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Dallas’s Bishop Arts District Brings European Flavor To The Texas Heartland

Dallas’ Bishop Arts district is more than just a cute hipster enclave. It’s an oasis of culture in the land of prefabricated strip malls.

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DALLAS — Paco Vique never saw himself moving to this city.

And even once that life change did come to pass—after stints in Dublin and Austin, work as a civil engineer finally brought the 37-year-old native of south Spain to Dallas some five years back—he hardly expected he’d stay here too long.

It didn’t help that Vique originally found himself living in Dallas’ well-populated Uptown neighborhood, where so many other young new-to-towners first migrate. Vique regretted that move almost immediately. The countless too-loud-for-conversation restaurants, the binge-drinking bars along McKinney Avenue and Cedar Springs Road, the prefabricated outdoor mall known as West Village–it just wasn’t for him. None of it.

“Not really,” Vique says now with a laugh. “So I started to explore the rest of the city. I ended up spending most of my time in Oak Cliff.”

Well, a part of Oak Cliff, at least: A sprawling mass encompassing almost 90 of Dallas’ 386 square miles, Oak Cliff is by far Dallas’ largest neighborhood and, by reputation at least, one of its most dangerous; these days, however, most mentions of Oak Cliff—among the trendier sets, at least—tend to specifically indicate a significantly smaller, significantly safer enclave housed within the area’s northern half.

The Bishop Arts District only stretches about seven blocks by five blocks, but thanks to its collection of chic eateries, charming boutiques and otherwise vehemently independent vendors of various sorts, the neighborhood’s top-notch reputation is enormous.

And why not? It’s cute. It’s quirky. It’s friendly. It’s decidedly hip. Put simply: It was everything Vique and his European sensibilities sought.

“There’s a big sense of community,” Vique says of what initially drew him to Bishop Arts. “I’d walk around, go from restaurant to restaurant, then go to another business.”

And Vique is contributing to that milieu: In March, he and fellow Spanish civil engineering transplant Javier Garcia del Moral opened The Wild Detectives, a bookstore-cum-coffeehouse that sits on the edge of Bishop Arts as part of a row of refurbished homes on West 8th Street that have been zoned as both residential and commercial.

It’s not the pair’s first attempt at injecting a little of their own flavor into this part of town –two years ago, they partnered with the nearby, recently reopened Texas Theatre on West Jefferson Boulevard (yes, the very place where police found and arrested Lee Harvey Oswald after Kennedy’s assassination) to screen a series of Spanish-language films—but it’s undoubtedly their most successful. Four months into operations, The Wild Detectives’ cozy charm and steady sales figures are eclipsed only by the lavish praise that area media outlets have heaped upon the business.

The fascination is more than understandable. Within its warm, wood-lined interior, the Wild Detectives sells Spanish- and English-language books alike. The baristas serve intricately crafted espresso drinks—and a mean cold-brew—culled from beans provided by the stones-throw-away Oak Cliff Coffee Roasters. The bar is lined with taps featuring the region’s most popular beers. The close-by Rush Patisserie provides fresh pastries daily. The around-the-corner Emporium Pies supplies a variety of irresistible desserts. And beyond the comfy chairs and couches that fill the inside space, the back patio, in addition to various other community gatherings, hosts concerts booked by the neighborhood musicians that make up the local folk troupe Fox & The Bird.

“All the time, there are people that come in and say, ‘Why don’t we do this or why don’t we try that?’ and that’s exactly what we wanted,” Vique says. “For this kind of business, [Bishop Arts] is perfect. The Wild Detectives would be totally different in any other neighborhood.”

In fact, the idea of opening a Madrid-inspired community gathering place only came to Vique and Garcia del Moral after the two had fallen in love with this part of town first.

“We saw that there was interest in the neighborhood in new things that combined culture and food and all kinds of activities,” Vique adds. “The neighborhood was a big influence—the types of people, the types of businesses, the community. The original business model was a very vague idea—we wanted a combination of things. But the final concept came together in this neighborhood.”

Literally, even: The furniture provided, the designers collaborated with, the contractors employed—if not culled from Bishop Arts directly, these elements all came from the surrounding areas in Oak Cliff.

In 2014, that’s the appeal here: Bishop Arts isn’t just a hub for cute businesses; it boasts the creatives to pair with them. In turn, the rental rates and home prices are rising fast–something of a new phenomenon. But this change has long been underway.

First came the restaurants: Around the turn of the millennium, fine southwestern cuisine spot Tillman’s Roadhouse and longtime area Tex-Mex favorite Hattie’s took the plunge and established Bishop Arts’ reputation as a worthy dining hub; the too-cool-for-reservations American fusion eatery Bolsa, the reserve-your-table-a-month-out-or-else Italian hole-in-the-wall Lucia and the mad chocolate science laboratory that is Dude, Sweet Chocolate followed more recently.

Eccentric retailers like The Wild Detectives and the likeminded art class-hosting gift shop We Are 1976 have since filled in the gaps. The Soda Gallery, a revered shop that stocked hundreds of hard-to-find bottled drinks, unfortunately fizzled out in 2012, but fashion boutique Epiphany, along with its many counterparts along North Bishop Avenue, proved so successful that it opened up in 2010 a sister shop, Epiphany For Men, right across the street.

As for the trendy bars that round things out? Well, they’re brand new, the result of a passed 2010 initiative that reversed a ban on area beer, wine and liquor sales that had been in place in various forms since 1956. But these spots are no less unconventional: Ten Bells Tavern, a Jack The Ripper-inspired pub noted for its wings and favored by service industry types just relieved of their shifts, recently celebrated its two-year anniversary, and did so by hosting a petting zoo in its parking lot while raising funds for a donkey rescue and rehabilitation center in Central Texas.

“A man who’d never been here before came up to me and asked if we always have donkeys,” Ten Bells owner Meri Dahlke says of that particular affair. “We don’t.”

Still, she likes the fact that he thought they might: “It’s definitely a unique community here,” Dahlke says.

It’s one with a potentially promising future, too. Within a year, construction on a $23 million, federal grant-funded trolley linking Downtown Dallas to the Bishop Arts District should be completed. As with the reversal of the liquor ban, this move, too, is something of a throwback: The trolley will follow a similar route to a long-since-torn-up trolley network that once connected these two high-traffic neighborhoods; in the 1930s, the Bishop Arts stop was among that system’s most popular.

Whether history will repeat itself in that regard is debatable. A city-sponsored, free-to-ride bus line set up in November to connect Downtown and Bishop Arts in the interim is perhaps most notable among locals for its lack of use.

No matter: In spite of its increased popularity among Dallasites and tourists alike, Bishop Arts’ allure seems largely unrelated to this increased ease of access. Actually, it’s the opposite: In a city so defined by its highways and car culture, the fact that the heart of the Bishop Arts District is more than a half-mile from the interstate is something of a breath of fresh air, really.

It’s this quality that has to date helped the Bishop Arts District, for all of its acclaim, resist overgrowth at the hands of overeager developers. It’s this trait that allows the neighborhood to maintain its hidden-gem appeal. It’s this attribute that showed Vique and so many others that, if you look, you’ll find that there’s more to Dallas than strip malls and otherwise overblown shopping centers.

“It’s just a welcoming place, especially for people like me that are far from their families,” Vique says. “In general, I think Texas and the South are very welcoming. But in Bishop Arts, it’s even easier to get along.”