Cocktails: So, You Think You Can Mix One Better Than Your Bartender?

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At many fine 19th-century restaurants, it wasn't unusual for diners to deviate significantly from the printed menu. Since it was assumed the chef stocked his larder with the same eggs, cheeses and vegetables that appeared in nearly every hoity-toity restaurant kitchen, eaters could reasonably demand egg croquettes or Bombay oysters for breakfast -- listed entrees be damned.

But off-menu orders have become exceedingly less commonplace: Economics and culinary aesthetics now require most restaurants to stick to whatever menu the chef's devised. While most restaurants will leave off a sauce or substitute mashed potatoes, few chefs will tolerate an unexpected request for, say, Swedish meatballs. Even fewer diners would contemplate asking.

Yet a different mindset prevails at the bar, where most drinkers treat cocktail menus as mere suggestions. Even the oddest, most-wrongheaded drinks can be assembled quickly and easily by a middling mixologist with a well-stocked bar and a recipe book, so there's nothing to stop a barfly from demanding a Bitch Fight (that's peach schnapps, orange liqueur, cranberry juice and a wedge of lime.)

Many serious bartenders wish it was otherwise.

"For me, yes," Michael Martensen says when asked whether he'd prefer if customers didn't jettison his cocktail list in favor of their standard Manhattans and martinis.

"It's something that's my craft," says Martensen, the former Mansion bartender behind the Cedars Social, a cocktail lounge planned for south of downtown. "It's not like I just threw cocktails on the menu."

According to Martensen, about 50 percent of bar customers know what they want to drink before they see a menu. Still, Martensen isn't adverse to "steering them in a different direction" if they ask for a vodka soda, or some other mixed drink that doesn't qualify as a cocktail -- and certainly wouldn't appear on one of his menus.

But Martensen concedes customers are unlikely to hew to sanctioned drink lists unless more bars produce respectable cocktail menus.

"That's something you can't really find in Dallas right now," he says.

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