AMERICAN bars today are busier – and more profitable – than they’ve been since the repeal of Prohibition, when parched throngs rushed to quench their 13-year thirst. The main difference today is that bars and lounges are inextricably bound to restaurants and the foodservice industry rather than thriving as standalone establishments.Often, that means the low-margin but high-profile foodservice side relies on the lucrative beverage side for financial stability. The situation frequently creates tension between the two, but increasingly, peace is breaking out as thoughtful mixologists and chefs craft menus that pay homage to food and beverage and the harmony they create. That’s especially true for dishes fit for the bar.
As a result, restaurants are expanding their small-plate and bar menus while creating food and beverage menus in tandem, with the operation’s concept reflected both in dishes and in signature drinks, wine lists and beer selections. These are just a few of the strategies in play today as restaurateurs at all levels strive to set their operations apart from the crowd. As a result, restaurants are expanding their small-plate and bar menus while creating food and beverage menus in tandem, with the operation’s concept reflected both in dishes and in signature drinks, wine lists and beer selections. These are just a few of the strategies in play today as restaurateurs at all levels strive to set their operations apart from the crowd.
Pairing food and beverage is nothing new, really. For years, New Orleans landmark restaurant Brennan’s has been celebrated for its breakfast menu, where each item – Eggs Sardou or Oysters Benedict – is paired with a drink like a glass of Fumé Blanc or a Brandy Milk Punch. This example aside, bringing the chef and the beverage manager together on the same menu page is a fairly new concept, offering great promise and profits.
In restaurants where chefs have a beverage interest, it’s a logical step. Frank Stitt, chef and owner of Highlands Bar and Grill, Bottega and Chez Fonfon restaurants, all located in Birmingham, Ala., and author of “Frank Stitt’s Southern Table,” says seasonal ingredients are as important in beverages as in food, and matching them to seasonal dishes results in a more sophisticated dining experience.
For his authentic Bellini cocktail, patterned after the peach purée and Prosecco recipe made famous at Harry’s Bar in Venice, Italy, Stitt squeezes white peaches during the few weeks they are in season in Alabama.
“These peaches are never refrigerated; we let them ripen in the open, and the bartenders squeeze them by hand for the drink,” he explains.
Stitt says the combination of fresh flavor and the drama of seeing bartenders squeeze peaches and other fruit encourages guests to order drinks made fresh.
Highlands’ marble bar is a dining location as well as a gathering place for customers. There, oyster shuckers and bartenders work in a setting patterned after European brasseries, and customers who come for a drink often stay for small plates or full dinners. Appetizers like lobster bisque with Lustau amontillado sherry; stone-ground baked grits with country ham, mushrooms and fresh thyme; and Highlands pâté and pork rillettes go well with Stitt’s fresh cocktails.
Other drinks, like Frank’s Standard, made with gin, soda, lime and bitters, is a refresher that sets the table for spicy dishes. Stitt, like many bartenders working today, insists on fresh ingredients and balanced flavors in his cocktails.
Audrey Saunders, owner of New York City cocktail destination The Pegu Club, expects most of her guests to arrive with drinks, rather than dinner, in mind. But the small plates she offers fit her drink offerings perfectly. Her tart Pegu Club cocktail – dry gin, bitters, orange curaçao and fresh lime juice – and the Gin-Gin Mule, a tangy quaffable made with gin, fresh ginger beer, lime and mint – are nicely matched with little plates of Asian inspiration from Chef Gavin Citron. “Sloppy Duck” mini-sandwiches, coconut shrimp and deviled eggs spiked with smoked trout are a few of the delicacies offered.