If you didn’t know to look for it, you might miss the entrance to Midnight Rambler. It isn’t trying to hide, but at ground level there is only a neon sign and a descending staircase to indicate what lies below in the basement of the Joule Hotel. Chad Solomon never says his bar is in a basement, but rather describes its location as subterranean—and he is right to do so because basement is a descriptor unbecoming of a place like Midnight Rambler. Basements are dusty and stale, and there is absolutely nothing dusty or stale about the bar he owns with partner Christy Pope.
Once inside I’m never quite sure if the bar feels new or old, formal or intimate. Am I still in Dallas or did I somehow manage to end up in New York City? Is the sun setting or has it been gone for hours? The lights are always drawn down, and they give off a warm glow that invites you to lean in for more personal conversation. By the time I’m halfway through the first drink, I no longer care to analyze. The bartenders at Midnight Rambler are serving time and space suspension in a glass, and I will definitely be having another.
Psychedelic Sound of the Improved Bergamot Sour
(By Chad Solomon)
1 Medium egg white
¾ ounces freshly-squeezed lemon juice
½ ounces mineral simple syrup*
¾ teaspoon Luxardo Maraschino
½ teaspoon Cointreau
¼ teaspoon Vieux Pontarlier Absinthe
1 ¾ ounces Earl Grey infused Tanqueray
2 drops mineral saline
*Equal parts Texas mineral water and sugar, by weight.
Glass: Footed sour glass
Garnish: Bergamot essence (can use an orange peel)
Add egg white, and measure all ingredients into a baby shaker tin, then cap shaker without ice and dry shake to whip the mixture. Uncap shaker, then add ice and re-cap shaker and shake vigorously to properly chill, dilute and emulsify the egg white. Uncap shaker, and strain into a frozen footed sour glass. Garnish with two spritz of bergamot essence* over the top of the drink, or the essential oil of an orange peel on top.
Name: The name is a nod to the Austin, Texas, band, 13th Floor Elevators, who were one of the first to use the term “psychedelic” to describe their music, on their debut album, The Psychedelic Sounds of the 13th Floor Elevators.
The feeling created by visiting Midnight Rambler is no accident. “As a bartender you are focused on what’s in the glass and how it gets presented to the customer. As bar owners we wanted to create a fully formed ecosystem that was immersive,” says Solomon. And immersive it is. Even if the customer can’t quite put their finger on it, Midnight Rambler’s transportive ability comes from the meticulous thought and effort put into every detail of the space and each drink that is served. So many things that in lesser hands would grate against each other, but instead are layered together seamlessly in a way that creates depth.
Solomon and Pope wanted a space that felt timeless, so they drew from a variety of sources for inspiration when designing the space. Lightning is influenced by the 1960s cinematic era and the bar shelving is inspired by The Shining. The musical history of Dallas also permeates every aspect of Midnight Rambler. “Blind Lemon Jefferson is from here. Robert Johnson recorded here. So that is the soundtrack I was hearing when we began building out the space. We are always mining for inspiration and music is a continuous muse for both of us,” says Solomon.
In addition to setting the mood with lighting and design, Midnight Rambler has the ability to manipulate its size. The first time I ever visited I was completely surprised when halfway through the evening a curtain was pulled back to reveal a second bar—which was almost double the space. The ability to expand and contract is useful because, as Pope puts it, “intimacy breeds energy.”
Both Pope and Solomon have backgrounds in creative arts—like music and fine art—and they tap into those energies when conceptualizing new drinks and ideas. They see the cocktail, the guest experience, and the physical space as mediums to pour their creative energy into. “We are always pushing away the limits,” says Solomon.
It was clear within minutes of sitting down to talk with them that these two hold an encyclopedic knowledge of the craft cocktail industry. Solomon can recall names, dates, drinks and books with an ease most people could only dream of. Both Solomon and Pope are veterans of the craft cocktail movement, having honed their skill at places like the much beloved Milk & Honey, the pivotal bar in the resurgence and growth of the craft cocktail movement. From the first time he visited, Solomon was hooked. “It was so different from anything else that existed at the time. It redefined what a drinking experience could be, not just from the cocktails themselves but also the ambience and how people interacted.”
Pope agreed and added, “It was a really exciting time in the craft cocktail movement. It felt like everything was on fire. Seeing people react to what was being served was my favorite part of working during that time. Everyone was learning as they went and there was a lot of enthusiasm and support from everyone in the community.”
During that time, Solomon rediscovered—and, in a way, created—the dry shake, a technique used with cocktails containing egg white. He discovered that if you shake all ingredients together before adding ice, a frothier head develops in substantially less time. He is quick to mention that he knew he probably wasn’t the first person to realize that without ice, the ingredients have a chance to emulsify more quickly, but rather it was a smart idea that had been lost to time.
