Chefs influencing sips behind the rail, while sommeliers and mixologists slip into the kitchen, are increasingly common practices—especially among restaurants that are recognized for giving diners outstanding culinary experiences. Collaboration between chefs and beverage professionals is the watchword, and all of the restaurants on FSR’s list of 20 Best Beverage Programs closely integrate wine, beer, and spirits with their food menus. From fine dining to family-friendly casual dining, common themes among the best beverage programs include exploration, passion, attention to detail, and fun. But having fun is serious business, and in a world of wine connoisseurs, cocktail celebrities, and craft beer enthusiasts—presentation and performance is all part of the commitment to give each guest a wonderfully engaging and memorable experience.
Chefs influencing sips behind the rail, while sommeliers and mixologists slip into the kitchen, are increasingly common practices—especially among restaurants that are recognized for giving diners outstanding culinary experiences. Collaboration between chefs and beverage professionals is the watchword, and all of the restaurants on FSR’s list of 20 Best Beverage Programs closely integrate wine, beer, and spirits with their food menus. From fine dining to family-friendly casual dining, common themes among the best beverage programs include exploration, passion, attention to detail, and fun. H But having fun is serious business, and in a world of wine connoisseurs, cocktail celebrities, and craft beer enthusiasts—presentation and performance is all part of the commitment to give each guest a wonderfully engaging and memorable experience.
Consider the beverage strategy at restaurants within the prestigious Dinex Group, where close collaboration between chef/owner Daniel Boulud, wine director Daniel Johnnes, and the chefs, sommeliers, and bartenders in each of the group’s restaurants brings a unique wine personality to each location.
“We tailor the wine selection to the style of each restaurant,” says Johnnes. At all of the group’s restaurants, wines are chosen to harmonize with the food, the feel, and the price points of the various restaurant brands, from casual dining to fine dining.
“Wine is very important to Daniel, it’s very much a part of who he is and he takes wine very seriously—but on a daily basis, the chefs and sommeliers make decisions about pairings,” notes Johnnes. “One of the most important aspects of my job is building the sommelier team—I want sommeliers who really love wine, who want to continue to explore, discover, and communicate their enthusiasm about wine.”
Although 70 percent of the wines in Dinex restaurants are from France and much of the remaining 30 percent come from the U.S., exploration underscores the Dinex wine program. Johnnes says consumers are increasingly “more willing and open to experiment with new wines,” a trend influenced dramatically by globalization and the fact that wines are sourced worldwide. “We’re seeing great wines from regions that 10 or 15 years ago no one would have considered.”
Ultimately the wine list in each restaurant is the result of a largely collaborative effort between Johnnes and his team, including considerable influence from Boulud. Johnnes says all the chefs and sommeliers work together closely, not independent of one another or in parallel, but grouped together in a collaborative review.
Delight is in the Details
A similarly collaborative process takes place when Carlo Splendorini, head mixologist for the Michael Mina Group, starts to think about crafting new cocktails. Invariably, his first step is to talk to chefs about the ingredients they are using. “I want to match the concept the chef has for the food in the cocktails, so we can give our guests a more unique experience in our restaurants,” he says.
To that end, diners will not see the same cocktail menu replicated from one Mina restaurant to the next. Each of the 17 restaurants in the group has a completely different cocktail program, and Splendorini may craft 50 or 60 new cocktails from one base spirit, before settling on the seven or eight best choices.
It’s a very hands-on process that requires Splendorini’s time and personal passion. “Whenever there is a change in one of our restaurant’s beverage program, I always go to the restaurant for tastings,” he says.
A new practice—reiterating the group’s commitment to give each guest the best possible experience—is the addition of complementary cocktail treats.
“As a special thank you for our guests we are going to present candy cocktails after the meal,” says Splendorini. “And as a special welcome to help clear our guests’ palates, we are creating cocktail sorbets [also complementary], with a white spirits base and perhaps flavored with dill or ginger.”
Exceptional dining experiences are all about these personalized details, and he says the most interesting aspect of his job, and the most fun, is getting to know the chefs and their concepts—then coming up with multiple ideas for new cocktails.
Another visionary master of ideas, Juan Coronado, cocktail innovator for Chef José Andrés’ Think Food Group, oversees the cocktail program for all of the group’s concepts, including barmini, the culinary cocktail lab that opened earlier this year adjacent to Andrés’ acclaimed minibar restaurant.
Barmini provides a forum where chefs and bartenders collaborate and the menu—which Coronado describes as “a parade” of fun and imaginative cocktails—changes weekly.
