As one half of the founding partnership at the new South Side eatery Full Circle Tavern (along with Lara Whittington), chef Jennifer Bonner drew upon numerous heritages -- her own Italian and Chicago heritage, a sous chef’s Louisiana upbringing, and their landlord’s Canadian background -- to create a flavor-packed menu. Her ultimate goal is to please palates with comfortable food that nonetheless offers a new twist. Case in point, FCT’s poutine, a french fry-starring north-of-the-border favorite that’s become an instant hit at the Lamar Boulevard restaurant. Former catering firm owner Bonner talks to Cocktails & Joints about the perks of her South Side location, eager neighbors and Thanksgiving on a bun.
Are you new to Dallas? Tell me about your background.
I am – we started a catering company almost six years ago. I got laid off, I was in event planning. I loved to cook, my whole family cooks, my whole life I always around cooking and everything revolved around food. A friend of mine said you could come and sell your food as lunches at the salon, and I thought, well, if I was going to do it, why not go to a friend’s place where if I felt uncomfortable, I felt better knowing that it was my friend’s place, you know? And I did, and lo and behold, it blew up, and I started delivering lunches to businesses daily, and we’d send out a menu for the week, and people could order their food for the whole week and we would deliver food to them.
Is that still going?
No. That stopped quickly, because it blew up, I couldn’t handle it! We started catering for Neiman Marcus and for Fossil and doing, like, three-day photo shoots, breakfast, lunch and dinner. Then Lara came on board with her event planning side of the business, and it just got crazy. So it just blew up into being a full-time catering company. … It started as a sandwich shop, because I love sandwiches and potato chips, and it turned into this, and I never thought it would turn into this, but I couldn’t be more proud. I get emotional every time I start to think about it, honestly. I’m kind of a wear-my-heart-on-my-sleeve kind of person.
So you are completely self-taught?
I’ve learned from people in my life in the kitchen, you know, watching my family cook in the kitchen. I lived in New York, and I lived with a Greek family, and she was cooking all the time, and I’d just love to stand and watch her. I just love food, I’m such a foodie. That’s how we came up with the name for the catering company, EdiblEnvy, ‘cause I get food envy for people so much. I mean, I have picked on someone’s plate before they even have a chance to eat, that’s how bad it is [laughs]. But, yeah, it’s completely self-taught.
How do you stay so svelte?
[Laughs] Well, I do yoga to stay in shape, and that helps. It helps keep my mind centered, also.
What attracted you to the South Side neighborhood?
We love going to the Palladium for concerts and stuff, and we knew there was a need for a place like ours, a place to go to before and after the concert. We don’t have deep pockets, we needed someone who wanted to have us in the neighborhood and who wanted to be there. And we met with [property owner/developer] Jack Matthews and his team and just fell in love with him and what their vision is for the area, and when we decided to open our business down here, we moved to South Side, and I wish we would’ve done that a long time ago, because I love this area. It’s eclectic, there’s so many different kinds of people, it just makes me feel like I live in the city again. It reminds me of a small New York, you know, there’s art, there’s music – I love it, so I couldn’t be more happy of where our location is.
It’s also, perhaps not coincidentally, perfect pre- and post-concert food …
Absolutely! Absolutely. … we’ll definitely stay open late when there are concerts (at the nearby Palladium Ballroom) so we can pick up the concert crowd.
Vegetarian-friendly fare seems to be important on your menu …
The irony is Lara and I both are vegetarians. We became vegetarians several years ago for health reasons, and the funny thing is, you look at our menu and we’ve got pulled pork and we’ve got beef, we have turkey, we have chicken. I sample all of the food, I have this really strange switch where I can sample it and not worry about the fact that I’m eating meat.
I think part of it is we want everyone to come, so why would we not cater to vegetarians? I don’t have anything vegan on the menu, but it was important that we have something on the menu for everyone.
Your most talked-about dish, the poutine – whose background is that from?
It’s a Canadian dish, and I wanted something on the menu to pay homage to our landlords, and they’re Canadian. I have such mad respect for them, and the way that they do business, and the way that they’ve treated us, and I wanted to do something special for them. And being from the Midwest, we grew up having cheese curds, and it’s just something that you don’t find here.
It’s a unique dish. A lot of people who’ve never really had it before love it, too. It’s brown gravy, cheese and french fries, I mean, you can’t really go wrong with that!
What dishes on the menu best reflect your style?
Well, we make the majority of everything on our menu in house. All of our sauces are made from scratch. We roast our meats here, even the turkey. We make cornbread. From the beer cheese soup to the poutine gravy, our meats. That’s really important to me, that the food is fresh and made from scratch. I get emotional just thinking about it. That’s how I show my love for people, how I care for them, is through cooking and feeding them.
[Regarding two or three signature dishes] it’s like asking a parent who their favorite kid is. I’m personally tied to the grilled cheese and the veggie burger because I eat that the most, you know? But the Italian stallion, because it’s a family recipe that I grew up having, that’s pretty important to me. The marinara sauce with the meatball sub is my own recipe as well. A lot of people really, really like the Jacques po-boy. And I love the uniqueness of the Gobble Gobble and the Oktoberfest. … See? I can’t pick one – it’s hard, it’s really hard!
What vibe were you going for with this restaurant, with the food, the furnishings, the layout?
Well, part of it came from our love of going out and sitting on the patio and having that tavern/pub-style feel. I know how patios in Dallas are just as important as the shopping in Dallas. And so we wanted it to be a place where people could come for the food and stay for the atmosphere.
We also wanted everything to have a story, our bartop is actually a catwalk from a roof, so people could walk on it when the rains drain through. … We just like things to be refurbished, there’s no reason to buy everything brand-new, why not recirculate things?
We love to joke, we love to have fun. We want people to have that and feel that when they come here. We had a couple in last night [and said], “Man, this really does feel like a Cheers bar,” and I’m like, that’s one of the best compliments we could receive. That’s what we want, we want that feel.