A toast to Dallas’ best drinks

It’s that time again. Time for spirits that animate friendship, for recollections and plans, for taking stock and maybe profits or even writing off losses. Time for giving. Time for getting and forgetting, for lively libations and potable pleasures. Time to look for the best liquid assets in Big D. Leave that jug of wine and loaf of bread for spring. Winter requires something stronger to gentle our condition.

To help along the holiday mood, we went searching for the best bars in Dallas. We found everything: The place that mixes its drinks by the recipe on the back of the bottle; the bartender guided only by his conscience; computer-controlled mixes; and much else in between.

“I LIKE my margarita a little sweet,” the bartender at Joe Miller’s explained as she lugged a bucket of ice from a back room. “So I put in a little Rose’s Lime. A house recipe? Oh sure, we have a house recipe, but . . . .”

And at Joe Miller’s, nobody bothers about a nonconforming bartender. But some places do. Almost every bar has its house recipes, and some take them quite seriously. Nostromo, for example, gives its bartenders a test on recipes every couple of weeks. The exact same TGI Friday drink is served to you everywhere, regardless of location, no matter who is tending bar. At Houlihan’s, the routine drinks are programmed into the computerized ABC machine, to be dispensed automatically at the push of a button. Many places, such as Mario’s and the Adolphus Hotel’s Palm Bar, pre-mix a day’s supply of their house recipes. Every place is different; every place has its own style.

If there were surprises in our research, they were in the category of Disappointments. Touted margaritas in Mexican restaurants turned out blah. Grand ole watering holes dished up dishwater. High-volume establishments all but forgot the booze.

But we found excellence, too. A number of places – a smaller number than we’d like – do serve a consistently superb product. We have featured them here.

Every bar has its forte – which, of course, arises from the demand of its customers. A lunchtime beehive like Piaf’s will do a huge Bloody Mary business, while a late-night haven like Nostromo may pop more champagne than anybody else in Texas and turns high volume in coffee drinks. The bar in a restaurant that feeds the younger set will hear orders for drinks like the strawberry daiquiri – a name seldom whispered by the serious after-work drinkers at Joe Miller’s or Arthur’s.

Those sophisticates who really know their alcohol will probably not benefit as much from our investigation as others. Bartenders report that veteran drinkers have an overwhelming tendency to order the same drink time after time – usually a simple highball – and they tend to call for their brands by name. They do not savor the adventure of new tastes; they have learned how to get their favorite no matter where they go.

The bars mentioned in the paragraphs that follow can be relied on to serve a good drink. They like to include enough alcohol. They have good house recipes and skilled bartenders. And, in most cases, they have quality brands “in the well.”

You will notice that we’ve stayed mostly with “classic” or basic drinks, skirting those esoteric concoctions favored by more eccentric tipplers. No Dog’s Nose, Monkey’s Gland, Sazerac or Godfather here. Let’s save those for New Year’s Eve.


Nobody is really sure who Bloody Mary was, aside from that 16th-century queen of England who gained fame burning a few of her least good friends at the stake. Not a bad reason for naming a hot, spicy drink after her. Others assume that this tomato charmer was named for the big Polynesian mama of Rogers and Ham-merstein’s South Pacific. And then there’s the George Jessel one-liner about how he invented the drink in a Palm Springs bar and then proceeded to spill it on a lady named Mary.

Whoever she was, she reaches her prime at Café Pacific, 21 Highland Park Shopping Village. Actually, Cafe Pacific would be in the top three of any mixed drink contest it chose to enter. Everything served from its bar has the elegance of the Mercedes Benzes parked outside. We gave it the nod as having the Best Bloody Mary because the place is so far ahead of everyone else in that category, but you will see Café Pacific mentioned elsewhere, too.

When Jack Knox and Mel Hollen went to work building Hollen’s ideal restaurant from the ground up in the ripped-out shell of a jewelry store, they called on Mel’s many years’ experience setting up Victoria Stations around the country and planning trips to the world’s grand cities to do it right. “I observed the places that had staying power and modeled after them,” Hollen says.

He tolerates nothing but class acts behind his bar: quality liquor and mixers, all natural ingredients, no guns for soda and soft drinks, everything prepared like the good ole days. Bartenders have an average of 10 years’ experience; Art Rohlf-ing (who’s been there 13 years) mixed the Bloody Mary that was judged.

Second place goes to Arthur’s in Caruth Plaza, which makes up its own mix that lasts for a day or two -and where the rims are salted. San Francisco Rose, 3024 Greenville, does best with a commercial mix (Major Peters).

