It’s food. It’s architecture. It’s 61 Osteria – much more than a dining experience

Adam Jones (left), Blaine Staniford (61 Osteria)

This tale is a whopper. One day a young guy is running a Burger King in some backwater Midwest town and the next he’s a king in his own right, ruling over a  high-end, fine-dining restaurant group in a thriving metropolis, one of the fastest growing in the nation.

Seemingly overnight, entrepreneur Adam Jones helped transform downtown Fort Worth into a restaurant town from what it had been for decades: a place where fine dining was mostly relegated to private clubs.

In fairness, if there is a modern-day pioneer who brought high-end, creative cuisine to Fort Worth and has kept doing it you’d have to credit Bernard Tronche of Saint-Emilion, the French bistro here since 1985, and now the white-tableclothed Paris 7th.

And there’s an interesting twist: In an age when celebrity chefs are usually the big drawing cards at restaurants, neither Jones nor Tronche is a chef although Tronche is known to sponsor weeklong trips for his patrons to French villas where he dons the apron for breakfast and dinner and demonstrates that he knows how to have his way with a couple of sharp knives and some pots and pans.

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For the record, Jones’ rise was not as meteoric as implied. He did start out in the fast-food business but moved on to full-service restaurant work with Olive Garden early in his career.

His latest venture is 61 Osteria, which opened early this year in the First on 7th building at 500 W. 7th St., and the restaurant is not only drawing rave reviews for inventive Italian cooking but also getting major oohs and ahhs for its décor and ambiance. Many are startled when they walk in and feel as though they’ve been transported from downtown Fort Worth to New York City’s now closed but still renowned Four Seasons. Much of the déjà vu flows from the elaborate, bejeweled chandelier hanging majestically in the center of the main dining room.

An admirer seeking keys to the affable Jones’ success could look to the obvious: ambition, determination, hard work, consistent willingness to take a risk – and, of course, relentless attention to detail and customer service. Jones might look elsewhere and say, “Thank you, Star-Telegram.”

That’s because the Fort Worth Star-Telegram touched Jones’ life more than three decades ago by hiring advertising executive Jerry Scott to run its classified department at a time when classified was a cash cow in the newspaper business. Scott turned the Star-Telegram’s classified business into a cash-cow herd and went on to found  the highly successful 360 West Magazine.

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As fate would have it, Scott and Jones attended the University of Nebraska together and when Jones heard about the allure of Fort Worth, he said goodbye to his charbroiled, garden restaurant world and moved here in 1990. The next year he helped open Prego downtown and in 1994 became an apprentice to Dale Wamstad, literally grilling steaks at Del Frisco’s in Dallas.

He was hired by Wamstad and partner Dee Lincoln to run Del Frisco’s in Fort Worth, which opened in 1996. In 2006, he left Del Frisco’s to start a company that two years later launched Grace at 777 Main St., and followed that with a smaller downtown restaurant, Little Red Wasp.

Jones made his mark through an amazing capacity to remember customers’ names, giving them special places to hang their cowboy hats, and treating everyone as a long-lost friend. He became the ultimate “front-of-the-house man,” establishing a familiar and constant presence much as Wamstad did at his restaurants.

Along the way Jones built a team focused around Blaine Staniford, who signed on as executive chef at Grace and serves in that same capacity at 61 Osteria. Staniford has introduced new Italian dishes to Fort Worth, all from locally sourced purveyors. For instance, a key ingredient in Italian cooking is semolina, as opposed to American white flour. The food at 61 Osteria features semolina from – believe it or not – Waco.

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Among the restaurant’s most popular dishes: Serpente, pasta stuffed with house ricotta, hen of the wood mushrooms, and preserved lemon and Rotollo, a deconstructed lasagna.

Jones added another key member to his team when he hired Gina Cook as general manager at 61 Osteria. She was a longtime general manager at Del Frisco’s and more recently ran the food and beverage service at the Fort Worth Club. Cook matches Jones in customer service and has a vast knowledge of cuisine. Rumor has it she can also outmix her boss when it comes to making a killer martini.

