It started with a bloody mary.
Dallas bar veterans Michael Martensen and Omar Yeefoon were in Paris at Harry's New York Bar, the birthplace of the bloody mary, and they were in awe. The pair has opened and consulted on dozens of Dallas cocktail bars, building menu after menu populated by complicated craft cocktails with housemade components. But there they were, sipping a simple bloody mary that hasn't changed in decades, and it felt revolutionary.
"I thought, I’ve never invented a cocktail better than that," Yeefoon says.
So when it finally came time for Yeefoon to stop opening bars for other people and open his own, he settled on a concept that feels almost subversive in its simplicity: His new bar would have no cocktail menu, just a list of classic, everyday cocktails ringing in at $10 each. In lieu of DJs or live music or an electronic jukebox that can play every song under the sun, he installed a turntable and a decent sound system, and the bar plays LPs from start to finish from a collection of records focused on '60s and '70s Southern rock and soul and the modern-day musicians inspired by that era.
In Deep Ellum, surrounded by nightclubs and restaurants masquerading as nightclubs, by cocktail laboratories and rooftop patios serving whatever is trendy, Shoals bucks all of that and settles, instead, for focusing on its simple motto: sound and service.
The bar at Shoals is stacked with some of the biggest bar talent in Dallas, the kind of industry veterans who, at first, might not have been too keen on the idea of putting away their housemade falernum and mixing up cosmopolitans, simple daiquiris, and gin and tonics. The cocktail list has just 20 drinks, and you've heard of every one of them.
"For me to tell them, like, no, we’re gonna do a hard reset here, we’re gonna go back to the beginning and start over and grow from there, it takes a little bit of work," Yeefoon says. "It takes a little bit of retraining your brain. The idea is, you know these drinks. These are drinks you should perfect, and you should be offering these drinks all the time."
In forcing staff members to put aside their egos and focus on the classics, Shoals has achieved what Dallas bars often fail to deliver: It makes some of the best cocktails in the city while serving straightforward drinks that don't alienate clientele who might not feel comfortable in the craft cocktail scene.
"My thing is, I want you to go, 'That was great — can I have another?'" Yeefoon says. "I wanna stay engaged. I wanna make the drink in front of you and have whatever conversation we have. I don't really want to give you a drink and go well, that was made with a fresh cardamom tincture. That's talking about the tools of our trade, not your trade. I want to talk to you about your day. I wanna talk to you about your life or the Game of Thrones premiere."
The cocktails listed on Shoals' wall are 20 of the most popular of all time, including a basic martini, a Moscow mule and a nitro Cuba libre on draft. The simplicity extends to the small food menu, populated by empanadas, fried fruit pies and a bologna sandwich made with razor-thin bologna on a fluffy roll slathered with mayonnaise and pickled vegetables. The food is impossibly simple — and impossibly addictive, the kind of straightforward bar fare that feels perfect after a few cocktails. And since Yeefoon lives a largely vegan lifestyle, there are several vegan offerings on the menu, too.
"We really thought that hand food was the way to go," Yeefoon says. "I feel like the people who are doing the best in the food game down here are literally just serving things that you can grab and go and walk with. It’s a very transient neighborhood — have a sandwich, go, break it in half and share it."
In keeping with the neighborhood, music is a big part of Shoals' vibe. The crackling LPs add to the warm feeling in the room, and the music, too, is approachable but quality. The music is inspired by Muscle Shoals, home of the Alabama music studios that helped shape the rich, diverse sound of Southern music. Yeefoon and Martensen wanted the bar to draw inspiration from Muscle Shoals, but they didn't want to culturally appropriate its history in an insensitive way.
"It’s very important not to be a theme park and for it to be more of an inspiration type thing," Yeefoon says. "You’re gonna hear a lot of Aretha Franklin and Wilson Pickett, but you’ll also hear modern sounds that feel in that light, like Charles Bradley and Leon Bridges. Sound was really important. If we’re gonna stay true to it being about sound and a feeling, then it has to be the right music."
And Shoals, at its essence, really is a feeling. In bucking the trend of bright white interiors speckled with trendy white subway tile, Shoals' interior feels warm and vintage, an elegant take on your grandparents' basement when you were a kid. Leslie Pritchard of local vintage furniture store Again & Again meticulously sourced the midcentury modern furniture that populates the room. There's ample light through the front windows during the day, but at night, the room fills with warm, amber light.
"It turns into this cozy, glowing cave at night," Yeefoon says.
With this bar, Yeefoon pulls from classic design and cocktails and a classic, attentive service ethos — none of those things is new. But putting them together in 2017 in a neighborhood like Deep Ellum, which is in the midst of incredible change, feels revolutionary. And at Shoals, it's all about that feeling — a warm space with warm service. That attention to detail has contributed to the fact that Shoals has already become a major hang spot for Dallas food and drink heavy-hitters.
It's also the kind of spot where you can take your gin and tonic-sipping grandpa, or your mother who only sips Moscow mules and sweet, pink drinks. It's elevated and accessible.
"The one thing that we see so often is that people are always talking about cocktail programs and individual talent and who has the most complicated cocktail list and who’s doing the most amazing scientific things," Yeefoon says. "All that stuff is fantastic, and we’ve been doing it for years. What we wanted to do was just open a bar — to have a feel that was really approachable and warm. What we want to do is give someone the feeling that they’re accepted."
Shoals, 2614 Elm St. Open 4 p.m. to 2 a.m. Monday-Friday, 1 p.m. to 2 a.m. Saturday and Sunday.
Keep the Dallas Observer Free... Since we started the Dallas Observer, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Dallas, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Dallas with no paywalls.