Kevin Kelley has big plans for downtown Dallas hotspot Kitchen + Kocktails
A downtown Dallas restaurant and nightspot that's been brewing up a scene is expanding that scene to other cities across the U.S.
Kitchen + Kocktails by Kevin Kelley opened in 2020 at 1933 Elm St., immediately drawing a refreshingly integrated crowd with its mix of Southern comfort food — shrimp & grits and fried catfish are specialties — plus cocktails and upscale clubby atmosphere.
The concept is from Kevin Kelley, a driven entrepreneur and attorney new to the food & beverage world who savors his role as the man on the scene, walking the floor to welcome guests, which often include Black celebrities and athletes.
“The law has been good, but I also love hospitality,” Kelley says. “I’ve been in hospitality for four years, and Kitchen + Kocktails has been open three…we’re learning as we go."
That learning journey includes an early reckoning in November 2020, three months after Kitchen + Kocktails opened, when Kelley was filmed chastening customers who stood on the furniture for twerking (he also has a dress code in place: no team jerseys, caps, athletic slippers, or sexually revealing outfits).
The incident garnered national attention, and Kelley took some heat. But it didn't hurt business in Dallas, where K+K has held a spot on the city's top 10 bars & restaurants for liquor sales for months. He went on to open a 19,000-square-foot Latin-flavored nightclub called Club Vivo, next to Kitchen + Kocktails, and has since opened two more Kitchen + Kocktails locations: Chicago, which opened in 2021, and Washington DC, which opened in summer 2023.
Kevin Kelley with celebrity athlete guest Sha’Carri Richardson Kitchen + Kocktails
One key lesson Kelley grasped early was the wisdom of being your own landlord. He owns the downtown Dallas property, the historic former Hart Furniture building which he bought in 2018. He occupies the entire three-story structure, part of which was originally built in the 1880s, with his law office on the second floor, and his hospitality group, called Kevin Kelley Concepts, on the third floor.
The building is next to the historic Majestic Theater, and fortuitously situated on the eastern edge of downtown which is undergoing major development, including the East Quarter, four blocks away, and the triangular Magnolia Oil building, home to two restaurants from chef Nick Badovinus.
Initially, Kelley's goal was to lease to an outside entity, but he became convinced that Dallas deserved a black-owned restaurant in the Central Business District.
He'd previously been a partner in a similarly-named concept in Houston called Taste Bar + Kitchen, but departed in fall 2020 after filing a lawsuit against the chef (now being sued by partners in another restaurant).
In person, Kelley is quietly intense but gregarious, with discreetly flashy strokes like diamond stud earrings that make him a natural in the food & beverage world.
He grew up in Garland, played basketball in high school, attended Paul Quinn College where he was president of his chapter at Kappa Alpha Psi, and got his law degree from the University of Houston in 2002, where he graduated a semester early.
His practice specializes in personal injury claims and according to his bio, he helped net a multi-million dollar settlement in his first year. He's represented clients injured or killed in tragic accidents — 18-wheelers, electrocution, industrial machines, shootings, all terrain vehicles — and has resolved business disputes for Bank of America and American Express.
A decorative motif at his office features sculptures of sharks, a spirit animal for Kelley and the firm. "It symbolizes speed and aggression," he told Cosign magazine in a podcast.
One experience that nudged him into the restaurant space was his short-term residence in Europe, where he moved with his sons, Kristian and Kevin, to help nurture their interest in soccer in a region of the world that would offer training and competition.
From 2014 to 2019, they lived in Barcelona, Spain, and Paris. Kelley discovered that he missed American food, and hatched a goal for his return to the U.S. — deliver the food that he craved while abroad.
“I always said that if there ever came a chance to invest in hospitality, I would,” Kelley says.
Once Dallas was established, Kelley looked to other cities where the market seemed similar, starting with Chicago, where he took over the former Benny’s Chop House on Wabash in the city’s River North neighborhood, two blocks off Magnificent Mile.
Eater Chicago applauded it for "celebrating Black culture in Downtown Chicago with a chic space and creative fare."
The DC location is a 7,000-square-foot space on I Street NW, not far from the convention center and Chinatown and across from Franklin Square. It has an inhouse cocktail lounge called Kanvas, which opens on weekends and serves as an event space.
The food menu, overseen by culinary director and chef Michael McLaurin, is consistent across all three locations, but the bar program differs from place to place. For example, Chicago stocks plentiful stores of wine and champagne due to high sales; Dallas and DC, not so much.
Kelley employs an executive team of around a dozen people, including three college friends and his mother, who serves as a secretary. His COO is his first cousin and his father does marketing.
They're already eyeing other U.S. markets.
“It’s ambitious to some extent but we’re using measured growth, taking time to make sure we can do this,” Kelley says. “Actually, I don’t know if we’re ambitious enough.”