Until a big sign finally went up a few weeks ago, you might have never known 203 Café existed — unless you just happen to be strolling along the second floor of downtown’s Wells Fargo building.
For the past few months, this tiny café wedged between the Wells Fargo and Bank of America twin skyscrapers has been downtown’s best-kept secret, known only by a handful of local foodies and those who work in the adjoining buildings. There’s been no advertising blitzkrieg, no marketing kaboom — odd, considering the restaurant is an offshoot of one of the city’s most popular restaurants, the nearby Reata.
At a time when the plethora of recently opened restaurants are vying for press and patrons, 203 has taken the direct opposite approach, keeping, until recently, a low profile. Owner Mike Micallef had his reasons.
“The restaurant industry is the most-reviewed industry in the world,” says Micallef, who also owns Reata. “Google, Yelp, Facebook — you can review a restaurant on 20 or so different apps. We wanted to be ready for them. We wanted to build slowly, then make a big bang.”
The big bang officially went off over the summer when a hard-to-miss 203 sign was draped over the façade of downtown’s Fire Station No. 1, where, on the second floor, the restaurant officially resides (its entrance is only accessible through the bank buildings).
Word, finally, is beginning to spread about this hidden gem and its superb sandwiches and soups. They do here, in a pindot of a kitchen, what places two, three their size should be doing. Meats for sandwiches, for example, are roasted in-house, up to 24 hours, while their dressings and fixins are scratch-made by executive chef Jason Klein.
The Chicago Roll
The restaurant’s must-tries include the Chicago roll ($6.95), comprised of garlic and herb-roasted roast beef piled on a toasted hoagie roll, then topped with pickled veggies; a grilled cheese ($7.95) with smoked Gouda, Swiss, white American cheese and bacon, a glorious mess pressed into a buttered brioche; and a pimento press ($8.95), comprised of housemade pimento cheese, laced with a crunchy surprise: bits of fried green tomato.
The Hot Mess
The signature sandwich is the Hot Mess ($7.95), made up of pecan-smoked brisket and a house queso. “I named it after my fiancé,” says Klein. “No one else I can think of is smoking brisket for 20 hours, then frying it on a flat top in its own fat.”
Certainly no other café. Then again, for a place this size to have an executive chef is out of the ordinary. Klein spent 10 years between Ellerbe Find Foods and Reata.
“You walk by here and think, ‘yeah, it’s just another office building café,’” says general manager Gigi Howell. “But one bite of that Hot Mess and you’ll see that it’s not.”
The way the restaurant came together is a little unusual, too. After the space’s previous occupant closed, Sundance Square management approached Micallef about taking over the spot with a new concept.
Instead of coming up with the idea himself, he tossed it to the Reata staff.
“We turned it into a game, basically,” he says. “People from different departments — catering, front of house, back of house — were split into four teams, and they each had to come up with a concept and a name. Then we took the best of those ideas and made the groups smaller and so on, until we ended up with one idea. It was a great way to figure out what kind of restaurant we were going to open.”
Location: Commerce St., Ste. 203
For Info: 203cafe.com
Hours: 7 a.m.–3 p.m. Monday–Friday
203 Café isn’t the only hidden gem among downtown’s thriving community of eateries. Here’s a look at some other d-town hidden restaurants:
Caffini’s Café & Deli: Open for nearly a quarter-century inside what is now the Star-Telegram building, this old-school breakfast and lunch café serves breakfast platters, blue-plate specials and made-to-order sandwiches. You might not find a better pot roast in town.
309 W. Seventh St., facebook.com/
Six 10 Grille: Not many know of this secluded breakfast spot, tucked away in the Ashton Hotel. It’s stylish and quiet, perfect for those who don’t like to be bothered until they’ve had their coffee. The small menu includes housemade pancakes, egg dishes and pastries. Snag a seat by the window for a ringside view of Main Street. 610 Main St., theashtonhotel.com
T&P Tavern: On the south tip of downtown is this lively restaurant and bar, hidden inside a repurposed 1930s diner that was once a part of Texas & Pacific Railway Station. Many of the diner’s original fixtures remain, including art deco chandeliers and red-cushioned bar stools. There are craft drinks galore, along with a bar-bites menu of sandwiches, flatbreads, and other handheld edibles. On Saturdays when the weather’s nice, employees grill hamburgers and hot dogs. 221 W. Lancaster Ave., facebook.com/tptavern
Thai Tina’s: There’s just a tiny sign outside the Embassy Suites alerting passersby of the hotel’s permanent guest: this elegant, family-run Thai restaurant. Nice place: all white tablecloths, candlelights and pampering servers. A big menu includes standard rice and noodle dishes but also some cool surprises, such as slow-cooked oxtail in a massaman curry sauce.
600 Commerce St., thaitinasfortworth.com.