Not long after 9/11, Jason Kosmas and the other co-workers at the Manhattan vodka bar Pravda started throwing huge free-booze parties, with volleyball and barbecue, for their restaurant industry friends. They were all just trying to feel connected, alive, like New Yorkers did in the months after the tragedy. And it was at these gatherings where Kosmas would talk to his cohorts about their professional gripes, how there were only two kinds of places: pubs filled with beer drinkers and “clubs filled with d-bags looking to get their dates drunk.” There needed to be a bar that catered to people who took their drinks seriously—grown-ups, in other words.
So Kosmas spent a few years developing a bar for his friends, for the people who would appreciate attention to detail. It had a swinging vibe, drinks with freshly squeezed juice. It was called Employees Only, because he and his partners figured the only people who would go were the people who attended those weekend barbecues.
Employees Only was an unqualified hit. They infused gins and vermouths. They created their own ingredients. They took old ideas and contemporized them. To celebrate its opening in 2004, the proprietors took photos in Prohibition-style outfits, showcasing their impressive mustaches. It was genius in every way, except, as Kosmas now notes, “All they wanted to write about were the f—ing mustaches!”
Five years later, Kosmas was named by Forbes as one of the country’s best bartenders, and he’d become a big deal within the New York crowd. But because of his familial obligations, he was visiting Dallas frequently and knew he would eventually have to find full-time work here. (Being part owner of a bar, even a successful one, pays less than you’d think. Or, if you’ve owned one, exactly what you’d think.) Kosmas wanted to find a place where he could ply his trade and work on a book about speakeasy cocktails.
Then, at a bartending conference in New Orleans in 2009, he met Charlie Papaceno from Dallas’ Windmill Lounge. Papaceno wasn’t one to concoct new versions of the classic cocktails, but he did make his own grenadines and sherries. The cherries he uses for Manhattans are soaked in Luxardo. They became friends, and they started holding cocktail nights at the Windmill on Wednesdays. To put that in perspective, imagine walking into your favorite neighborhood burger joint and seeing, oh, Wolfgang Puck working the grill. Pouring drinks at the Windmill, Kosmas learned that there was a small but passionate group of people in Dallas who take their drinks as seriously as anyone in New York. “There were enthusiasts here,” he says. “I was excited.”
Still commuting between cities, Kosmas asked for part-time work at The Porch. He trailed a bartender there to learn how they did things and found it was not a good fit. The Porch is known for its well-appointed behind-the-bar setup but also for its rigid pouring system. It’s not free-pour; bartenders measure all drinks with jiggers. Although Kosmas said he learned a lot about jiggers and how to use them, it was constricting to a man known as one of the best bartenders in the world, one who compares the craft to jazz. There was the added absurdity of the trainer, ignorant of Kosmas’ pedigree, telling him how you make a cocktail.
Kosmas grins. “Please,” he says. “Teach me.”
Enter Lucky Campbell. He’d heard from his buddy Mike Martensen that Kosmas was in town regularly and looking for something full-time to make the move permanent. Campbell by then had landed at Bolsa, whose owner, Chris Zielke, wanted his bar to pour cocktails as cutting edge as his food. Campbell knew Kosmas needed a like-minded owner and told him to call Nick Badovinus.
Neighborhood Services Tavern was scheduled to open in February 2010, and Badovinus needed not just a head bartender but a general manager. He’d been to Employees Only the year it opened and was deeply impressed. When he heard Kosmas was available, he became the pursuer. One dinner at the original Neighborhood Services on Lovers Lane, a flurry of e-mails, and the deal was done.
Kosmas designed and helped build the underbar, a masterpiece of bartender-friendly design. (“It’s twice as much stuff packed into half the usual space, and everything is positioned to make your job easier,” Martensen says. “It’s amazing.”) He moved past martinis and fresh juices, into artisanal cocktails, creating his own ingredients and using others such as vermouth, Benedictine, and Chartreuse. “The thing is, customers now will try these drinks in Dallas,” Kosmas says. “That’s my job. To inspire them to try.”
