Settle Up is a column that critiques cocktail bars with the same gravitas that food critics apply to restaurants, exploring Dallas' cocktail concepts, menus, execution and service and steering discerning imbibers toward all the booze that’s fit to drink.
When we talk about holding Dallas cocktail bars to a certain standard, the standard we are referring to is Midnight Rambler. In terms of service, innovation and all-round vibe, Midnight Rambler is the best explicit cocktail bar in the city.
You may try to fight me on that — good luck; I do CrossFit — but I’m not alone in my praise: The bar is routinely nominated for national bar accolades such as Tales of the Cocktail Spirited Awards. So it is with these preconceived notions in mind that I swung through to review the 3-year-old bar’s new menu.
Midnight Rambler is typically described as glamorous. Its entrance, accessible from The Joule’s lobby, is unmarked save for a neon sign that spells out “cocktails.” Its subterranean space features leather couches, exposed bulbs, a backlit bar and a curved, train car-esque ceiling. Pretty people wearing pretty clothes hang out here — not just hip visitors who sleep in the $350-night hotel but locals who hoof it downtown and valet out front. The atmosphere is only part of the draw.
The drinks are consistently creative and surprising. One drink that has remained on the menu for years is the shot-sized Pho-King Champ ($6), which contains vodka, sherry and beef stock. Topped with a cilantro leaf, it tastes and smells like a big slurp of pho broth.
The bar’s spring menu features a dozen drinks, most of which are inspired by the season and designed, seemingly, to please a bumble bee. Ingredients include dried flowers, honey and pollen, plus laborious homemade eau de vie (fruit brandies), essential oils, liqueurs, extracts and teas. A few include specialty mineral waters, as if a mineral water sommelier is on staff.
The best exemplar of the menu’s funky style is the Bohemian Bloom ($14). This delicate drink is made with elderflower liqueur, sparkling wine and a gentian root apéritif. It is bubbly and tastes earthy, not like greenery but weirdly like actual dirt. After you take a sip, it dries your mouth out, as if you just licked a mud pie. The flavor profile is nostalgic for us recovering dirt eaters but grown up in its audaciousness. Drinking this cocktail from a Champagne flute makes you feel like you’re in on an inside joke, subverting the pinkies-up vessel it’s served in.
The Hogo-A-Go-Go ($12) and Lavender Bramble ($12) are more crushable options. Made with rum, lime, nutmeg and hibiscus and served over a big ice cube, the Hogo-A-Go-Go tastes like a rich agua de Jamaica. The Lavender Bramble, made from blackberry liqueur, gin, lemon and lavender, tastes like a light blackberry soda. Usually I avoid drinks with long ingredient lists — the more ingredients competing with one another, the muddier a drink becomes — but the seven-ingredient (I’m A) King Bee ($12) has a lovely, clean honey taste. Each ingredient, from the chamomile apple brandy to the egg white, only heightens the profile of the rainforest-sourced honey. It’s quite a neat trick.
On slow nights, the bartenders are helpful and fun, offering samples of specialty ingredients and challenging new hires to blind taste tests of various spirits. On one visit, I attempted to start off with the drink at the top of the menu, the Neroli Negroni ($14). In this variation, the classic gin-vermouth-Campari cocktail is spiked with bitter orange oil. But the bartender stopped me, asking if I was planning to drink more. (I was, obviously.) The Negroni, he warned, would “blow out my palate”; he suggested I start instead with one of the lighter, bubbly drinks farther down the page. It was an excellent suggestion.
It’s a shame the menu isn’t organized more intuitively — lighter drinks at the top, stronger ones at the bottom — so imbibers ordering on a busy night, when bartenders may not have the opportunity to walk them through the menu, can navigate it on their own. The bar gets swamped at random times, even without the fancy crowd around.
If a work conference is happening downtown, the lanyard-wearing masses can descend upon the bar at any moment, squeezing you out of contention for the bartenders’ attention. In those instances, you have permission to stop pretending you’re bougie and order something simple like the Checkered Past ($6), a delightfully low-brow shot of Slow and Low whiskey and a High Life pony. Even as the gold standard for Dallas cocktail bars, Midnight Rambler knows better than to take itself too seriously.
Midnight Rambler, 1530 Main St. Open 5 p.m. to 2 a.m. daily.