Last week the big story in town was the audacity of Smyth in doing what every restaurateur in Dallas wants to do, call out the no shows. On Facebook they wrote:
Smyth September 21 via mobile
Smyth strives to make a personal cocktail for each person that walks through our doors. The reservation-only model is not in place to keep people out, but to preserve the experience of those with the consideration and appreciation to make reservations for that experience.
That being said, The Smyth Family would like to personally thank the people that care enough to make a reservation, (especially large groups) & then decide not show up (or even call) while other, more-appreciative patrons would have wanted the aforementioned experience we planned.
No Shows Listed By Reservation:
I took sides. I wrote that I fully supported them in naming the no shows. Among the 76 replies one sensitive individual said “fuck Smyth! This reservations policy is just Uptown douchbaggery”.
I am reminded of Smyth’s rationale for their reservations policy.
“Smyth strives to make a personal cocktail for each person that walks through our doors. The reservation-only model is not in place to keep people out, but to preserve the experience of those with the consideration and appreciation to make reservations for that experience.”
Is this the reason, or is sensitive human right? Only empirical evidence would resolve the issue: I made an 8pm Saturday night reservation at Smyth.
We arrived outside 4513 Travis Street, where there famously is no sign, a few minutes before 8pm only to find the imposing wooden door locked firmly shut. While we were wandering up and down the curb (maybe expecting a hole to suddenly open in the wall) a passing jogger took pity on us and explained that Smyth was the door at the other end (the ‘Sur La Table’ end) of the building and you pressed the security system button to gain entrance. These guys must be running drugs.
Once inside it is a different world. The small windowless, dark wood room feels like a grotto. Along one wall is the bar, backlit creating an effect like it is on fire. At one end of the main area is an ante-room which is somewhat less busy and where one large group can actually spread out on couches round a table.
Our table is a two top just a few feet from the bar. This is the best place to watch the show. You could also sit on the raised area behind, where there are several four-tops. On this night it appears to have been zoned ‘chick’ as there are several all-women groups (evidently having a good time). Loud, but not deafening, music plays all night but does not prohibit conversation.
Once we are seated, we are given a complimentary cocktail made of ginger and cava. Ginger, an underappreciated flavor in western cuisine, hits the spot as a cocktail flavoring.
Maitre d’ Will comes across to inquire whether this is our first visit and, on confirmation, explains the Smyth concept. There is no menu or drinks list. There is no food. There are no waitstaff. Smyth is a bar aiming to make the very best cocktails based on the customer’s wants and the bartender/mixologist’s knowhow. The bartender, there are four at work, comes over to your table and engages you in a conversation about what you would like. Several of the bartenders may serve you in the course of an evening. It is not “wot you want pal?”. It is more like:
Bartender Mate Hatari: “I would like to create a cocktail that is really what you want, so tell me about your preferences for the spirit, whether you would like it spirit-driven or driven by fruit or herbs, and anything else you think is relevant.”
Me; “I would like something based on gin that really emphasizes juniper (the classic botanical in gin) but adds to it another dimension. Maybe citrus?”
By this time Hatari has already formulated some answers in his mind. He asks me one final clarifying question about “how sweet” and then says that he has a pretty clear idea about what I want. The consultation (it really is a very earnest discussion) moves to my companion. She wants something with ginger and it should not be sweet.
The results are remarkable: After a few minutes she gets a penicillin (a drink developed by Sam Ross in New York at Milk and Honey) that uses lemon, ginger, honey and Laphroaig. Laphroaig is an edge-case scotch. It is a good example of a scotch from the designated region of Islay. Classically, it is smoky, peaty, and briny more than almost all scotches.
I get a Negroni, but “changed up” a little bit to use Hatari’s figure of speech. It is made from Ford’s gin (a very botanical gin), Campari, Campano Antica vermouth and port wine.
Hatari’s has hit our requests right on the head. This is a good start.
For our next round, my companion requests a rum base with emphasis on fruit flavors, but once again not too sweet. Out comes a dark ‘n’ stormy made from rum, ginger beer and lime
I request a scotch cocktail with citrus notes. Bartender Omar Yeefoon translates that into a boulevardier made with Dewar’s 12-year old whisky, Gran Classico Bitter and Campano Antica vermouth. Ponder how far that strays from the stock Boulevardier. During the creation process, I witness Yeefoon meticulously lighting something and letting it burn before dropping it into my drink. This flamed orange peel, he explains, adds caramelized orange flavor. I take a sip and realize how right he is. Scotch and intense orange is a classic complimentary pairing. Many scotches (and Japanese whiskies) acquire hints of orange from the sherry barrels used for ageing.
Once again, they have not only devised innovative cocktails but they have nailed the match with our preferences.
For her final drink my companion, getting the hang of the crucial specification process, knows exactly what she wants. A brandy-based drink that is not sweet. That inspires bartender Josh to develop a custom cocktail of VS Cognac, a bitter of Egyptian origin, Dolin Rouge Vermouth, bitters and orange oil.
I ask for a cocktail that emphasizes herbs. Josh creates a drink made of a 2/1 ratio of gin to green chartreuse, orange bitters, a glass rinse in absinthe, and a finish with lemon oil.
We both love the results of what we asked for. I was skeptical how the ‘describe and I shall create’ process would work, but three times with three different bartenders and six drinks later I am willing to describe it as the mixologist’s equivalent of the Vulcan mind-meld. These guys listen, and they bring to bear a lot of knowhow in creating the results. It definitely helps if you have ideas about what you want. On returning from our visit I already have ideas for next time. For example, I make a classic absinthe drip, but not very well I fear. I will order the same at Smyth to compare. The results are such that it changed my companion’s mind about cocktails. She did not like them before our visit but she wants to go back for Smyths.
Prices ranged from $12-$15 for the cocktails we ordered. No dress code applies and people came in everything from swanky wear to jeans. There is a Pyles-like democracy to the vibe.
Does Smyth need a reservation policy? My answer is, absolutely. A sommelier friend I asked about cocktails once told me “I don’t want to wait half an hour for my drink once I’ve ordered it”. Nobody does. One way around the wait for a cocktail is to use a machine (e.g. the margarita machine) which essentially means lower the quality by serving a mass produced product.
The other way is Smyth. Control the inbound flow of customers with reservations. Employ bartenders with deep domain knowledge and customer-facing skills who craft each drink individually. Not once on our Saturday visit did service bog down.
And Smyth‘s exclusivity is not the old kind of exclusivity like the insulting velvet rope manned by a monkey at the door. Anybody can go to Smyth, just follow the reservation process (and find the door).
Smyth really contributes to the Dallas culinary scene. The overall experience is unlike anywhere else in Dallas. It is the kind of place to take an out of town visitor. The more worldly they are the better. I expect that, while the reservation process is unusual at the moment (Midnight Cowboy in Austin is the only other reservations bar in Texas), it will come in more widely at the high end of the market.
On this visit I was likely not anonymous (I made the reservation on Opentable – where Smyth is mysteriously named ‘The Establishment’ – in my own name and it is likely the reservations ninjas connected it with my Crave post the previous Sunday). I paid my own way.