Food is the rhyme and reason for a restaurant but 61 Osteria is more than a nice place to eat. It’s a study in architectural excellence, combined with some interesting history about the site of the restaurant.

The First On 7th building, the former home of First National Bank,  opened in 1961 and was the first building of its kind in Fort Worth. Designed by Skidmore, Owings and Merrill of New York City, the structure brough an international/Park Avenue flavor to the heart of Cowtown.

The makeover into 61 Osteria was done by Fort Worth’s own Ibanez Shaw Architecture, with company co-founder Gregory Ibanez as the project lead.

“A fine dining restaurant requires that the food, service, and environment all be in harmony for the experience to be transcendent,” Ibanez said. “Adam and Blaine are extremely sophisticated restaurateurs, bringing a menu and service vision that we embraced in the design.”

“The ambiance is very different between day and night,” Ibanez added. “At lunch there is ample sunlight accenting the bright greens of the lush trees in Burnett Park. At night, the marble becomes mysterious and moody, while the chandelier glistens above. At both times the wonderful paintings by Joey Lancaster shine.”

Joey Lancaster may have had an inside track on the restaurant’s art franchise – she is married to Adam Jones.

Unlike restaurants that often feel confined, isolated from their exterior surroundings, 61 Osteria derives physical context from Burnett Park and the park enhances the experience of dining. The “Man with a Briefcase” sculpture by Jonathon Borofsky is especially visible both day and night, and neighbors include the Cantey Hangar Building and the Burnett Plaza office tower, with the Eldon B. Mahan U.S. Courthouse across the park.

“Our city has always taken pride in having a vibrant urban setting downtown, which is our ‘front door,’ Ibanez said. “Our rich historical fabric should be constantly rejuvenated with fresh ideas in order to inject new life into the existing stock.”

The restaurant’s appeal to art lovers extends beyond the Joey Lancaster paintings. Significant works adorn the lobby and along with the Borofsky sculpture across the street are several other sculptures, the result of a partnership between First on 7th and the Modern Art Museum, which is just a short walk away.

Inside the restaurant, the marble referenced by Ibanez is showcased on a pair of marble-clad walls that separate the bar and dining areas. The Indian Rainforest slabs originated from a single block of stone. The hanging sculptural centerpiece features a sparkling array of 24 rectangular forms hovering over the central array of banquettes, lending  a shimmering appearance as visitors move through the room.

In all, 61 Osteria offers more than 8,100 feet of elegance featuring a dining room that seats 122, a bar with room for 55 thirsty patrons, a 32-seat patio, a nearly 1,800-foot kitchen and 700 feet of ancillary space.

Staniford and Jones have over 60 years in the food business and to say there are a few simple ideas that make this business work is impossible. The formula is in fact a moving target: years of trying out ideas, making mistakes, retrying ideas – until one day it just works.

And it clearly works at 61 Osteria.

“The food at 61 Osteria is served with the philosophy of ‘Texas ingredients with an Italian twist,’” Staniford said. “We take a modern, but simple and flavorful approach using relationships built up over my career using local farmers and ranchers. The food isn’t a direct focus on one region of Italy, but on a blend of all 20 regions.”

Jones said 61 Osteria is a wonderful example of two restaurateurs who get the business.

“It’s not perfect, but it’s pretty darn close to what we see as the vision for this Italian concept,” he said. “Hiring an excellent architect (Ibanez) was one of the keys to letting our vision come true. The facility is beautiful and functional for us to operate and prepare the dishes that Chef Blaine has created for this concept.”

And Ibanez said it is the perfect setting now that the world has re-emerged from the COVID-19 pandemic.

“After emerging from the COVID era, we all really enjoy the energy and excitement of a great restaurant,” he said. “We wanted 61 Osteria to feel like a celebratory experience, where patrons arrive in their most stylish attire to see and be seen.

“Initial observations confirm that this is indeed the case.”