When I first walked into The Cedars Social, I felt like I was having an acid flashback to my wild-child days in the ’70s. One side of the dining room is dominated by a round gas fire pit with amber-colored fire glass and a huge trumpet-shaped hood hanging from the original exposed wooden ceiling above it. Beyond the fire pit, two long banquettes upholstered in shades of robin’s egg blue and a bronzy brown run along a wood-paneled wall. A conversation area consisting of a vintage love seat and two cushy wingback chairs sits amid the dining tables, which are surrounded by the funky, round-bottomed metal chairs made famous in the ’60s by Harry Bertoia. The lighting fixtures and other accents are a playful hodgepodge collected from the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s. Taking it all in, I would not have been surprised if a hostess dressed in a flowing paisley Pucci pantsuit had asked me to toss my car keys into a bowl.
Instead, I dropped my keys to the bottom of my purse as I crossed the parquet floor to that banquette—where I sank so low in the seat that my shoulders wound up level with the tabletop. My flashback shifted. Now I felt like I was in someone’s home when her parents were out of town. A customer next to us pointed to a stack of square pillows by the front door and suggested we use them as boosters.
The Cedars Social is a cozy place. It accommodates only 70 seats inside, including the bar area as well as the sexy library, a semiprivate alcove with well-worn books on the shelves. Outside, a patio offers another fire pit and seating for an additional 50. The music runs from Steely Dan and Stevie Wonder to the Beatles and MGMT. The crowd is multiethnic. Some of the men wear hats (not of the baseball variety).
I spotted owner Brian Williams at the bar. A big, beefy guy with an easy laugh, Williams played linebacker for the Green Bay Packers when the team won the Super Bowl in 1997. He shops at Barneys New York and likes the funky style of the store’s windows so much that he hired the designer, artist Kevin McCarthy, to help him create The Cedars Social’s seasonal art installation on the walls.
Williams was chatting with his partner, the cleanly shaven Michael Martensen, who was standing behind the bar and laughing, too, as he rocked a cocktail shaker to a rapid beat, so evenly that he seemed to be watching a metronome. Martensen, formerly an ambassador of the mustache and a bartender at the Mansion Bar, is to cocktails what Monet was to impressionism. He has spent the last eight years redefining cocktails as a culinary art, and his thoughtful, exhaustive drink menu at The Cedars Social celebrates almost 100 years of drinking. He has divided his menu by eras: Pre-Prohibition, Prohibition, Re-Peal, The Usual Suspects, and Tribute Cocktails, the latter chapter comprising drinks from some of the famous bars and bartenders across the United States. Martensen also offers a rotating list of seasonal drinks and punch bowls dictated by what he finds growing in herb guru Tom Spicer’s garden. Suffice to say that the man takes his mixology seriously.
Across the room, I spied chef John Tesar expediting dishes out of the tiny kitchen. His thick, black-framed glasses were pushed up on his forehead, giving him the appearance of the four-eyed geek in your high school biology class. Tesar and Martensen know each other from the Mansion. When Tesar ran the kitchen there, he spoiled Martensen by ordering whatever fresh ingredients his bartender’s rare concoctions required. After his tour de force at the Mansion, though, Tesar put up his knives to take some consulting gigs. His return to the kitchen appears to have inspired him.
His menu is an ambitious assortment of upscale bar food that draws from his past in fine dining and reflects new ideas he picked up while studying restaurants across the country. The items are grouped into small plates, large plates, salads, sides, and desserts, and they include cutting-edge-for-Dallas dishes such as pig’s ears, tongue sliders, and charred octopus. If your palate isn’t adventurous, you’ll be happy to know seared scallops are available.
So we’re talking about a restaurant, right? These three guys have combined their talents to create a place unlike any other in Dallas. But it is a restaurant. “No, no, no,” Martensen tells me later on the phone. “This is a bar with upscale bar food. It’s a cocktail den. It’s all about imbibing. We don’t have olives or Red Bull, and we don’t make dirty martinis. We need people to get out of their comfort zone.”
My group of five was totally out of its comfort zone after we’d waited 15 minutes for a cocktail. The seating didn’t help matters. The booster seat pillows eventually take their toll on derrières of a certain age, and even though the metal chairs look groovy, after a half hour, you’ll find grill marks on your thighs. Thankfully our server explained that each cocktail takes at least 10 minutes to make, and the food service is staggered and unstructured. “Dishes come out as they are ready because we like to encourage sharing,” she said. “And our bartenders make each cocktail by hand.”Our drinks were worth the wait. I sipped a fiery red potion called Diablo Rojo made with Corzo tequila, fresh raspberries, agave nectar, lime, and muddled fresh jalapeños. It was shaken and served in a tiny 5.5-ounce vintage champagne coupe. (Warning: each 3-ounce cocktail contains about 2 ounces of alcohol.) My delicate friend sipped a dainty daiquiri of DonQ Cristal rum, cane sugar, and fresh lime, while another sampled a Bees Knees, a splendid blend of London dry gin, lemon juice, and honey syrup garnished with a lemon twist. As the nifty glasses were passed around the table, we erupted in a chorus of oohs and aahs.
