Sunday, May 19, 2024 May 19, 2024
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Restaurant Review: The Cedars Social

Ex-NFL linebacker Brian Williams, mixologist Michael Martensen, and chef John Tesar bring a retro cocktail den to the swinging Cedars.
photography by Kevin Marple

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.

photography by Kevin Marple
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.”