Aug 31, 2018 10:15AM
● By Maleesa Johnson
Before even sitting down to write it, I told my dad about this story. I explained that Roanoke is now heralded as the “Unique Dining Capital of Texas,” to which he replies with humorous skepticism. “No way.”
For someone who was raised nearby and moved out of the DFW area in the early ’90s, this reaction is not unwarranted. When he and my grandparents lived in Argyle in the early ’70s, they had a P.O. box in Roanoke.
When it comes to unique dining, not much was there. Certainly not Hard 8 BBQ, Twisted Root, Craft and Vine and many other eateries that Southlake residents gladly travel outside of the bubble for. So how does it happen? How does a small town bolster its economy, change its identity and garner the attention of large-scale eateries without breaking the 10,000 population mark? The answer: intentional planning and maybe a little luck.
Twenty-Five Years Ago
Long before being named the “Unique Dining Capital,” Roanoke had a few standout restaurants that were already turning the town into the place to be. Classic Cafe, for example, is one of the cornerstones to Oak Street. Open since 1993, The Classic is more than just a delicious eatery. It is a garden, a community staple and meeting place. Co-owner Curtis Wells and his brother Chris Wells knew early on they wanted to go into business together. That desire, coupled with Chris’ background in realty appraisal, led them to Roanoke.
“Being a real estate [appraiser] in the area, Chris saw potential for growth,” Curtis says before adding with a chuckle: “We were a little further ahead of the curve then we might have wanted early on.”
When the Wells’ attention turned to Roanoke, Alliance Airport had just opened, and in Curtis’ words: “There wasn’t much between Alliance and Fort Worth, and definitely nothing between Alliance Airport and Denton.” This put their planned cafe in the middle of two expanding areas, creating a meeting place for some and an oasis for others.
They weren’t the only ones a bit ahead of the curve. There was another restaurant that opened in 1993 – two weeks earlier than the Classic Cafe, in fact. You may have heard of it: Babe’s Chicken Dinner House.
“We’ve been good neighbors,” Curtis says. “There are days when you’re looking for fried chicken, and there are days when you’re looking for other stuff. We’ve gotten some of our best customers from folks who didn’t want to wait in line at Babe’s.”
Babe’s Chicken went on to open locations across the Metroplex, but their roots will forever be in Roanoke. With two exceptional diners located in the Historic Downtown, the inspiration to mold Oak Street into a food destination became clear.
“Babe’s Chicken and Classic Cafe were doing exceptionally well,” says Cody Petree, assistant city manager of Roanoke. “They both had lines, lots of people coming in and lots of tourism. So we just saw a great demand and thought we could build off of that.”
About A Decade Later
By the early 2000s, the population boom that was hitting the rest of the Metroplex was also impacting Roanoke. Based on U.S. Census data, in 1993, the city’s population was hovering around 2,000. By 2004, that number had more than doubled. In recognition of this, the city council and city staff partnered with Gateway Planning Group and Texas Perspective, Inc. to create a development plan for Roanoke’s downtown.
“We really wanted to have selective growth in downtown,” Petree says. “Viable, sustainable development that would last for generations. Already having a couple of family-owned, small successful businesses in town, we just wanted to feed off of that trend.”
The 2004 Downtown Plan was laid out in three phases, the first of which included coming up with a strategic development vision for downtown. The plan stated that the city needed to “focus on a theme for downtown and stick with it.”
Even then, the city and its partners recognized that retail trends were headed online. If 2004 doesn’t seem that long ago to you either, consider this: it was the year Facebook launched, the year “Friends” ended and the year that the Motorola Razr was released. So to say this strategic plan took foresight is agross understatement.
“We’ve had great leadership in our city council,” Petree says. “We have a lot of longstanding council members and they’re very active in the community and very pro-business, pro-development.”
In small communities, this mindset can be tricky. There is often a mix of people who have been there for generations and enjoy the small town feel coupled with those who have relocated to escape the ever-developing Metroplex. The city was mindful of that.
“Like with any growth, there is going to be challenges,” Petree says. “We had a lot of community meetings to try to sell our vision at that time to the residents. I think we were pretty successful. Overtime, everyone got on the same page and have been really supportive. A lot of people take pride in downtown.”
As they should. Nestled among the restaurant hot spots are well-preserved pieces of Texas history. A large part of the downtown plan included remodeling the Roanoke Visitor Center and Museum. Sidewalks were added to make Oak Street fully walkable.
“In the downtown area we strive to maintain the unique, eclectic, small town charm,”
Five years after a plan was established for downtown, Roanoke was officially appointed by the Texas House of Representatives as the “Unique Dining Capital of Texas” in 2009. And the growth of restaurant options didn’t stop there.
“We have over 60 [restaurants] now, but downtown, we have 24 in what we consider the Oak Street Corridor,” Petree says.
Even with so many options for diners to choose from, Curtis at Classic Cafe remains confident in his own establishment.
“The more restaurants you have in an area, the more reason you have to come here,” he says. “And we’re pretty comfortable in our product that we’ve been offering for 25 years. The food and service, my guests tell me, is better than ever. That makes me pretty happy.”
This mindset that competitive growth is helpful, not hurtful, is one shared by Southlake’s mayor, Laura Hill.
“People that are looking for something a little different, a little quirky, are going to Roanoke because they have done a masterful job at letting people know what they are all about,” she says. “And it helps Southlake.”
As smaller cities and towns around the Metroplex brace themselves for the next wave of population, the City of Roanoke stands assured in its careful planning.
“I’m fairly confident that this area is going to retain it’s bedroom community feel. We’re so entrenched in our philosophy of being a community, that I think we’ll stay the course,” Curtis says.