If you traveled bar to bar most nights during the past year (and if you didn’t, shame on you), you found two types of high-end drinking establishments. The first group: places with great reputations that nonetheless were playing catch-up to what Bolsa (Campbell and bartender Dub Davis) and Neighborhood Services Tavern were doing. The Mansion Bar for example, with three top-notch mixologists, revamped its vodka- and gin-heavy menu to add more bourbon cocktails. The second group: places whose continued use of Apple Pucker and its cousins made them seem like dinosaurs overnight (a list too long and depressing to construct).
“There’s no question Dallas has reached a level of sophistication where places that value food and drinks with great, fresh, local ingredients will be rewarded by customers,” says Tristan Simon, owner of Victor Tango’s, The Porch, and Fireside Pies. “It’s where we’re moving with our newer restaurants and what the city is demanding.”
Now comes the next test for Dallas: will people wait 20 minutes for a bartender to make a drink?
“Whoa, whoa, whoa! No pictures!” The man coming at me is 6-foot-1 and played linebacker in the NFL for nine years. Picture-taking immediately ceases.
“It’s okay, Brian,” Martensen says. “No one will see it before we open.”
The former linebacker is Brian Williams, born in Dallas and played ball for the Packers, Lions, and Saints before retiring to indulge his love for great drinks. “It” is Cedars Social, the most anticipated new bar to open in Dallas in some time. Satisfied with Martensen’s answer, Williams smiles and nods. “Okay,” he says, going back to overseeing the day’s construction team. “I know where to find you.”
Martensen, in charge of the cocktail program at Cedars Social, gives the proud-papa tour. The building sits across the street from South Side on Lamar and next to Dallas Police Department headquarters. It will offer lounge seating, a small library area, and a gorgeous bar that overlooks a patio with a grand view of downtown. There are fire pits inside and out. Filter out the sawdust and use your imagination, and you can see the bar filled with hipsters congregating on cold nights, discussing the bitters that will be on display.
“When you go into Milk & Honey, they make it a show,” Martensen says, leading us over extension cords to the area behind the bar. “When they’re done straining their tins, they slam them in the sink to make as much noise as possible. The bar is the show. That’s the way we want it to be here—but a little more sexy and elegant. But still with great drinks. Oh, and a window outside where you can get a bag of fried chicken.”
It’s an ambitious vision, one that sees the city seeking out fine drinks like it does fine food. The menu won’t be big, and it won’t be the focus; the drinks will. The cocktail menu will have six divisions: pre-Prohibition, Prohibition, repeal (’30s to now), the bar’s signature list, and the tribute menu (ode to great drinks created by others in Dallas and beyond), and the punch bowl menu.
Martensen is geeked. He just returned from Seattle, where he visited a bartender friend who “has the best ice program in the country.” Don’t roll your eyes. “Craft ice” is the latest bartending term, the idea being that anything dissolving in your beverage deserves the same care and attention that the liquid itself gets. At two Philadelphia drinkeries, cubes are carved and shaved from 50- and 125-pound blocks of ice, respectively. Martensen shows me a video on his phone of a chunk of ice being sculpted into a diamond before it goes in the glass. The drink costs more than $100. “We won’t do that, but it’s pretty damn cool,” he says.
Ice, bitters, fruits, juices, herbs, even the pickle juice—only the best will be served, he says. Cedars Social will be a place where people can learn the story of each cocktail they try, discuss how bitters change a cocktail and can improve its depth. And Martensen is certain that if the beverage is worth the wait, no one will mind that it may take five minutes, 10, or maybe more to make the perfect cocktail.
“Well, let’s see if that’s true the first time the bar is three deep on a Friday night,” Tristan Simon says. “I wish them the best, but that’s tough. Look, I’ve been to those places in Los Angeles who do that. The cocktails are fantastic. But I’m on a date, and it’s 20 minutes before I can get another drink once we’ve finished, and that’s a problem.”
