Houston is the most international Texas city, happily reflected in the thriving food and drink scene, while hipster Austin gets all the love for its youthful mix of music and tech, food trucks and pop-ups. But what about Dallas? Long the more suburban-feeling city, it seemed more dominated by chains and steakhouses than by a diverse food and drink scene.
While the corporate, mall culture feel is not gone in parts of the city, neighborhoods have come to life around Dallas, lined with a growing and wider range of bars, restaurants and cafes. Especially for someone who thrives on the best food/drink/culture cities around the world, I experienced many a disappointing visit to the Big D growing up and even frequently for work over a decade ago.
But during a recent return and extensive research in all three cities—Houston, Austin and Dallas—I surprisingly found the latter was not “the third wheel.” In fact, Dallas held a few of the stronger standouts across Texas, from an advanced molecular bar to a welcoming neighborhood hangout.
There are a number of bars and restaurants with solid to great cocktails like Armoury D.E. (www.armouryde.com), Boulevardier (http://dallasboulevardier.com), Henry’s Majestic (www.henrysmajestic.com), CBD Provisions (http://cbdprovisions.com), Ida Claire (http://ida-claire.com) and even the hipster junkyard, Truck Yard (www.texastruckyard.com), which is less about the drinks than the all-day party with live music in a massive outdoor space that recalls Austin.
On the craft distillery front, the last couple years have yielded the most newcomers, while within or not far from the city limits, distilleries are—as they are across the state—on the rise. The first legal distiller in Dallas County, Dallas Distilleries (http://dallasdistilleries.com) produces Texas whiskeys. Further north of Dallas in Lewisville, Witherspoon Distillery (https://witherspoondistillery.com) produces rum and whiskey. In Ft. Worth, Firestone & Robertson (www.frdistilling.com) makes whiskey, as does Trinity River Distillery (www.silverstarwhiskey.com). In the town of Denison, grain-to-glass Ironroot Republic (www.ironrootrepublic.com) distills vodka, gin and moonshine.
For those who love spirits and cocktails, here are eight bars worth visiting in Dallas, where thoughtful, experienced bar managers are raising drink quality across the city.
Down in the basement of the elegant Joule Hotel in downtown Dallas, Midnight Rambler (www.midnightramblerbar.com) looks like a hip music lover’s dream bar, the front staircase artfully lined with vinyl records, with a vintage mini-piano in the back of the bar next to comfy leather couches. Under an arched ceiling, the space glows, serving eclectic bites (think carrot-peanut hummus) from the excellent CBD Provisions (http://cbdprovisions.com) restaurant upstairs.
But the most unexpected surprise is Rambler’s molecular cocktail roots and hidden “lab” housing the likes of a sous vide and centrifuge machine, a mini-version of London drink pioneer Tony Conigliaro’s (of 69 Colebrooke Row) Drink Factory (www.thedrinkfactory.com) in London. But the pricey equipment isn’t flaunted or even mentioned unless you ask.
Owners (both New Yorkers) Chad Solomon and Christy Pope were early in the cocktail renaissance coming from some of the biggest bars in NYC, including the original Milk & Honey and Pegu Club. They founded Cuffs & Buttons (www.cuffandbuttons.com) in 2006 and opened Midnight Rambler late 2014. Finding out that Solomon trained with Conigliaro in years past brings it all together, as they use the lab for fun experiments like infusing Texas cedar wood in vermouth. But more than being a cocktail geek’s den (though it can be just that), it is a cool, welcoming bar playing great tunes and serving high quality cocktails.
What to Drink: They offer popular “shots” like the $6 Pho-King Champ, a mix of wheat vodka, Oloroso sherry, aromatized beef stock and a cilantro leaf. Drinks are creative but drinkable, like Blind Lemon Supreme, combining Texas blue corn whiskey, Oloroso sherry, lemon, curaçao and frothy egg white with Texas cedar and grapefruit essence.
Quality with a low-key vibe lies hidden behind a retro-dive bar exterior in a roughly 90-year-old space housing Victor Tangos (www.victortangos.com), an industry and late-night restaurant and bar favorite. Pull up to the long, lively bar for executive chef Kirstyn Brewer’s ahi tuna nachos, Japanese-style chicken wings or dreamy desserts like PB&J bread pudding. General manager Matt Ragan ensures great hospitality, a strong craft beer list and beautiful but never fussy cocktails. Though it can get packed, it’s the kind of place where there always seems to be a seat and a warm welcome.
What to Drink: In the past, the purple-hued Flight of the Concord was
a standout, featuring pisco undergirded by St. George’s pear brandy, fresh Concord grapes, lemon and honey. Look for local Texas whiskeys in drinks like The Dapper Dan, mixing bourbon with chai-infused Averna and orange oils for aromatic texture.
Opened in 2014, Parliament (http://parliamentdallas.com) is a romantic favorite from Eddie “Lucky” Campbell in Uptown’s State Thomas neighborhood. With Victorian wallpaper, dripping chandeliers and swan doorknobs, the half-circle bar is lined with barstools bearing nameplates of cocktail leaders in Dallas, including Madrina/Proof + Pantry’s Michael Martensen (read the interview with Michael Martensen on page 144), who they dub “The Professor” on his nameplate.
