Hidden Gems: Garden Café, Beyond the Booze Bills

by Adam Sachs    photos by Suzi Migdol

Crave reported last week about the vote that prohibited Garden Café from serving alcohol. In light of all the recent press on this issue, I thought it time to focus on Garden Café on its own terms. They have been around nearly nine years, and established themselves as a neighborhood institution with an identity that goes much deeper than the ability to serve beer and wine. I sat down with owner Dale Wootton and his son Mark to learn about the past, present, and future of Garden Café.

Dale Wootton purchased the building in 1991, thinking it was a “diamond in the rough” with an area that looked conducive to his favorite pastime of gardening. “I had all these plans [with the building] for what real estate appraisers call the highest and best use for land,” he said, “but I decided that I wanted to do what I wanted to do and not the highest invest use. So that’s why we came up with the idea of a garden, a peaceful relaxing place, where if you need some basil, you run out here and pick it.”  

His uncompromising outlook breathed new life into a historical area of Junius Heights, and Garden Café is currently the only commercial property in the district. “I view it as the downtown of Junius Heights,” says Dale, “because it used to be in the 40s. There’s an old picture in there that has the A & P and the bakery and the little neighborhood shops that were here in the 40s.”

The past year has seen some promising changes for Garden Café, as Mark Wootton took over the position of General Manager. Mark left his position in the kitchen of Central 214 at the same time that Garden Café’s manager departed, and Dale was unsure about how to proceed. “He thought about closing it up,” Mark said, “and I just asked him to give me a chance.”

Mark has taken on a very active role as the General Manager, and is trying to use the garden more than any previous cook, “as a productive, tiny little farm for the restaurant rather than just a picturesque patio,” he remarked. “It’s organic, and I don’t have to pay three times as much because it’s organic since it’s coming straight from the garden. And I get to watch it grow, control it until it meets the plate.”

One example he gave about garden-inspired menu changes was a kale and avocado salad: “that was a great starter for using the garden, really simple. Beautiful kale straight from the garden; you pick it in the morning, rinse it off, serve it for lunch, and all we have to do is toss it with a little olive oil, lemon juice, crushed red pepper, and top it with sliced avocado.”

Besides increasing production and use of the garden, Mark said, “I think in the next two years we might have an aquaponic system out there, and have a year-round greenhouse…it would be not just for production but also for education. People could come to Garden Café and have an omelet and also learn what an aquaponic system is. It could change the future of food production.”

Though the refusal to remove the dry overlay on the property dealt a blow to favorite events such as poetry nights, gallery openings, and pop-up dinners, the garden remains its biggest draw. Both Dale and Mark recognize the potential of that element of their business, something that has always distinguished the café from other independently-run restaurants in the Dallas area. Their vision seems almost holistic by default, seeking to support a business that sustains itself literally from the ground up.

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Filed under Adam Sachs, Crave, Local gardens, Local Produce, Susan Migdol

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