The exclamations continued as crab cake sliders appeared on the table. Even though I suffer from slider fatigue, I enjoyed the fresh jumbo lump crab that shone through a light breading and a mixture of Dijon, homemade mayonnaise, basil, and scallion.
Two more small plates arrived. I squealed after my first bite of octopus. The contrasting textures were surreal. The tentacles are slow-braised in red wine until they are tender and wrapped with a creamy char of tomato paste and garlic. The dish is finished with tiny bits of chorizo, avocado, and fresh celery leaves. Gnudi, Tesar’s salute to the dish popularized by New York’s Spotted Pig, are plump, pasta-like dumplings of ricotta cheese served in a brown butter sauce scented with thyme, bay leaf, and lemon. The texture of the molten cheese titillated my tongue as the savory herbs went to work on my olfactory nerves. I could have eaten 100 of them.
At this point in the meal, though, my palate was confused. There were a lot of flavors dancing around the table, and my sweet, spicy Diablo Rojo cocktail was not jibing with the food. How to reconnect with the rest of the meal, which would include meatloaf, scallops, and chicken and waffles? If only the bar offered a mildly amusing Italian Sauvignon Blanc.
Buried between the cocktails and food items, I found a small wine list created by consulting sommelier DLynn Proctor. There are close to 20 wines by the glass, including a list of “Usual Suspects” such as Cakebread, Silver Oak, and Opus One. Obviously they don’t want to sell a lot of wine, but it makes sense to offer it with the large-plate items, perhaps as paired tasting pours. It would have been nice if our server had suggested we pair our food with wine and return to cocktails postprandially. I ordered a Bibi Graetz Rosso “Casamatta” Sangiovese to cover the spread.
A glass of 1978 Chateau Margaux could not have saved the ridiculous mass of caul fat- and bacon-wrapped meatloaf that was set before me. When I removed the bacon, the finely ground beef and veal gurgling in ketchup spilled slowly across my plate like a trowel full of wet stucco. It was so soupy that we had to eat it with a spoon.
The chicken and waffles weren’t quite a disaster, but they were overly salted. The thin yeast waffles were a delight, and the chicken, which is marinated in buttermilk for three days, was juicy. But someone in the kitchen is giving his elbow a real workout with a salt shaker.
This has to be frustrating news for John Tesar. He tackled this project by cooking 45 days straight to get the menu in shape. It’s obvious he has put his heart into the project. But by the time I hit The Cedars Social for my final visit, in early April, Tesar was dividing his attention between its kitchen and the work required to open his own restaurant, The Commissary, in One Arts Plaza. He’s dedicated to keeping the quality high at both places, and he claims he has hired the talent to do it, but the food at The Cedars Social was better when Tesar was in the kitchen.
I won’t soon forget the night I was seduced by his lobster pot pie. It was filled with lovely bites of sautéed lobster, asparagus, potatoes, carrots, baby peas, and wild mushrooms soaking in a sassy, updated buerre blanc sauce of lobster stock, white wine, shallots, thyme, and bay leaf. The dish is topped with a hat of flaky puff pastry. Then there was the afternoon I stuffed my face with three pieces of pie—pecan, buttermilk, sweet potato—baked by Tesar’s wife, Tracy, the former pastry chef at The Driskill Hotel in Austin.
There’s a lot to love at The Cedars Social. The food is good—some of it is great. And the setting is a treat. As its historic Cedars neighborhood continues its upswing, the restaurant—er, bar—should do well. But I believe it will take some time for the original concept to mellow into a more user-friendly experience. If the place isn’t a restaurant, as Martensen claims, then perhaps they should ditch the large plates to help diners break out of their starter-salad-entrée-dessert mentality. Sure, they’ll lose some customers who aren’t willing to wait 10 to 15 minutes for a handcrafted cocktail, but by pushing those who remain to try something new, they—forgive me—will raise the bar for bars in Dallas. The space demands that you play it loose and free. Just keep your keys to yourself. You don’t want to embarrass yourself at The Cedars Social, because you’ll want to return.
For more information about The Cedars Social, visit our restaurant guide.