The door is not hard to find. Just off of Knox on Travis Street, between Sur La Table and what will someday hold a restaurant called The Establishment, there's an unmarked glass door with an illuminated call box. Press the call button and wait. "Do you have a reservation?" asks a tiny voice from the speaker. And you don't because this is a Wednesday evening and you didn't think ahead. Besides, how busy can a cocktail den be so early in the week?
The voice is silent, ostensibly because the bar manager attached to it is checking the lounge for empty tables. After a few moments, the voice returns and the door is unlocked remotely. The stars have aligned over your desires for whiskey kissed with obscure aperitifs. Tonight is your lucky night.
Bar Smyth opened this March with all the makings of a world-class speakeasy. The much-lauded bar and restaurant The Cedars Social, which Michael Martensen created in 2011, had already garnered a James Beard nomination for outstanding bar program. Smaller, more compact and focused solely on the art of drink-making, his sophomore effort is The Cedars Social distilled.
4513 Travis St., 214-520-0900, 7 p.m.-2 a.m. Tuesday-Saturday, closed Sunday-Monday. $$$
Smyth conjures a pimped-out basement from better days. Generous booths look toward a dimly lit bar clad in bronze, while low-slung furniture and tiny tables line a half wall that divides the space. A second room at the end of the lounge is outfitted with more eclectic furniture and a wall of records that never spin. Everywhere, there is wood paneling, amber light fixtures and swaths of glorious shag. Smyth evokes the halcyon days of three-martini lunches and chain-smoked cigarettes, with a vaguely West Coast vibe. This is where Don Draper might skulk for his next concubine, should he find himself imbibing in some subterranean L.A. drinking den.
And yet, if you're out on the hunt, Bar Smyth is not for you. The reservations policy and seating make this space unsuited for courting strangers. Pack five of your friends around a table and you'll likely have a fine time. Come alone and you'll find yourself thumbing your cell phone for company. You can't even shoot the breeze with the bartenders — there isn't a single bar stool.
There's plenty of booze, though. An amuse bouche cocktail greets guests as they sit. Fresh ginger is run through a juicer and used aggressively to bolster sparkling wine. The tiny glass holds a revelation during your first encounter — a peppery and bright firecracker that awakens your senses. On a second and third encounter the same sip is only vaguely interesting. It has lost its snap.
If the bartender who comes to your table asks if you've been here before and you say no, you'll endure a significant monologue on the mechanics of drink ordering. Skip the speech and take control instead, picking a spirit that suits your taste and offering as many descriptive embellishments as you can muster. Ask for gin, livened with fruit and sunshine, and your bartender will actually humor you, delivering a light and summery cocktail with muddled raspberries garnished with a bush of sage leaves. Ordering this way prompts creativity, mystery and excitement, but it also comes with a hidden cost.
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During one of my visits I overheard a graying, curly-haired woman as she tried to order her drink. "The last time I was here you made me a fabulous cocktail," she said, her voice trailing off like she'd already had too many. She knew it had whiskey, but not much else. Clearly, the previous drink had delighted her, but she couldn't re-create the request. Smyth has no bar menu, and thus no permanence. The drinks here are ghosts.
Instead, you might just order a cocktail like you're used to, which is how I ended up with the most balanced and delicious drinks. My request for a gin martini produced a crystal goblet filled with a brilliant Terroir Gin, lightly accented with vermouth and a breath of orange bitters. I asked for a Ramos Gin Fiz and received the finest example I've had in Dallas, and an order for a gin and tonic produced anything but the ordinary. I didn't love the long, slender ice cube that looked like it was cleaved from the Fortress of Solitude. It stuck out from the top of the narrow Collins glass by at least an inch, refrigerating my nose with every sip. The murky cocktail, tinged red by house-made tonic, however, was a summer sonnet. Drink one of these and you'll never be able to enjoy the pedestrian version poolside again. And why would you, when it's easy enough to get back into Smyth?
Despite a recommended reservation policy, walk-ins seem to be admitted more than they're turned away, but those weekend crowds flush out a few more of Smyth's flaws. Reservations and table times are hard enough to manage in a restaurant; put a handful of revelers in a comfortable booth and blow their minds with boozy drinks and they're likely to stick around for a while. Despite having reservations, some patrons are forced to wait. Dudes lean slack against the metal, obscuring the bartenders while they work an apothecary of bottles, beakers and medicine droppers. It spoils the show that might help alleviate boredom as the wait time for a second drink creeps upward.
And it's a real show. Where The Cedars Social earned a Beard nomination, Smyth could take home a medal. It just needs to hone that subtle finesse of service that other cocktail lounges around the country have mastered completely. A proper doorman to replace that impersonal call box, and a better eye for the empty glasses and crumpled cocktail napkins that seem to collect when things get busy would give this place the extra edge of refinement it needs. Perhaps a little yin would balance what feels like a little too much yang. Mr. Smyth could use a woman's touch.