It goes without saying that Michael Martensen, the mastermind behind craft cocktail hot spots The Cedars Social, Smyth and soon-to-be-opened The Establishment, is the most well-known barman in Dallas right now. One might think that a young guy with three businesses under his belt might reek of cockiness, but not so; despite being incredibly accomplished in his profession, the 30-year-old still gives off a decidedly down-to-earth vibe — an attribute that likely plays a large part in the amount of admiration he receives from both his peers in the industry and the city's serious cocktail drinkers.
The Wyoming native thanks his Midwest background for his hard work ethic and manners.
"That whole Midwestern kind of work ethic, background, you know, your integrity and work speaks for itself. Don't talk about your work but let your work do the speaking for you," he says. "So, I work a lot and don't talk a whole bunch."
Martensen grew up in a family where good food was always enjoyed at the dinner table. At 19, he moved to Mendoza, Argentina, where he grew to appreciate quality wines with fine food.
"I really got into that whole lifestyle of the culture really being built around food and wine," he explains. "I gained about 30 pounds, and it was fantastic."
After that life-shaping experience, he went on to get a degree in international relations and hospitality from Portland State University. He also gained an extensive knowledge of top-notch food, wine and spirits and learned the importance of great customer service from working in fine restaurants and boutique hotels for several years.
Martensen landed in Dallas in 2007 after John Tesar, who was the chef at the storied Mansion on Turtle Creek at the time, convinced him to take over the cocktail program at the famous hotel. He made his name at The Mansion by bringing something fresh to the Dallas drinking scene — freshly made craft cocktails.
Since then, he's been building a small empire with ambitious endeavors and creative concepts. His newest venture, The Establishment, is set to open in mid-to late-November. He's coy on the details, but says it will be an oyster bar with two separate areas — one for dining, one for drinking. He's had the furniture custom-made for the place, and says he's just "waiting on the little things" at this point.
His most recent enterprise, the reservation-only spot Smyth, has gotten attention for its unique — some have called it pretentious — business model. So, how's business at the 7-month-old speakeasy going?
"[Business] is awesome. We're booked two weeks in advance. That says something," Martensen says. "This place gives people the chance to plan their night around a cocktail. This is something completely new to this area."
Smyth lacks a drink menu, so bartenders are trained to ask guests questions and create a one-of-a-kind cocktail based on their preferences and taste buds. Last month, Martensen and the bar found themselves in the midst of a bit of a controversy after publicly calling out people who no-showed their reservations. The barman says this incident hasn't hurt business and it was something he felt he had to do.
"You know, that was something I don't regret. We only have room for 25 people and when a party of 10 doesn't show up, that's like losing half of your business for the night," he says. "These were people who didn't call in advance to cancel their reservation. Somebody needs to stand up for small business."
Starting a small business is never easy, but he describes the cocktail scene in Dallas as "welcoming." This situation has allowed Martensen to transform the scene by shaping the way Dallasites drink.
"I want to build a new culture for guests and want Dallas to know what they're walking into [when they visit a cocktail bar]," he says. "You have to know where you can get a good Old Fashioned and where you need to get a beer and shots. I think it's about educating people, but not to the point of being pretentious. But I don't want to over-educate. I still want that mystery."
He thinks Dallas' quality mixed drink scene is getting better, but still has harsh opinions on establishments he believes aren't staying true to the craft cocktail movement.
"I think I rub a lot of people wrong. But I just feel passionately about this," he says. "I don't appreciate people who opened 'craft cocktail lounges' in high-end places like McKinney Avenue and started cutting corners. Shame on you."
Martensen feels he's kept it real since opening his first cocktail den and kitchen, The Cedars Social, in 2011. He wanted to bring quality drinks and food to the forefront and address how far behind Dallas drinkers were in the craft cocktail world.
"I wanted to go after Dallas cocktails and poke fun at what people in Dallas are still drinking," he says. "So you have a crown and coke, but we have homemade coke, and it transforms the drink."
In the two short years The Cedars Social has been open, it's acquired a huge following and still stays reliably busy. Four of his bartenders have been at Cedars since the beginning, something he sees as a clear sign that he's employing like-minded individuals.
"I like to get people who take pride in what they do and show off their work. I don't want to get someone who is just doing this for money or just because they're in school. This is their profession. They have to take it seriously."
Martensen stresses the importance of providing quality service along with a fine product. His background in the hospitality industry helped shape this mentality, which he believes is the most important aspect of bartending.
Although his line of work is demanding, a busy man needs to take a break once in a while. When he's not getting a drink at his own place, he likes to grab a good cocktail at the Windmill Lounge and Black Swan Saloon because "they're pushing the envelope" like he is.
His passion drives his big dreams and hopes for the future; he's constantly reading and learning about spirits and wine, and hopes one day to maybe have a whole host of bars in Big D that specialize in one spirit.
"I would love to have 10 bars around Dallas and have them restricted to one thing. Like, have an agave bar, where people could get the best agave drinks in town," he explains. "It's basically taking the Japanese concept of specializing in one thing so you can be the best at it and offer the best product."
Until then, he just hopes to continue providing quality service and drinks in Dallas, and to patrons, he had this to say:
"Just have an open mind and support local business. [Business owners] can only put so much passion and soul into this. The public has to support it."
— Caren Rodriguez