Café Pacific’s winning recipe:

1/4 oz. Lea & Perrin’s Worcestershire

dash of salt, pepper, celery salt and fresh dill

twist of lemon

put in ice

1 oz. Smirnoff vodka

fill with Sacramento tomato juice

squeeze lime on top

stir from the bottom up


With serious, full-blown winter upon us, it’s time to start making contingency plans. Our advice: Put antifreeze in the car, button up your overcoat and go to Houlihan’s, 4 NorthPark East, for a Cappuccino Houlihan. The coffee warms your gullet, and the rest of it makes your spirits soar.

The problem with coffee drinks (besides the fact that a lot of people like their coffee in a cup in the morning, not in a glass in the evening) is that they have no standard name or ingredients. From bar to bar in Dallas you will find perhaps a dozen different recipes operating under the name Kioki Coffee. As one bartender put it, “Sometimes a waitress comes with an order for a ’Jamaican Coffee.’ I’d think, Now what might that guy have in mind? Let’s see, tia maria comes from Jamaica; I’ll put some of that in, and a splash of Jamaican rum. I’m right about half the time.”

The formula came after long, happy experimentation (“a real mad-scientist routine”) by Paul Robinson, creator of Houlihan’s decor, and his colleagues who opened the first Houlihan’s in Kansas City in 1972. They wanted a winter drink for their new place, and they got one. Now there are 63 Houlihans’ around the country, all dispensing Robinson’s beautiful brew. On cold nights, Houlihan’s in Dallas will sometimes sell a cup of Cappuccino Houlihan to 50 percent of its customers.

Cappuccino Houlihan is the best of several good coffee drinks to be found in Dallas. Most places serving dinner or a late night clientele, such as Nostromo, Andrew’s and Arthur’s have an array.

Houlihan’s winning recipe (party-size batch):

1 quart each: gin, rum, brandy, light creme de cacao, dark creme de cacao

3 oz. Galliano

6 cinnamon sticks

20 cloves

Blend and let stand for five hours, then strain. Serve 1 1/4 oz. of this liquor portion per cup. Fill the cup with cappuccino (Houlihan’s cappuccino is made of equal parts espresso and steamed milk). Serve topped with unsweetened whipped cream, topped with chocolate shavings.


The sophisticated imbiber smiles benignly upon cream, ice cream and juice drinks. To him they belong in a class with milkshakes. They definitely aren’t the daily fare of the serious partaker.

One bartender tells of a practical joke he once played on a couple of college boys: He gave them two strawberry daiquiris each.. .without a drop of alcohol! They not only didn’t pick up on the joke, he says, but they both swayed on their way out!

This category houses some pretty weird combinations, along with some respectable house specialties. Jim Barnes’ Siberian Tool Kit was a winner in the good old days of the original Old Church. Others, like the Velvet Hammer and the Golden Cadillac, are well-known and relatively standard from place to place. Ice cream drinks are found mainly in low-volume, high-service bars. Many establishments don’t carry them at all because they’re a lot of trouble. Each one can take a bartender two minutes, so if a bar has only one blender and a waitress comes back with three different ice cream drinks, that pins down the bartender, piles up the orders and wears out the manager’s patience.

These drinks are for fun and calories. The best in Dallas is at Harper’s Corner on the 10th floor of the Mockingbird Hilton. Jamal Afkhami makes several outstanding drinks; the best he calls the Cadillac.

This concoction started out as Arthur’s Cadillac in 1973, when Arthur’s (like Harper’s Corner, a part of Universal Restaurants) opened at its current location on Central between Northwest Highway and Caruth.

The full recipe is a secret shared by only four or five bar managers. All they say is they pre-mix the components -a blend of seven different liquors – before adding vanilla ice cream.

Other excellent sweet drinks can be found at Café Pacific (its Ramos Gin Fizz and Brandy Alexander) and Andrew’s (the Moondancer, which has a basic grape flavor), 3301 McKinney.


Ah, the pina colada. Order it and you’ve given yourself away. This may be your first time in a place that serves alcohol. Remember that scene in Shane, when Alan Ladd is being provoked to violence by the local toughs? “We call this ’un Sody Pop,” sneered one of the varmits. Well, if the story had taken place in redneck Dallas, 1982, they’d have needled ole Shane as “Piiina Colaaada.”

The pina colada is a sissy’s drink and a favorite of the ladies. But, oh, does it hit anybody’s spot in a Dallas heat wave – or even by a fireplace in December.

