Before entire music libraries and players fit in your hip pocket, there was the age of console stereo systems. Back then, you’d veg out to the vinyl crackle of REM or Pink Floyd in the darkness, the light of the receiver glowing from behind the frequencies on the AM/FM radio display.
That’s the feel you get at Smyth, phase one of The Establishment, the long-anticipated venture from Mike Martensen and Brian Williams in Dallas’ Knox-Henderson neighborhood.
It’s no accident, because if The Cedars Social, the James-Beard-nominated bar Martensen and Williams co-own south of downtown, is decidedly 70s retro, this drinks lounge — which they are calling Smyth — is even more so: dark, cozy and swank, with sleek wood paneling creeping from the walls onto the ceiling above the bar.
Plush, U-shaped booths wallow in the murk. A shag-carpeted back room features vinyl-ornamented shelves. The whole scene is soul-ified by a soundtrack courtesy of Al Green, Stevie Wonder and Earth, Wind and Fire and recalling a time of gold chains, bell bottoms and leisure suits.
“I feel like I could walk into that (back) room and hair would grow on my chest,” said Ian Reilly, who runs the bar at Dallas’ Bowl and Barrel.
The speakeasy atmosphere begins on Travis Street, where no obvious sign or entry marks The Establishment’s existence. An unlit hallway bends into the nightlight-dim lounge, where the bar glows in the darkness like the Yamaha tuner in your daddy’s man cave.
“I think this is what my dad thought his basement bar looked like,” said Charlie Papaceno, the stalwart behind Dallas’ Windmill Lounge, motioning to Smyth’s wood-paneled setup with a Manhattan in hand. “I’m sure when he looked at it, this is what he saw.”
In its purposefully quiet, early opening days, small numbers and familiar faces demonstrated the intimacy of the space, snug as a den. So far there are no stools at the bar and plenty of room to move around or melt into the shadows, as long as the numbers remain limited. And Martensen insists that’s the idea: A host will make sure attendance tops out at 48, which is why reservations may ultimately be recommended. “It’s never going to be crowded,” he says.
The bar is the first phase of The Establishment, where an oyster bar/restaurant and coffee operation are still in the works. Not everything about the room is perfect: A prominent staircase, set off by a pair of stanchions, leads tauntingly to nowhere but offices. But that’s a small trifle, and of course it’s the drinks we’re here for. There’s no menu, just a list of spirits, your own desires and the whims of the dapper wizards behind the bar. Name a poison, vote spirit-forward or not, claim a preference for bitter or sweet — whatever you fancy. Mezcal is how I dive in: bartender Mike Steele churns out the Slow Trombone, an apricot-tinged concoction he’s still perfecting. Later, Omar Yeefoon, Smyth’s bar program manager, works magic with Hum, one of my preferred liqueurs.
“That’s the great thing about working here,” says Steele, exhibiting a sheet of note paper with scribbled ingredients and proportions on both sides. “All these drinks, I came up with last night.”
If hit-or-miss experimentation isn’t your thing, go safe with a classic; in the hands of these bartenders, you won’t go wrong.
And when Marvin Gaye’s “Got to Give It Up” comes on, you’ll know you’ve officially crossed the Boogie Nights barrier.
— Marc Ramirez, @typewriterninja @marcramirez