Later, Solomon’s hunch was proven when the dry shake was spotted in 1951’s Ted Saucier’s Bottoms Up. Solomon’s rediscovery of the technique in 2006 was born out of necessity. Having long suffered from a back injury, he found the shake required to make egg white drinks that were becoming increasingly popular were too much for him to handle. He says, “I really needed a work around to be able to keep up, and one night Sasha noticed what I was doing and then I spread it from there. Really, it was a case of being in the right place at the right time and being around the right people who could teach the technique to others.”
Solomon is, of course, talking about Sasha Petraske, who was the owner of Milk & Honey and is widely credited for catapulting the craft cocktail movement to where it is today. So many things like using fresh juice, house-made ingredients, and bartender’s choice were practically unheard of before Milk & Honey opened in 1999. The standards and vision he had for Milk & Honey inspired an entire generation of bartenders, and their collective influence is felt in every corner of the craft cocktail movement to this day. Petraske partnered with many former employees as they launched their own business ventures and Pope and Solomon were no exception. In 2006, the trio began Cuffs & Buttons, New York City’s first beverage-only catering company focusing on craft cocktails. Sadly, Petraske passed away unexpectedly in August, and the entire cocktail community is left mourning the loss of a man whose mark on the industry will not soon be forgotten.
Solomon and Pope’s time at the epicenter of the craft cocktail movement’s explosive growth in New York City has clearly left its mark on them, but when they began thinking about opening a space of their own, their eyes turned toward less saturated markets. They were drawn to a space sitting empty at the bottom of the Joule Hotel, located on Main Street in Downtown Dallas. “We were really taken with the vision of the hotel. You could put this hotel in any city and it would stand out. We began to see ourselves as a part of what they were building, so we decided to plant our flag and hope people would come,” says Solomon.
In addition to the bar, Solomon and Pope also have a small lab down the hall, and I would like to emphasize the word small. There was barely enough room for three people to squeeze into the tiny space, which felt like a mix between a kitchen and a phlebotomist’s workroom. Spices, herbs and extracts lined the shelves of familiar and expected signs of their dedication to craft. And then there was the medical grade equipment, including a giant centrifuge on the counter, one of only three that has ever been sold to a hospitality business. Inside the lab they are constantly pushing the boundaries of flavor. “The lab serves as our own flavor house, a place where we can push the boundaries of flavor and aroma. So sometimes that is essence work or isolating a flavor or aroma from an ingredient in a way we can’t purchase off the rack,” says Solomon. “All those things allow us to go deeper and give us additional colors to paint with. Our lab allows us to move beyond what we had previously thought was as far as we could go.”
The lab’s fingerprints are all over the current menu, with the house aperitif, Red Pegasus Redux, being a prime example. The Red Pegasus sign is a longtime and recently reinstalled Dallas icon, and Solomon and Pope wanted to create a drink that was a subtle nod to the city and state that Midnight Rambler calls home. It prominently features Suze, a Gentian liqueur that they suffuse with Texas Cedar essence. The woodsy quality of the gentian pushes the cedar flavor. Then they continue to build on the drink with grapefruit, a Texas staple fruit. The result is something that drinks like an Americano, and is a great way to start the night.
“It can be really tough to work together, and we are pretty candid about that,” says Solomon. “The hardest part is knowing when to put down the work and just be together. But we have been doing this for so long and have built a lot of momentum so we try to always ride that wave.”
Though they have and continue to collaborate on many aspects of the business, over time they have partitioned responsibilities for efficiency’s sake. Solomon is the primary cocktail creator, while Pope focuses her efforts on operations, though she does continue to hold to title of “ultimate taster.” Once, when I was there on a quiet Monday evening, she and several bartenders were at the end of the bar with four seemingly identical drinks. They would taste each drink, discuss for a bit, and then she would make notes. “Christy is the ultimate sounding board and she has a ridiculous palate, so her perspective is invaluable in the process including naming the drinks,” Solomon says.
And their drinks have some pretty fantastic names, like Pho-King Champ, a shot with wheat vodka, beef broth and cilantro; Wang Dang Dula, which in addition to being a tequila-based drink is also a song you should listen to immediately; and my personal favorite, the Psychedelic Sound of the Improved Bergamot Sour.
With Midnight Rambler still in its first year, Pope looks forward to what the future holds. “What is refreshing about Dallas is that even though the craft cocktail movement is in its early stages people are receptive and hungry for it,” she says.
Solomon is encouraged by the network of bartender-owned establishments that has developed in recent years. “Places that are bartender-owned are the idea factories and are critical for seeding a city with talent, and Dallas now has a really great and stable foundation of that type of bar and that bodes well for the continued growth of craft cocktails in the city.”
In the end though for each of them, it really just comes down to having a good time. “We spend a ton of time behind the scenes with the drinks and the details of the space, but we don’t want to bog the customer down with those details,” says Solomon. “We wanted to create a space for late night revelry. If someone leaves feeling better than when they arrived then we have done our job.”
1530 Main St, Dallas, TX 75201