The illustrated menu lists over 125 drinks organized in sections like “Classics & Lost Recipes” or pricey, elaborate creations under “Aristocratic,” such as a $75 Sir Winston Churchill, a mix of Johnnie Walker Blue, smoked Punt e Mes vermouth, dry curaçao and lime served with a Churchill cigar. There is plenty of whiskey and proper absinthe service alongside menu sections with variations on the Julep and the Fizz. Note: Though there is no food at Parliament, you can bring over food from neighboring State & Allen (www.stateandallen.com).
What to Drink: The deep menu covers many well-known and a few obscure cocktail classics, so this is the place for a Bijou or Absinthe Frappe as much as it is for creative drinks like the Inconceivable (High West silver whiskey infused with apple blossom tea, ginger-thyme maraschino, bay leaf vermouth and watermelon ice) or a Barr Hill’s Bee’s Knees (Caledonia Spirits’ Barr Hill gin, cilantro, raw honey syrup, Meyer lemon and cracked pepper).
FT33 & FILAMENT
While Matt McCallister’s (Food & Wine’s 10 Best New Chefs of 2014) restaurants, FT33 (http://ft33dallas.com) and the newer Filament (http://filamentdallas.com) are first and foremost about the inspired food, they both serve worthwhile cocktails alongside diverse wine and craft beer menus. At FT33, pastry chef Maggie Huff’s winning desserts (oh, the warm sabayon or tart buttermilk pie!) also include the likes of Negroni milkshakes, appealing to spirits and cocktail fans.
What to Drink: FT33, the long overdone barrel-aged cocktail trend may reign but they have also earned fans with the likes of their Truffle Pig, adding mushroom simple syrup to tequila and lemon juice, garnished with shiitakes. At Filament, the elevated Southern-food focus matches a bar heavy on whiskeys and drinks like the Old Quarter, an Old Fashioned twist marked by a sorghum-chicory syrup.
Laid-back Rapscallion (http://dallasrapscallion.com) in the hip Lower Greenville neighborhood may be perpetually packed, but that is due to excellent food, including chef Nathan Tate’s version of Nashville hot chicken and an irresistible, grass-fed, three-cheese pimento burger. Eddie Eakin’s cocktails shine across spirit categories, and boozy milkshakes are hard to resist in creative forms like Ode to Peche, where vanilla bean ice cream is swimming in absinthe, Luxardo Maraschino Liqueur, sea salt, candied fennel seeds and an Amarena cherry.
What to Drink: The Rapscallion is the namesake drink, a bracing mix of Carpano Antica sweet vermouth, cacao nib-infused Campari and a house rum blend dubbed Rap 5 R(h)um (the “h” is because it includes a rhum agricole mixed with other rums). Southern Shipwreck is another standout, showing off rye whiskey and rum, tempered with orgeat, lime, brown sugar and Scrappy’s Chocolate Bitters.
PROOF + PANTRY
Run by our featured bar manager (see this issue’s interview with Michael Martensen), Proof + Pantry (www.proofandpantry.com) is all about Martensen and team’s hospitality with straightforward-yet-refined cocktails that go down easy but are also intelligent—like Downtown Funk, a white port and tonic, a European classic that has been trending in some places like SF or NY for a while. The food gratifies—whether a kobe burger or beef tongue ravioli—and being just across the way from the Winspear Opera House, it’s an ideal pre- or post-show stop.
What to Drink: In past menus, delights included I’m Rich, a subtle-smart twist on a classic Daiquiri where white rum and house grenadine are brightened by tart lime curd. Currently, English Eye features Old Tom Gin, orange blossom water and framboise (raspberry) enlivened by a splash of sparkling wine and fresh mint.
Opened in late 2014, Remedy (www.remedydallas.com) is a lofty, modern soda-fountain restaurant in cool grey and lime green tones, as popular for its decadent desserts as its soda-fountain cocktails. Alongside refined versions of Southern dishes like shrimp and grits or toasted pimento cheese, house pies are a big draw (e.g., rum raisin walnut oatmeal cream pie), as are changing ice-cream flavors and massive sundaes. The Bob is a mountain of dark chocolate ice cream with the perfect savory accent of potato chips and sea salt, as well as caramel and a bing cherry.
What to Drink: Mate Hartai’s drink menu covers everything from non-alcoholic shrubs and kombucha to alternately fizzy or velvety cocktails. The Lazarus Mai Tai utilizes house-made Orange Lazarus Orgeat (basically fresh orange juice and zest with house cashew orgeat), mixed with dark and light rums and lime.
Run by our featured bar manager (see this issue’s interview with Michael Martensen), Madrina (http://madrina.herokuapp.com) opened in fall 2015 from the Proof + Pantry team, serving French-accented Mexican food in Highland Park Village. Martensen’s cocktails are grouped by French- and Mexican-inspired drinks, with spirits breaking down under brandies or agave. Alongside grilled corn esquites or rabbit rillettes, a house favorite is wild setas—delicately fried mushrooms over poblano cream and scooped up with warm tortillas.
What to Drink: There are classics like a Ti Punch, Jack Rose or Daisy, alongside Martensen’s signature inspired twists on classics, like a Pepita Mai Tai with house pumpkin seed orgeat, orange cordial and rhum agricole, or house drinks like Mexican Monk, featuring blanco tequila with genepy, jalapeño and lime juice.