The pina colada is an obscure drink as far as the literature goes. You don’t even find it listed in very many bar guides; it’s a relative newcomer. And its formula is simple.

Maybe that’s why we didn’t discover the great contrast among contestants in this category that exists in others: Not enough time has passed for mutant strains to develop, and the ingredients don’t lend themselves to experimentation.

All the same, we did decide that the pina colada at the Crazy Crab, 3211 Oak Lawn and 2829 W. Northwest Hwy., is the thickest and richest in Dallas. It’s so gooey and good you could have it for dessert.

Other worthy pina coladas are at Trader Vic’s in the Mockingbird Hilton, Piafs, 4527 Travis, and San Francisco Rose.

The Crazy Crab winning recipe:

1.75 liters light rum

4 15-oz. Coco Lopez

2 46-oz. pineapple juice

For a frozen pina colada, put a little more than half as much ice as mix in the blender.


There is no truth to the rumor that Jimmy Buffet was lying by his apartment pool in Oak Lawn when he wrote Margaritaville. But still it could have happened. Big D is on the verge of becoming Big M.

When you stop to think about it, the abundant supply of good margaritas you find in this town should not be surprising. Dallas has the long, hot summer, the fine Mexican restaurants and the apartments full of beginning sippers – all predisposing factors to the margarita. And Dallas has delivered.

Buffet made the margarita popular in the Seventies, but the drink goes back 40 years further to a man named Daniel Negrete, who is said to have made the first one for a special lady. She is reported to have been a fiend for salt, and Negrete, a hotel manager, had the run of the bar to discover a mixture that could be salted. We don’t know the lady’s name, but surely it was Margarita.

We found the best Dallas margarita at Café Cancun, 4131 Lomo Alto. It’s a strong, tart drink that reeks of character. The Cafe Cancun recipe, released here for the first time, uses no mixes. It’s tequila, lime juice and ice along with Cointreau – not its cheaper cousin, triple sec.

On a typical Friday night, the Cafe Cancun bar will turn out two to three hundred of these potent potions, all free-poured. Cafe Cancun is the largest user of Cointreau in Texas; a plaque to that effect is being prepared by the importers.

Owners Emilio Rodriguez and Ed Murph say they will soon be bottling their winning recipe as a mix.

The best of the rest: Cafe Pacific in Highland Park Village, The Palm Bar in the Adolphus Hotel and Houlihan’s, Park Lane and Central. If you like a touch of bourbon in your margarita (we didn’t, but many people do), try Javier’s, 4912 Cole. For this competition, all margaritas were ordered on-the-rocks.

The winning Café Cancun recipe:

1 1/2 oz. Sauza white tequila

1 1/2 oz. Cointreau

fill with lime juice, add ice, shake, strain.


In the hand, so cool, whispering of elegant dim nightclubs where beautiful women laugh and dance.

In the eye, so limpid and calm, its crystalline purity defiled only by the slightest hint of oil from a skewered olive.

In the mouth, oh! The sudden spreading warmth, the glad delicious numbness!

In the morning, God help you.

(from The Song of Martini, 1927)

Scholars are uncertain as to just who wrote this paean to one of America’s classic drinks. Some argue that the Song, found scrawled on 214 cocktail napkins in the bar of New York’s Montauk Room, could be the result of one of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s more embarrassing evenings. Others point out that Kahlil Gibran was missing for a long weekend during a visit to New York. Whoever he was, the Martini Poet wrote of a drink that testifies to one of mankind’s most durable desires: to get blasted in a hurry. If you’re headed that way, the martini is the perfect vehicle.

It’s strange that such a mystique has developed around such a simple drink. The basic martini is a snap: Take one and a half ounces of dry gin and one-half ounce of dry vermouth. Stir with cracked ice. Strain into a 3-ounce cocktail glass. Serve with an olive. A twist of lemon peel is optional.

It’s hard to mess up a martini. Some places that don’t are the Adolphus lobby bar (where it’s served in a brandy snifter), 1321 Commerce; Joe Miller’s, 3531 McKinney; and Minx, 4600 Belt Line, in Addison, where the martini looks like a martini should- shining in a delicate, conical glass with an exaggerated stem.

