Didi's Downtown: All Roads Led Chef HomeMay 01, 2022 ● By Joshua Baethge
A little more than three years ago, Chef Scott Hoffner opened his first restaurant, Didi’s Downtown, in the heart of Frisco’s historic Rail District.
The place is named in tribute to his late mother, whose nickname was Didi. She shared her son’s love for the impact that good cooking can have on people.
Growing up, the chef said he and his mother would often communicate through food. She helped put him through culinary school and would often call him after she’d tried a great dish or discovered a new recipe. “She was just the coolest lady, and she always had my back,” Hoffner recalled.
Earlier this year, Didi’s Downtown opened for a semi-secret “underground” Valentine’s dinner, an event publicized only through word of mouth and without a posted menu.
More than five dozen people attended, and Hoffner served a six-course, Mardi Gras-style tapas meal complemented by live music.
The restaurant began hosting similar private dinners during the pandemic and has done about 18 of them so far, including a classic steak night, a Peruvian night and another dedicated to Argentine cuisine. They have become some of Hoffner’s favorite events.
In a sense, the February dinner was the culmination of a career in the restaurant industry that spans nearly Hoffner’s entire life.
“The thrill of this night for me was that I had 65 people show up for this dinner who had no idea how much it would cost them or what was on the menu,” he says. “That’s a dream. It almost makes me want to cry just talking about it.”
Hoffner was just 10 years old when he took his first job at the Plain ‘O Steak House in Plano. Working hard was one way he’d attempt to impress his attorney father, he said.
By the time he was 13, Hoffner had held several restaurant jobs and had also worked in a pet store and started his own landscaping business. (He still bears a scar that he got while helping open the Macaroni Grill restaurant at Park Boulevard and Preston Road in Plano.)
He estimates that he has worked nearly 40 restaurant jobs over the course of his career. Those include stops at eateries in Austin, California, Montana, Colorado and Rhode Island.
One of his most influential stints professionally was at a place called the Wildhorse Grill in Marble Falls, Texas, northwest of Austin. It was his first experience as an executive chef, and Hoffner still gets emotional talking about his former boss Don Elliot, who died a couple of years ago. He says Elliot instilled in him the importance of earning the respect of one’s staff by working with them.
While at the Ojai Valley Inn and Spa in California, Hoffner learned the ins and outs of upscale food at the five-star restaurant. Meanwhile, during his stint at J. Macklin’s Grill in Coppell, he told the owner that he would either finish his culinary career there, or that it would be the last time he worked for someone else.
“Each part of the path is what got me here,” Hoffner said. “I can tell you that if (the opening of Didi’s) had happened any sooner, we wouldn’t be talking because I wouldn't have been ready.”
Although restaurant work can be difficult, Hoffner thrives in the kitchen. A creative soul by nature, he likens creating menus to albums, with the different dishes acting like songs.
“I like to celebrate people,” he says. “I like to party, and this is my stage to do it on.”
The Best-laid Plans
When Hoffner first envisioned Didi’s, he saw a place that had a cool dive-bar vibe but with elevated food offerings. A funny thing happened along the way: Three months after opening the place, he quit drinking. It was something Hoffner had wanted to do for a long time but hadn’t found a way to accomplish it. Finally, motivated by health concerns, he ditched alcohol and has never looked back.
“I have a different view of life now,” he says “I love it. It’s a crystal-clear view.”
The personal change made him realize that he didn’t want Didi’s to be a place where people went for $2 beers. Although it still boasts a full bar, he places more emphasis on the food, music and atmosphere.
After being open for almost a year, in the spring of 2020, Hoffner had planned to take his first paycheck after subsisting on his wife’s teacher salary. Then came March 13 – the day restaurants were ordered to close due to the emerging COVID-19 virus.
Hoffner recalls preparing to close the business when Facebook provided some unlikely inspiration. He read a post explaining that Shakespeare had written King Lear during the bubonic plague. That inspired Hoffner to complete things that he had yet to do and address any missteps along the way.
Today, Didi’s has a set menu featuring customer favorites as well as an ever-changing selection of specials. Hoffner says the menu genuinely is composed of whatever is on his mind.
The entertainment offered at Didi’s is equally eclectic. On most nights, diners may hear flamenco music, country, rock, cover bands or even stand-up comedy.
No Place Like Home
Although he has lived in some of the country’s most scenic locales, Hoffner says that he and his family ultimately settled in North Texas because it was home.
In 2008, he bought a house about a mile away from Didi’s location. For years, he had seen the old house and thought it could be turned into something special. He said there is nothing better than working close to home. Whether there’s an issue in the kitchen or an old friend stops by for a meal, he can easily swing by the restaurant to check in.
“I can’t tell you the difference in lifestyle that makes,” he says.
Hoffner is bullish on the future of the Rail District. He likens its communal vibe to what he experienced in Ojai. There, neighbors had no qualms about sharing everything from onions to trash bags, if needed. When people unfamiliar with Frisco visit Didi’s, he is likely to direct them to other spots in the district, such as the nearby La Finca Coffee & Bakery.
“I think a community that strives together stays together,” he said. “It creates a symbiotic situation where you have a lot of positive energy floating around. Negativity won’t survive if you can make that strong enough.”
Joshua Baethge is an award-winning writer whose work has appeared in publications large and small across the country.