deep Ellum (the name is a corruption of Deep Elm). In the 1920s, the neighborhood was a mecca for jazz and blues musicians such as Bessie Smith and Lead Belly Ledbetter, who performed in clubs such as the Palace and Harlem.

The area declined following World War II and was re-invented in the 1990s. Today, Deep Ellum, with its myriad one-of-a-kind cafés, bars and shops and its colorful murals, is described as a place where no one cares what you look like, how you dress or what you drive — just how creative and innovative you are.

In Dallas, politics and museums go hand-in-hand. You don't have to be a Republican to enjoy the George W. Bush Presidential Center on the campus of Southern Methodist University.

The 360-degree video in the lobby that shows dawn breaking and dusk falling over the nation's capital is breathtaking, as are the cases displaying the swag given to the first couple by governments around the world.

My favorite exhibition was the Decision Points Theater, where visitors have an opportunity to match wits with the president and his cabinet on domestic and foreign issues (Hurricane Katrina, Iraqi War) and after listening to pros and cons, choose what they would do and see if their decision was the same as the one made by the president.

I found exhibits both enlightening (Who knew that in 1950 there were only 22 democracies in the world?) and amusing (Who knew that Spot, Bush's English springer spaniel, had a Kentucky connection? His father was Tug Farish of Lane's End Farm in Woodford County).

If you decide to have lunch in the museum café, you may run into Laura Bush, as the former first lady eats there often. The former president prefers to eat in his office and loves the crab and chicken Caesar salads, according to café staff.

Ross Perot may not have made it to the White House, but he did get his name on the imposing Perot Museum of Nature & Science. The building, designed by 2005 Pritzker Architecture Prize Laureate Thom Mayne, is one of the most spectacular in Dallas, and the museum delivers a first-class experience.

In perfectly curated exhibits, you can experience what an earthquake feels like or test your speed against a cheetah or an NFL running back. Listen to actor and Dallas native Owen Wilson guide you through the mysteries of the solar system, and marvel at the Hall of Gems, beautifully backlit to show off their brilliance.

Metaphorically speaking, that describes Dallas — a gem that has been polished to show off a new brilliance.