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.
Even if you’ve never been to a séance before, you know how they work in the movies. People gather in a dark room, their faces lit by flickering candles, and they try to summon spirits. They clutch black-and-white portraits. They burn incense. They are startled by sudden noises. And someone knocks the table with her knee to create the illusion that the room is alive.
There is a similar vibe at Bowen House, a cocktail bar in a historic home in Uptown. The bar burns candles and incense. The walls are covered with framed newspaper clippings from the early 1900s. The bar top is decorated with absinthe fountains and antique-looking trays. When someone opens the front door, a bell rings. And just like an overly produced séance, Bowen House has the visuals, but not the soul.
Ahab Bowen Home is an official historic landmark with the state. Built in 1874, it is one of the “few remaining examples of the simple, wood frame, vernacular farmhouse prevalent in Dallas County during the latter part of the 19th century,” according to the plaque out front. The building has been a few things since the Bowen family peaced out, including a vintage clothing shop, and was converted into a bar in 2014.
The bar is unmarked and would pass for a regular old house if it weren’t for the collection of tables on the front porch. Inside, there are a couple of varied places to sit, including a circular banquette like you’d find in the lobby of a vintage movie theater. Lounging here makes you feel like you are waiting your turn to enter a New Orleans-themed escape room. It has Bowen House branded glassware, Bowen House branded coasters and Bowen House branded matchboxes.
Bowen House recently unveiled a pop-up mezcaleria in the backroom, but every night we visited recently, it was either not open or it was scheduled to open much later than advertised.
The menu has about a dozen original cocktails. The better drinks are served in punch form or in boozy snow cones, as in poured fast and loose. The ones that depended on specific ratios for balance and finesse were off-putting. There seemed to be a higher priority in maintaining the aesthetics of the place than the quality of the cocktails.
When I ordered the Okie Dokie Artichokie ($12), made with rum, artichoke liqueur, pineapple, tiki bitters and saline, the bartender warned me that it was a bitter drink. Perfect! I love bitter drinks. Pour away. But strangely enough, the drink was barely bitter at all. The only thing I could taste was the tinny pineapple juice, poured straight from the can. It gave me flashbacks to some of the most egregious tiki drinks at Pilikia.
Other drinks that sounded complex ended up tasting one-note. Matcha Do About Nothing ($12) includes mezcal, lemon, honey, matcha tea, egg white, mint and hopped grapefruit bitters. The drink came out a pale green color thanks to the matcha and with a frothy head thanks to that egg white. But the mezcal overwhelmed everything. The drink smelled like smoke, tasted like smoke and had an aftertaste of smoke. The green tea flavor was nonexistent. And even with the egg white, the drink had a thin, watery texture.
Valley of Light ($12) is made with tequila, Yellow Chartreuse (an herbal liqueur) and lemon juice and is garnished with a sage leaf. It tasted strongly of the liqueur and lemon juice — that is, boozy and tart, with an aftertaste of tequila. But tequila is like the one thing people don’t want as an aftertaste. That’s why they bite limes after taking shots. There were also specks of something floating in the drink — crushed sage? pepper? — but there was no mention of this mystery additive on the menu.
Don Quixote ($12) has one of the prettier presentations at the bar. It is served in a heavy, golden pineapple cup that comes apart like a Russian stacking doll. The bottom half of the cup contains the drink, which has rum, gin, brandy, orange, lemon and macadamia coconut orgeat. Orgeat is a sweet syr
up usually made with almonds, but macadamia nuts give this version a much more creamy and tropical flavor. The orange, however, veers more toward orange soda than orange juice. And the drink’s perplexing garnishes — berries and mint — had no connection to the drink. A more logical choice would be toasted coconut or a dehydrated orange slice, each of which ties back to what’s in the drink.
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Bowen House also suffers from the same ice problem we knocked Lounge Here for. Every drink is filled to the brim with regular restaurant ice, including the old fashioned.
The bar does have its bright spots. The onion rings are big and fluffy like funnel cakes stuffed with vegetables. One drink that was delightful was the Champagne Punch ($6). It is offered on the happy hour menu without any ingredient list or hint of what’s in it. The bartender revealed that it’s made with Champagne, peach liqueur, basil, lemon and ginger ale. It comes in a big wine glass, filled with ice, and a straw. It’s sweet and bubbly but tempered with the peppery ginger and basil. It’s like a summer salad in a glass.
And pretty much everything tastes better when drinking it on the porch, preferably on the swing, under the flickering gas lamp. The atmosphere is significantly less orchestrated and stuffy. Sipping punch outside tricks you into thinking you’re just hanging out on your friend’s patio. You could even say the experience makes the house come alive.
Bowen House, 2614 Boll St. Open 4 p.m. to midnight Sunday-Tuesday; 4 p.m. to 2 a.m. Wednesday-Saturday.