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Commentary: Throwing the book at the Cedars Social

Posted 7:27am on Wednesday, Feb. 08, 2012

Let's ignore the haughty, weirdly bullying server, who treated us like a pair of ragamuffins who had wandered into the Prada store on Rodeo Drive. Sometimes you must endure such indignities to hang with the cool people.

I can also accept that the food at the Cedars Social -- the "cocktail den and kitchen" that opened last year in downtown Dallas -- is underseasoned, and that the menu they hand you barely resembles the one you'll find online. The place was convenient to where we needed to get later in the evening, so we weren't necessarily looking for culinary fireworks.

I can even, if only barely, put up with this place's pretentious, annoying "rules" -- such as when my apparently too prosaic request for a Tanqueray martini with olives was answered by the explanation: "We don't make that here." Your place, your rules, I'm just passing through.

In fact, it wasn't until the check arrived that I decided I wanted to firebomb the Cedars Social. Not because the food and drink was overpriced (which it was), and we were basically paying $75 to leave hungry.

But because the check arrived tucked inside a book.

Sorry Anita Shreve, whose 2002 novel Sea Glass was the volume in question. Your years of hard work have been reduced to a vessel for the latest pretentious-obnoxious flourish at a restaurant choking on its own trendiness.

The idea that checks should be arriving in anything other than a basic billfold is, of course, ridiculous to begin with. It's the end of the meal, you're ready to head home, anything that inhibits that is just an annoyance. But trendy restaurants seem to relish sending out the slip of paper in some clever fashion, perhaps rolled up in a plastic tube or hidden inside an ornate box. (I've experienced both.)

At the Cedars Social, however, you get the check slipped inside a beaten-up-looking hardback, presumably purchased at a book sale at the Dallas Public Library, and almost certain never to be read again.

What bothered me first was the staggering disrespect being shown to writers. Judging by its cocktail menu, the folks behind Cedars Social would seem to regard themselves as artists, trying to create greatness in a glass where others are content with the status quo. Surely they understand that an artist's work should never be belittled. How would they feel if someone ordered one of their highfalutin' cocktails and used it as lighter fluid?

What bothered me most, though, was the sense of dismay I always feel when I see people or places living up to their worst stereotypes. North Texas is hardly known as a mecca for literature. (On the most recent of Central Connecticut State University's annual surveys of the most literate cities in America, Dallas ranked 51 out of 75, Fort Worth ranked 54, and Arlington ranked 64.) The Big D., as we all know, has a reputation for valuing slickness over substance.

Walking into the Cedars Social, which has a section of its cocktail lounge decorated like a library, with long shelves stocked with neatly arranged volumes, you might think this is a place that actually reveres the printed word. Hey, maybe the entire venue is designed as some sort of scheme to get people to read. In fact, while I was waiting for the waitress to return -- and trying to figure out where I was supposed to place my credit card -- I actually read the first page of Shreve's novel. It was more satisfying than any of the food and drink I had just consumed.

But I doubt that Cedars Social is secretly a literary oasis. The books lining the shelves look as if they haven't moved in months. More notable, when the book-with-check arrives, it's not offered up the way a used book should be -- i.e., with a gentle insistence that says, Hey this is something you should check out.

Instead, it is plopped on the table with the same indifference you'd treat, well, a billfold. You get the sense that no one here cares about books, or that a single volume can contain a writer's very being -- her passion, her ideas and her humanity.

So, indeed, check please. At least I can say I've learned this much: The next time I'm tempted to go out and check out a hip, new North Texas restaurant, I'll do the smart thing and stay home curled up with a good book instead.

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