To open any restaurant takes courage, but Maiden might be the bravest new restaurant in Texas. Its signature offering is a $150 chef’s-choice tasting menu. Its self-taught head chef is best known for operating casual diners. It’s located in Fort Worth. And every single dish and drink is vegan.
Maiden’s owners must have attended the Han Solo school of business. Think a high-end vegan spot won’t work in Fort Worth? Never tell them the odds. At a time when Dallas’ food lovers are wondering whether our city can support any fine dining concept that does not revolve around steak or caviar, Fort Worth is trying one that doesn’t use any animal products at all. And Maiden is such a joyful experience that the city is rallying around it.
Maiden doesn’t look or act like a trailblazer. It’s comfortable, friendly, and winningly sincere. That attitude squares with the background of owners Amy McNutt and James M. Johnston. The married couple also owns Spiral Diner & Bakery, an unpretentious vegan comfort-food spot that has been a North Texas favorite for more than 20 years. (The Oak Cliff location closed in 2022, but the Fort Worth original remains, along with a Denton outpost that opened in 2017.) Maiden doesn’t feel like a diner, exactly, but it does soften the innate fanciness and intimidation of the tasting-menu format. Dining here, you feel like a friend is treating you to a very fancy dinner party.
The restaurant is in a brand-new development called PS1200, a fascinating mixed-use project that combines eight apartments, a handful of offices, and a strip of public park fronted by low-slung restaurant and coffee shop buildings. Imported from Detroit by developer Philip Kafka, the concept’s purpose is to blend public gathering areas and private spaces. Behind Maiden’s sheltered patio, the apartments rise to a series of individual curved tops, like a row of bubbles. (They’re made of galvanized steel, contemporary versions of the classic Quonset hut.)
The restaurant’s walls echo that bubble pattern. Each booth gets its own silo-like steel Quonset curve. From the outside, everything looks, in Dallas Morning News architecture critic Mark Lamster’s accurate phrasing, like a “space-age diner.”
But Maiden’s interior is not some Jetsons chrome fantasy. It’s all about comfort: velvety booth seating, midcentury bar chairs, and the sound of 1950s crooners singing torch songs. A small but comfortable bar has the restaurant’s name in cursive, hand-laid in gold leaf. The staff dresses in all-black except for burgundy bow ties.
The whole experience is delightfully earnest. I can’t remember the last time my waiter was so excited by the food he was serving. He pointed out a mocktail as his favorite drink and then explained, “I’m only 20 so far, so it’s the best thing I’ve tried.” From now on, when anyone asks my age, I’ll tell them I’m only that age “so far.”
He also informed us that Maiden’s tasting menu changes “with every equinox and solstice.” McNutt verified that schedule. “We get real down to the minute about it,” she says, tongue-in-cheek. “It’s just a way to keep me on a schedule in a fun way.”
It is considered standard for a dining critic to visit a restaurant at least twice before writing a review. For Maiden, I made an exception and visited only once, because the next menu change was scheduled to take place after our deadline, so a second visit would have been identical to the first. The description that follows reflects the summer menu; when you read this and visit, you’ll meet an entirely different set of dishes in the same style.
The first course’s arrival temporarily dropped my hopes: a nearly clear bowl of broth, containing exactly two tiny cubes of peach and two flimsy shreds of basil. But the broth—actually a consommé of peaches, red pepper, tomato, and basil—was wonderfully complex, the sweetness of the peach kept in check by lingering spiciness from Fresno chiles.
Our meal only got better. We spread a confit of zucchini, walnuts, and sunflower seeds on toast and dotted it with tomato jam. We pulled apart finely sliced layers of crispy potato served with lemon zest, capers, and herbs. We reveled in the unexpected spicy hit of serrano pepper in the sauce of a vegan egg pasta with zucchini, sage, and peanuts. We also made our way through a vegan cheese plate. Smartly, rather than leaving the cheeses on their own, Maiden uses each cheese in a harmonious composed bite with toast and a sauce or garnish.
McNutt says her menu’s surprises are an accurate reflection of her eclectic approach to building a menu. “I don’t really have any rules when it comes to what I am doing,” she explains. “I go with the flow and make what sounds good to me. I’ve never worked at a restaurant other than my own, so I’m not tethered to any rules. If it tastes good, it tastes good.”
Two courses stood out as the summer’s most memorable. One was a vegetable salad that our waiter described as being like fruit salad in its sweetness. He was right, and the kitchen was playing a deft little trick: the only fruit on the plate was also the least sweet element. Slices of mango added a tartness to counterbalance a honey vanilla vinaigrette. Across this balanced plate, fennel, corn, asparagus, and an herbed cream sauce were arranged like a painting.
“I’ve never worked at a restaurant other than my own, so I’m not tethered to any rules.”
Our other favorite was a dish that I’ve long dismissed as a faded trend: crème brûlée. Anybody can serve crème brûlée, I thought. Make a nice custard, put it in a dish, cover it in sugar, torch the top. What could go wrong? Well, you could be vegan. Enter Maiden, with its coconut milk-based version infused with pandan leaf, cashews, and honey. The “cream” is set atop a layer of sticky rice, adding a new texture and a new dimension.
The whole meal was resourceful, seasonal, and delectable. It built as it went, too, progressing naturally from that simple consommé up to richer highlights. Seasoning and balances were spot on. I only noticed one mannerism, the use of strategically placed herbs as garnishes around the edges of plates. One round plate had little cut-out squares of sage leaves around the rim, as if they were hour markers on a clock.
Our “eclectic” drinks pairing lived up to its name: iced tea, natural cherry soda, sake, a red wine, and three cocktails, one of them nonalcoholic. Again, they were well considered—and introduced by a complimentary glass of brut from Argentina. There’s something liberating about a drinks pairing that offers you the best possible match, even if it’s soda.
McNutt is especially free to invent because so many vegan customers have been frozen out of more traditional high-end dining rooms. “If you’re a vegan and you don’t get to travel a lot like we do, this may be your first ever fine-dining experience,” she says. “We don’t have a lot of expectations. I don’t have any rules for the food, and we can do anything we want on the service side of it, as long as people are feeling pampered.”
As a proprietor, she sees the feel-good side of this story every night. Vegan diners who don’t get to indulge at steakhouses finally have a destination restaurant to call their own, and they’re embracing it. She estimates nearly half of Maiden’s customers are celebrating a birthday, anniversary, promotion, or other special occasion.
“The feedback we get has been so sweet and so positive,” McNutt says. “It’s been overwhelmingly affirming.”
Still, Maiden has wiggle room if you don’t want to commit to the full eight-course tasting. A shorter version is available, and walk-in guests can sit at the bar, nibbling on small snack plates. Saturday tea service includes a traditional (but vegan) tower of fancy finger foods.
Whether you come to Maiden for teatime or the full tasting, this is a haven. It’s the kind of welcoming business that breaks down fine dining’s traditional barriers to entry. It’s the kind of restaurant you visit to be surprised and delighted by flavor combinations you wouldn’t expect. And it’s a business that reveals how far Fort Worth has come as a city willing to embrace new things.
When McNutt talked to me, she cracked a joke that gets at a deeper truth. “For so long, everybody in Fort Worth had to drive to Dallas to do anything cool. Now y’all know what it feels like.”
This story originally appeared in the November issue of D Magazine with the headline, “How The West Was Won.” Write to [email protected].
Brian Reinhart became D Magazine’s dining critic in 2022 after six years of writing about restaurants for the Dallas Observer and the Dallas Morning News.