Martinis tend to taste pretty much the same wherever you go, though most bartenders know several comic variations on the theme, most of which involve clever ways of making the strong drink even stronger. “Clink together the bottle of vermouth with the bottle of gin; put the vermouth back into the cabinet.” “Whisper ’vermouth’ in the direction of your glass. Add gin.” The martini is the drinker’s drink, and a great many martini drinkers can go it straight, thank you, without even the faint palliative of vermouth to ease the cold bite of gin. (About the vodka martini, by the way: Most serious martini drinkers dismiss it as a paler-than-pale imitation and mutter something about Russian plots to besmirch a noble drink.)

H.L. Mencken wrote somewhere that the martini gained great fame in the years just after Prohibition, especially among artists, writers and other fringe types, then spread to the monied upper classes and the professions, eventually becoming the stereotyped drink of the harried businessman. Who knows? Perhaps after jolting down so much bathtub gin during the nightmare years of the Volstead Act, people were just too jaded to go back to Orange Blossoms and Pink Ladies. When hooch went legal again, many may have sought that inner glow in the martini.

Mad magazine, which began in the early Fifties as a spoof of Madison Avenue and the inanities of corporate man, loved to use the martini as a symbol of American decadence. No Mad of my youth was complete without at least one scene from an office party: a martini-soaked orgy at which portly bosses chased nubile secretaries around a desk. Leaning against the walls, semiconscious cronies smirked into their glasses.

But times change. Today it seems that martini drinking is a ritual more honored in the breach than the observance, as Shakespeare might have said after a few glasses of this pale fire. The martini’s natural constituency has always been the affluent upper classes. Now, many young and not-so-young professionals are Into Health, and the morning jog comes hard when the stomach is still aslosh with gin. Many who might have fallen under the martini’s spell 20 years ago now opt for Perrier or, in a racy mood, club soda “on the rocks with a twist”- the tag line reminding us that they’re no strangers to booze culture; they just happen to like their livers.

No doubt, much of this creeping responsibility can be blamed on wellness gurus such as Jim Fixx (author of The Complete Book of Running) or some other Thoreau in Nikes. Such folks dispense good, solid advice, all of it duller than mineral water.

Come to think of it, much of the martini mystique has to do with the drink’s curative powers as a quickie stress reliever. You know the scenario straight out of The Days of Wine and Roses or a dozen other such movies of the Fifties and Sixties: The hard-driving young executive, pressured by a tyrannical boss usually named J.B., copes by downing multiple martinis in something called a club car. First he drinks on the way home from work. Then he drinks on the way to work. And, of course, there’s the obligatory scene in which our exec orders up, then tosses off half of his martini in one loud gulp. This brings raised eyebrows even from the stoic bartender. At that point, we know this guy’s headed for trouble.

Today, we know much more about dealing with stress, granola, bean sprouts and shinsplints. There’s no doubt that this is enormously good for us, but it has, nevertheless, also brought the decline of the martini as a social drink. Let’s face it: When you get eight journalists together to talk about a story on best drinks and four of them have never had a martini, it’s a trend.

But while it lasted, the martini drinker had the best of both worlds. He was hailed as a sophisticate while drinking only to get plastered – for really, what other reason is there for the martini? (Don’t say “I like the taste.”) The martini also helped keep down the boor population, always a desirable end. We’ve all known the irritating schmuck who chirps, while others are slurring their goodbyes, “You know, I can drink margaritas (or stingers or whatever) all night and never feel a thing.”

Nobody, but nobody ever said that about martinis, and nobody ever will.

– Chris Tucker


YOU’VE NEVER met any of the Beautiful or Right People -nobody has -but you know they’re out there. Clubs live and die by the mysterious decisions of these fickle arbiters of taste. According to our In sources, here are the current hot and cold spots in Dallas.


Confetti’s – It’s not unusual to see more than 100 eager swingers lined up to visit this multilevel, must-see disco.

Nostromo – the ogle-and-be ogled club of Dallas.

Biff’s -a sleek, understated favorite with models and advertising moguls.

Stoneleigh P.– always In with almost everyone who counts, courts or creates.

8.0 Bar – A special case. Might be solidly In at 6:30 on a Thursday, then fall Out with a thud by noon the next day. Hard to call. Check the faces on the dance floor.


Billy Bob’s Texas -now sustained by the tourist trade and rural kickers ready to rowdy down. A monument to Texas past.

Café Dallas-still cheek-to-cheek crowded, but suffering a backlash against its own super meat-market image.

TGI Friday’s – If you’re an established, old-line Dallasite (meaning you’ve been here more than two months), this is not for you.

8.0 Bar. Varies. See above.

EastSide – a not-nearly-as-interesting ripoff off the 8.0 Bar; lacks the one element that sustains a high-tech bar: a high-tech crowd.


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