Cedars Social: Eat Light and Drink Heavy
After a few cocktails like the Tranny Love, any tongue that tries to say the name Cedars Social will twist. But that's acceptable. Spraying like Daffy Duck is a small price to pay for such exquisite drinks.
The team behind this restaurant and bar south of downtown must know a good thing when they hear it. That group includes local celebrity chef John Tesar, who complements The Cedars Social's beverage program with a menu of small plates and comfort food (read: fried and Southern) that spans two sides of heavy-stock paper and the greater part of the mirrored wall at the back of the small dining room.
Also present on the wall is a catalog of what The Cedars Social, with its Brady Bunch cool motif, is really about—liquor—even with Tesar attached as chef. The tippling menu spearheaded by Michael Martensen, late of the Mansion, is longer than the bill of edible fare. Dining at The Cedars Social isn't really about the food, though. It's about the ambience, as "hip" (read: stilted and contrived) as it is. The hipness is seen in the clutter of tchotchkes seemingly mined from estate sales and trash bins but actually a commissioned work. One decoration, the word KIBOSH framed by wood, is one that diners would do well to consider. Put the kibosh on ordering too much. Stick to the drinks and nibbles, but do so with care, beginning with sliders.
The beef-tongue slider, one of four miniature burger variations, is where Tesar's inventiveness manifests itself. The salsa verde, more of a pesto condiment spread on the inside of the bun, had a burst of cilantro upfront slightly tempered by the bitter-peppery notes of arugula. The springy muscle was thick, with touches of char and papillae still present. It was delightful and was unmistakably a cut of tongue, a beautiful one at that and reason enough to make repeat dinner visits.
A second set of sliders, however, was a platter of mouth-puckering, drought-inducing noshes. This was especially true of the short rib slider, whose last bite smacked of nothing but salt.
The deviled eggs, another hit, were silky and the quintessential hors d'oeuvre. They left me wanting more. When they're as good as the ones at The Cedars Social, you ignore the sulfurous egg breath they cause and dig in. Lucky for me, my companion that evening doesn't like deviled eggs—from anywhere—so I gobbled them up.
A native New Yorker, Tesar has created a "Sausage and Peppers" small plate that tips a nod to the Northeast. I expected a street-fair favorite, a glistening mound of sliced peppers and onions and blocks of snappy meat, but what came to the table was more sauce than the promised meat and veggies. The accompanying garlic bread was brittle. A small bite into it resulted in a crumby rout.
The trademark comfort side dish, the Cedars' Mac and Cheese, came to our bar-side end table in the pan in which it had been prepared, giving it a rustic, homey quality. Unfortunately, it came from a cook feeling a pinch too generous with the salt.
The fried calamari, plated on a bed of wilted, sad lettuce with a pair of dipping sauces, a tomato-based concoction and a take on tartar sauce, was ho-hum. The pyramid of fried oysters, which can be ordered grilled, was rimmed by drizzles of bland—yet colorful—sauces. "Look how pretty," was one response, but none of the sauces could cut the barriers of salt that sped across my palate.
Much of the menu reads like a retread of many other comfort-food restaurants. I wouldn't call the chicken and waffles exciting. Lamb lollies with blue-cheese butter aren't innovative. The lobster pot pie and Cedars' chicken wings and cockscombs almost achieve something resembling interesting.
Dessert during one dinner, however, began with promise. The aroma of the pecan pie placed before my companion and me was an inviting, lovely scent that gave me hope. Too bad it was a saccharine snarl with a fragile crust. The maple syrup ice cream beside it was as sweet as the short rib sliders were salty.
The food wasn't the worst thing at The Cedars Social. That dubious honor belongs to the furnishings and decorations that reach for mid-century mod but are as vacuous as a polyester leisure suit. The worst offenders were the banquettes lining the dining room. Their cushions were stuffed so poorly that diners sank into them and were hard-pressed to escape. Grown-up drinkers looked like rows of children inappropriately seated at the adult table. I learned later that the restaurant stocks extra cushions available to guests—upon request. The Wayne Coyne-meets-Mike Brady (wild salt-and-pepper mane with wide lapel patterned suit jacket and matching pants) host certainly meshed with the interior design, which includes a circular fire pit plucked from the 1980s. However, those elements don't mesh with the nook near the door to the patio where there is another fire pit. The separated, brick-arched room has a wall lined with shelves of hardbound books organized by color and used as substitutes for bill folders when patrons are presented with their checks. The cushion-less metal basket chairs in the main dining room were Catholic pew-kneeler uncomfortable, as uncomfortable as a polyester suit.
Then I had a blindsiding lunch. The catfish sloppy Joe was astonishing. It had a smoky paprika-jalapeño combo that two-stepped from cheek to cheek, a tremendous contrast from my pre-lunch Social Market cocktail, a catchall term for the drink of the week. Here was the excitement. The buttermilk pie slice was just shy of the wrong side of rich, even if the crust suffered the same fate as the pecan pie did after dinner. But the food was only a smidge of the midday experience at The Cedars Social. It is an ideal place to recharge when you need a break from applying a grindstone to your nose. There is breezy conversation with a carefree atmosphere and quick service. It was brilliant. What a shame my other visits weren't as ideal.
Overall, though, service was irregular. One server praised everything without distinction. On another visit, a waitress, flitting about the restaurant, made sure we didn't feel ignored, walked us through drink options and made suggestions, even if some, like the mac and cheese, were misguided. She was great. Toward the end of our meal, the waitress asked, "Did you say you wanted another drink?" It was nicely played. "I'm sorry. I didn't. However, the drink you helped me order was wonderful."
Indeed, throughout each meal at The Cedars Social the greatest compliments were reserved for the drinks. From the aforementioned Tranny Love with a mixed-in-house berry liqueur to the tequila-based Vaya Con Dios made with can't-restock-fast-enough passion fruit as well as the classic repertoire of dear drinking buddies like the Moscow mule, the old fashioned and Tom Collins, the superb sippers run the spirits gamut. The staff also offers libations from far-flung venues in the resurgent cocktail culture: They pull off stunning reproductions like the dainty Juliet and Romeo, a gin-based cocktail from Violet Hour in Chicago. It's not for nothing that Imbibe, a beverage glossy, named The Cedars Social among the best cocktail bars in the South. The beer list, which offers an impressive craft selection, gives the place a one-two punch of quaff. It is there that the joint succeeds. It's a fine place for pre-dinner or pre-concert drinks (the Palladium and Southside Music Hall are nearby) and a carefully selected bite to tide one over. Especially for lunch. The Cedars Social is a way station.
Get the Dining Newsletter
The week's top local food news and events, plus interviews with chefs and restaurant owners, dining tips, and a peek at our print review.