Martensen doesn’t see it that way. He believes Dallas is ready for this. He says as long as you’re honest with customers about the value you’re providing, they’ll understand. “If someone comes in and they don’t get what we do, we’ll teach them,” he says. “They’re in a rush and we’re slammed, we’ll recommend Absinthe [a bar across the street] for faster service. We’ll do what we can to make them happy. We want to be a good neighbor, but we also want to add to the cocktail culture here, and we think this is the way to do it.”
As I wrote this in early December, Martensen was training his staff, which includes Dub Davis, formerly of Bolsa, who was chosen last year by fellow bartenders as the winner of a regional best bartender competition. Davis, who grew close to Campbell and helped create last summer’s drink menu at Bolsa, had a quiet but unpleasant parting with his friend, owner Chris Zielke. Now all the drinks Davis had a big hand in creating are off the Bolsa cocktail menu, and the dozens of origami swans he fashioned, which used to hang over the bar, have been removed.
Finishing off the musical chairs, Zielke hired Jason Kosmas after he left Neighborhood Services Tavern in October. Kosmas left NST in the very capable hands of barkeep Andrew Lostetter, who himself sports a pretty sweet mustache. Kosmas couldn’t juggle promoting his new book, Speakeasy, and the demands of being a general manager, so Zielke teamed him with Campbell.
Then, in mid-December, Campbell and Martensen signed a lease on a downtown Dallas space, on Main Street, where they plan to open a pure cocktail lounge. “We think downtown is ready for it,” Campbell says. They’ll both still tend bar at Bolsa and Cedars Social, respectively. They just want to attack that cocktail wave now, as it’s cresting, with as much force and blind hope as possible.
It’s this sort of cross-pollination—working together, jumping to each other’s bars, experimenting, trying to at once learn from and make better cocktails than the other guy—that makes the Dallas cocktail scene feel real. It’s talented people who want to make something so sensible, so much better than what is already there, that the force of their efforts and passion make everyone else take notice, perhaps come along for the ride.
It must be true. Why else would we pay $15 a drink?
Eric Celeste is the former managing editor of D Magazineand a known drunk. Write to [email protected]
Where to wet your whistle in Dallas and beyond
Order Brad Hensarling’s Moscow Mule. For a bourbon-heavy Prohibition-style bar, The Usual cranks out a fine version of this 1950s favorite, made with vodka, ginger beer, Angostura bitters, a bit of sugar, and fresh lime juice.
Order Abe Bedell’s Intro to Aperol. All the kids in Italy are drinking Aperol and soda, but Bedell mixes the bittersweet aperitif with dry gin, fresh lemon juice, simple syrup, and Angostura bitters.
Black Swan Saloon
Order Gabe Sanchez’s Cherry Limeade. The former Ghostbar manager combines Hendrick’s gin, fresh lime juice, and black cherry juice, stirred on the rocks. A better drink than a dive bar should be allowed to serve.
Order Eddie “Lucky” Campbell’s Oswald’s Corridor. A take on another classic: an absinthe wash, Maker’s Mark, Cherry Heering, Punt e Mes, and a hint of orange. Enough bourbon to have a kick, just enough dark cherry sweetness to make you crave more.
Order the Old-Fashioned No. 2. Three mixologists combined to totally rework the dated cocktail menu, which now features classic “revivals and evolutions.” This mix of Maker’s 46, Gomme syrup, orange and lemon peel; Peychaud bitters adds sweet vermouth for a kick.
Order Charlie Papaceno’s Manhattan. The classic (rye whiskey, sweet vermouth, and bitters, strained into a cocktail glass) with cherries soaked in Italian maraschino liquor.
Neighborhood Services Tavern
Order Jason Kosmas’ New Fang. Current barkeep Andrew Lostetter can make you this mix of rye whiskey, sugar, elderflower liquor, and orange bitters. Yes, it’s named after the Them Crooked Vultures song.