Monica Greene, Anastacia Quiñones And Leann Berry Are Reviving A One-Time Dallas Favorite With A New Focus On Modern Mexican Cuisine.
Welcome to The Quickie, our new series featuring a short and sweet, quick and dirty interview with a local small business owner, chef or creator.
Here’s the set-up: A former dishwasher, a stand-up comedian and a baker walk into a bar.
And the punchline? Well, in this case there isn’t one. Instead, a struggling local restaurant gets a second chance.
That’s what restaurateur Monica Greene, bar manager Leann Berry and chef Anastacia Quiñones are looking to provide The Cedars Social anyway, after having purchased the spot in mid-February.
The plan? To refresh the spot with a menu full of modern Mexican cuisine offerings — a far cry from the comfort food of The Cedars Social’s past. These days, Quiñones is bringing a modern focus on Mexican food to the south-of-Downtown neighborhood with dishes like Mexican lasagna, grilled octopus tacos and scallops agua chile. Berry, meanwhile, has put her award-winning skills toward crafting a new cocktail program that aims to maximize the usage of the already well-stocked bar. And Greene — the powerhouse restaurateur who made her mark on Dallas with projects like Ciudad, Pegaso Mexican Diner and Best Enchilada Ever — is bringing it all together alongside her business partner Frankie Jimenez.
The trio are hoping to also turn around the public perception that The Cedars Social has been struggling in recent years. After opening to raves in 2011 and establishing itself as a hot spot cocktail and dining joint, things began unraveling for the restaurant in 2013 when its bar staff staged a walk-out, citing differences with management. Since then, the restaurant’s kitchen staff has been shuffled around more than a few times and the brand has struggled to find a core base.
But now, with new management, the revamped joint is back to getting positive reviews. Could its seemingly bright future actually be sustained this time around with these three ladies at the helm? We recently chatted with the self-proclaimed “trifecta” to try to get to the bottom of that question.
OK, let’s hear all of your backstories.
Greene: I was born in Mexico City. I arrived in the U.S. with the intention to go to college. As fate would have it, I entered the restaurant business instead. One night, a friend’s brother, who was a banquet manager at the Statler Hilton, needed servers to work. So I worked that banquet, unaware that on that night, my life would change forever. And so it was that, in 1974, I was hooked. And, against my father’s wishes, I searched for employment in the hospitality industry and never went back to school.
Berry: I grew up in Keller, Texas, which is now Southlake. Went to North Texas State on a drama scholarship, then came to Dallas and got into the food industry with Chili’s as a trainer in 1985. I worked for a few years at Snuffer’s, San Francisco Rose and then Hoffbrau in the ’90s. But it was when I started at Cuidad in 2000 that I started to hone my craft with tequilas, playing with fresh ingredients and not the same old margaritas. When we closed down Cuidad, Abraham Salum asked me to join him in his new restaurant called Komali. We opened Super Bowl weekend of 2011. My six years there, I received best bartender twice in D Magazine, best margarita three times and top margarita in Texas three times. A little over a year ago, I decided to break out on my own and do consulting to work towards my own place. A little while back, AQ and I were talking about getting a place together. Then she spoke with Monica about my place and it all came full circle.
Quiñones: I was born and raised in Dallas, just off Henderson Avenue. My parents still live in my childhood home. My mother was a part-time caterer and, for the longest time, I disliked her job. It wasn’t until I was about 19 that I started to enjoy cooking. For me, it was just something that took her time away from me. Once I got older and went with her to the catering gigs, I got to see how much joy she got from cooking and how it made her clients happy.
What might folks not know about y’all?
Greene: People know me to be a restauranteur and an entrepreneur. My experience in this business has allowed me to learn all areas of the restaurant business — from bar-back and bartender to host, server, cook, manager and owner. But the position I’ve enjoyed the most, and what most people are not aware, is the fact that, all my life in this business, I have had the desire to become a good cook. And even more? A great baker.
Berry: What people may not know about me is that I used to be a stand-up comedian when I lived in New York for a bit!
Quiñones: That I started out as a dishwasher at an Italian restaurant when I was 17! It was a summer job, but I loved the excitement of being in restaurants. It also taught me to never take your dishwasher for granted. They are the most important position in the kitchen.
OK, now let’s talk about The Cedars Social. What’s going on with it? How did the opportunity come about? What’s your motivation behind the menu, the staff, the cocktails and so on?
Greene: The Cedars Social is a realization of a dream into reality. That reality includes helping bring to the forefront of this competitive market a new way to look at real Mexican food in this 21st century. Regarding the menu, my personal motivation included a fresh approach with responsible and sustainable ingredients, and a creative approach to traditional Mexican fare. In regard to the staff, partnering with a great chef and a fantastic mixologist was the key. The introduction of new ideas is a crucial part of management. When you operate on fresh ideas, your staff will stay motivated and your customers will keep coming back. Staying creative will help you stay ahead of competition. After all, someone once told me, “With the right team, all things are possible. With the wrong team, nothing else matters.”
Berry: I mean, how The Cedars Social happened was Monica came in for a drink and decided to buy the place. She called me and Anastacia, and the trifecta was born. The Cedars Social’s cocktails are a little different than anywhere else. I’m trying to expand what I do using some scotches, more gin and more bourbon in these drinks. But I always have fresh fruits, herbs and syrups that I’ve made. Now I’m slowly bringing in even more tequilas and mezcals.
Quiñones: Leann and I were just going to have tacos and talk about a concept idea with Monica. She was in town scouting locations, but we didn’t know it at the time. By the time our dinner with her was over, we were offered a deal. My motivation behind my menu comes from my travels to Mexico and my mother’s cooking. She always cooked with such grace and technique. I swear, to this day, if I’m making the same dish next to her, hers is always better. She just has a seasoned hand and eye that I strive to possess.
OK, beyond The Cedars Social, what do you all cook for yourselves when you’re at home?
Greene: At home, I like to cook Thai, Vietnamese and Indian food. With these foods, I like to drink wine or sake.
Berry: I like to cook meatloaf. I also love a good taco. Or lasagna. Or spaghetti — that’s my jam.
Quiñones: My boyfriend is also a chef, and people think we eat so well and make extravagant meals at home! And, yes, we do when we have the time. But, mostly, we save time for breakfast. He makes the best breakfast tacos. But I’m a meat and potatoes-type of girl, so we often cook a fat ribeye and some veggies.
What about when you head out to eat? Where are you dining outside of your own spot?
Greene: For casual food, I like Jeng Chi in Richardson, and any good taqueria. For a more upscale restaurant, I enjoy Sprezza for Italian food, Cadot for French, Tei Tei Robata for sushi and a good prime rib at Hillstone.
Berry: My favorites are TJ’s Seafood, Oishii and Celebration.
Quiñones: My favorite places to eat are Koryo Kalbi Korean BBQ and The Slow Bone. I’m obsessed with both!
What’s next for y’all?
Greene: Just trying to find the time to get a day off.
Berry: What Monica said!
Quiñones: After [my run at Kitchen] LTO, I was asked “What’s next?” for three years. Now, I’m living my “What’s next!”
Cover image vie The Cedars Social Facebook Page. Know another food business worth highlighting in this space? Message foodbitch! Like a good cover band, she takes requests.