Photography by Kathy Tran.

When Mitch Kauffman first toured an Old East Dallas property built in 1926, with burglar bars on the windows, one window air conditioning unit and linoleum flooring, his first thought was, “OK, it’s got a grease trap and a vent hood.” 

Kauffman, an Ohio native, was searching for a new place for his Urbano Cafe. After working for hotels, including the Four Seasons in Las Colinas, and then for restaurateurs including Patrick Colombo of Sfuzzi and Alberto Lombardi of Taverna, he was ready to open his own place.

“I’ve always been around Italian food, and that’s what I kind of know, and I learned from two really good people,” he says. 

He and his wife, Kristen, opened the first Urbano in Uptown where Celebrity Cafe used to be. The Kauffmans started out just with lunch, serving paninis, salads and pastas. Later, they added catering and dinner service. 

When the building was sold, Urbano moved to an old antique store near McKinney and Routh. 

Eventually, the Uptown rent became too expensive. It was around $2,000 a month when Kauffman launched the restaurant, and by the time he left, it had increased to $10,000. 

His real estate agent showed him a property near the intersection of Bryan Street and N. Fitzhugh Avenue, next to Jimmy’s Food Store. Because it had a grease trap and vent hood, it didn’t matter that the transom windows were painted shut or that the bathroom was barely large enough to enter. 

Urbano Cafe had to close during the move, so Kauffman took on some of the renovation work himself. He had relationships with craftsmen such as an electrician and tile installer, and he made deals with them to help complete the project.

The restaurant was under construction for the first six months of 2009, and then it opened. Customers weren’t deterred by one AC unit to cool a packed dining room in the summer heat, even though “it was kind of like eating in a sauna,” he says.

By the next year, he could afford another.

Kauffman took over the space at the opposite end of the building when it became available. They added a second AC unit, new plumbing and cement flooring.

With a tenant separating the spaces, the new acquisition, which was used for additional seating, took the name “two doors down.” Servers had to use the sidewalk to go from room to room.

When the middle tenant left, Kauffman took it too, and created an interior hallway connecting the three. The room was called “Urban Goods” because it hosted weekend pop-ups. At night, the rectangular table could seat 14 for dinner, and the back patio attached to it is occasionally used for events like receptions and concerts.

Early on at the East Dallas Urbano, there wasn’t a proper place to store wine, so Kauffman allowed a BYOB policy. He still does, though he now curates a wine list, with selections priced just above retail.

“We have a lot of collectors who have wine cellars who come in,” he says. “They may see my list and go, ‘Oh, the next time I come in, I don’t have to bring a bottle of XYZ because look at the price.’”

He noticed that when people supply their own wine, they tend to order more food. The original menu at Urbano was developed by Kauffman and a chef, who came up with pastas, steaks, chops and other items. The chef also trained the kitchen staff, and many of them stuck around; the current head of the kitchen started out working in the pantry. 

Caprese s’mores are a popular appetizer. They come with smoked mozzarella, tomato jam and balsamic syrup between slices of toasted crostini. Meat tenderloins and pan-seared scallops with lemon risotto are longtime favorites. 

Last December, Two Doors Down opened for breakfast and lunch. Customers can dine in or take to-go coffees, pastries, sandwiches and more. The interior walls are decorated with photographs of musicians such as Roger Boykin, a former Booker T. Washington teacher who played piano at Urbano, and famous pianists from New Orleans, where Kauffman lived after college. Outside, there’s a mural by Jonathan Kimbrell with the names of nearby landmarks, neighborhoods and businesses. 

“With my landlord and myself and my wife,” Kauffman says, “we’ve kind of rebuilt it all and taken a great deal of pride in coming into the neighborhood like that and being a part of rebuilding this part of Old East Dallas.”

Urbano Cafe, 1410 N. Fitzhugh Ave., 214.823.8550