The renaissance was going to reach Dallas eventually: The craft-cocktail tsunami washing inland from the coasts was too powerful for a city this big to ignore.
Dallas can be maddeningly set in its ways, but sooner or later someone was going to blaze the trail, and two years later, Mike Martensen and Brian Williams are still standing. And not just standing, but aiming to take the city’s rapidly maturing cocktail culture to a new level.
This month, The Cedars Social – their first joint project – quietly marked its two-year anniversary. If you’re looking for the place that truly stirred Dallas from its Crown Royal doldrums, this would be it.
This isn’t to ignore the bartenders who’d already been making a humble practice of honoring classic drinks and squeezing fresh juices, or the handful of restaurants and high-end hotels that had started toying with craft cocktails to mark the growing trend. But The Cedars Social was the first to say: This is what we do. This is who we are.
Someday — and hopefully someday soon — Martensen and Williams will open phase one of The Establishment, their ambitious trident of a cocktail-centered operation in Knox-Henderson. For some, the pair’s painstaking, indefinite efforts to ready the place for presentation resemble not so much a bar opening as the how-much-longer-are-you-going-to-be-in-the-bathroom machinations of a teen princess primping for the prom.
It’s hard, though, to fault their perfectionism. February 2011 was not so long ago, and yet, back then, The Cedars Social’s opening was a splash of watercolor on gray canvas. Despite a succession of quality chefs in the kitchen, it’s still as it ever was: A breath of fresh air not just for a less-traveled neighborhood seeking life but for a city poised to move to a new level. With its classy wood-and-brick library feel, simple stylishness and a savvy locale drawing a refreshingly diverse regular clientele, The Cedars Social wasn’t just another bar: It’s in every sense a cocktail lounge – smart and innovatively drink-centered, committed to fresh ingredients, focused on casual community and the cocktail as experience.
‘There’s something about the way they’ve set it up – from the cocktails to the food to the music they play – that totally disarms people and makes them feel like they belong there,” says Dallas Morning News reporter Gromer Jeffers, a Cedars Social regular.
Meanwhile, look what we’ve gotten since: In Uptown, Private/Social, Tate’s and Standard Pour; in Plano, Whiskey Cake; The People’s Last Stand at Mockingbird Station; The Usual in Fort Worth; Bowl and Barrel near Northpark; Sunset Lounge downtown. Meanwhile, longtime craft masters like Jason Kosmas, Charlie Papaceno of Windmill Lounge, Libertine’s Mate Hartai, Black Swan’s Gabe Sanchez, Bolsa’s Kyle Hilla, Oak’s Abe Bedell and Grant Parker at Hibiscus continue to work cocktail magic in less obvious settings.
“As soon as they opened, that blew it open for everyone,” says bartender Chris Dempsey of The People’s Last Stand. “People really look to them in homage.”
Here’s what I want when I walk into a cocktail joint. I want a seat at the bar. I want to know my bartender. I want a quality cocktail with ingredients as fresh as possible. I want a constantly refilled glass of water. I want decent food. I want a bartender adept with the gab, well versed in the classics and able to riff. I want someone willing to make what I want but equally skillful at getting me to try something new. I want a drink menu of variety and daring, low on gimmickry, easy to read. I want a crowd there to socialize, not to party. I want a place where I’m just as comfortable meeting friends or making new ones as I am doing a crossword. And I want the bartender to remember me the next time I walk in.
The Cedars Social has been doing this for me from Day One. Granted, being just south of downtown it’s close to my usual place of business, but I consider that cool karma for a boy who had to be dragged kicking and screaming from cocktail-culture-rich Seattle.
Williams, a former Green Bay Packer, had been looking to open his own bar for a while. Places like Death & Co. in New York City, the Violet Room in Chicago and Bryant’s Cocktail Lounge in Milwaukee helped shape his vision.
Then he met Martensen, a palate-blessed upstart from Casper, Wyo., who’d been a spirits ambassador for Diageo and barman at The Mansion at Turtle Creek. Both shared a similar passion for the craft and the idea of a place that would be a quality cocktail bar first with great food rather than an upscale restaurant with great drinks.
“It’s definitely a cocktail place first,” Williams says, taking a minute to ask a new bartender to double-strain an herb-heavy drink before presenting it to a patron. “For me it was always about quality, the art of the craft.”
Take away the food, and you’ve still got The Cedars Social. But take away the craft cocktails, and The Cedars Social is gone. Social is the key word. I can’t tell you how many ongoing acquaintances and friendships have been sparked at the bar.
One mark of its greatness is that it doesn’t matter who’s wielding the shaker: You’re going to get a great drink from someone who respects balance, flavor, history and service, who can just as soon whip up something original as throw down any of a long list of classic cocktails in the bar menu along with a seasonal array of originals, a smattering of Prohibition-Era gems and a handful of “tributes” – notable cocktails from other bartenders around the country whose inclusion here reflects the bar’s anti-cookie-cutter ethos of artistry and originality. (My favorite of these has been the Number Four, a mix of gin, honey syrup, cardamom and cracked pepper designed by Tanqueray global rep Angus Winchester.)
The bottles huddled behind the bar are wide-ranging and forward-thinking. Whiskey in particular is well represented. You can still order a vodka and soda. But why would you?
“We may be running on the beach right now, but we’re still moving forward,” Martensen told me during The Cedars Social’s first year of operation. “Every day I get somebody who doesn’t drink gin to drink gin.”
The prevalence of craft cocktails around town shows how adventurous the city’s palates have become in the meantime. The Cedars Social’s latest menu re-do features a pair of drinks built around vermouth, another sign of the bar’s vanguard thinking. Not in the mood? Order one of the city’s best Sazeracs instead. And while you’re at it, congratulate The Cedars Social on two years of cocktail pioneering. Dallas is much the better for it.
— Marc Ramirez, @typewriterninja 2/14/13