“My mood of the day has a lot to do with my decisions,” he says, noting the pleasure he takes from leveraging seasonal fruits such as peaches, cherries, and berries. But he pays particular homage to ice as a staple for maintaining the integrity of a cocktail’s design.
“In Japan, ice is the soul of the cocktail and good ice is very important because it affects the temperature, the dilution, and the taste,” Coronado says.
Using special Japanese tools, Coronado starts with a 50-pound block of ice that he cuts in half and then works from there, often crafting hand-cut spheres. “Cocktails are totally different when you use custom-cut ice instead of commercial ice.”
Not every bartender is versed in the art and science of ice, but Coronado insists bartenders understand the interaction of ice with spirits—hence barmini’s extensive training program. But when he is recruiting mixology talent, it’s really more about the passion than the prior training.
“Most are here because they love what they are doing,” explains Coronado. “One was not even a bartender before she came here, but that’s okay because we train and, in our company, hospitality is the first thing. [Bartenders] all know how to make cocktails, but they may not remember to smile. The cocktail tastes better with a smile.”
Like Splendorini and Johnnes, Coronado is striving for that overall perfected experience. “It’s about presentation and performance,” he says. “The garnish is important. Cocktails must be well-dressed because the guests are dressed up and out to have a good time. The drinks have to taste good, and they have to look good.”
And the bartender’s personal connection is important too. “I love stirring cocktails—but don’t look at a cocktail when you’re stirring, make eye contact with the guest.”
As he looks to the coming holiday season, Coronado anticipates serving more pre-batched cocktails in bottles, as well as cocktails on draft. He also expects to see more sugar substitutes in play—honey, maple syrup, and agave nectar.
Beer Rises in the Ranks
Traditionally a pub staple that was limited to pairings with burgers and appetizers, beer is now rivaling wine and cocktails as a sophisticated choice for pairing with upscale, gourmet menu items. At Birch & Barley in Washington, craft beer has been elevated to a lead role and the food often draws inspiration from the beer.
“Every night we offer a tasting menu where the food is paired with beer not wine,” explains Greg Engert, beer director for the Neighborhood Restaurant Group, which owns and operates 10 concepts including Birch & Barley. “In those instances, the food menu is determined first, based on what is local and fresh, and then I look at our list of 555 beers to decide what will pair best. Other times, we host beer dinners and I’ll select five, six, maybe seven beers from a brewery and our chef will craft dishes based on what will pair well with those beers.”
The beer list rotates daily, with 30 to 40 new beers appearing weekly and an estimated 1,500 to 2,000 beers coming into the fold annually. “Some of those might be seasonal beers that are returning, but we have well over 1,000 new, different beers annually,” Engert explains. “Bottle beers can age well, but when it comes to our draft and tap list, I’m focusing on beers that should be fresher and move more quickly—and then we educate our servers to push those beers when they [need to be] sold and served.”
The fun for Engert is working to pair a continually changing food menu with a rotating beer menu. He abandoned a career as an English professor to study wine and food pairings, and how flavors interact, then began to apply that knowledge to craft beer and food.
“Beer can be exceptional with food for a lot of reasons. Beer is almost exclusively carbonated, and carbonation cleanses the palate,” he says. Also, because beer is grain-based, Engert explains that the malty sweetness produced by fermentation often harmonizes with the flavors of food, where wines may interact with flavors but not harmonize.
“There are so many ways beer and food can pair together—one is harmony, where we find similar flavors and match the beer and food. Another is using an old form of beer called Rauchbier that incorporates smoked malts, so these beers taste quite smoky on the palate, almost like bacon. If you eat raw fish while drinking smoked beer it [produces] a really cool flavor interaction.”
Contrasting flavors play well together as well. Engert points to refreshingly mild wheat beers, like a tart Berliner Weisse, that pairs nicely with something briny like steamed clams. “They mellow in one another’s presence and you get this amazing balance of acid and salt so that’s a cool complement by contrast,” he says.
Beers that are particularly hoppy—like pale ales and IPAs—are among the more difficult to pair because Engert warns their “bitterness can overpower the palate.” Typically, these beers were paired with rich meats or aged cheese, but recently he’s begun to pair them with rich desserts—like carrot cake with vanilla frosting and a fruity hop-forward beer. Or, pairing an IPA with a rich chocolate cake “makes the beer less bitter and the cake linger on the palate for an intriguing interplay between the flavors.”
Excellence in Numbers
If it was hard for beer to be taken seriously as a sophisticated choice in upscale restaurants, it may be even more surprising when chain restaurants establish beverage programs that equal—and in some instances usurp—the beverage programs of chef-owned, fine-dining restaurants. But among the FSR 20 Best Beverage Programs, Fleming’s Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar warrants recognition for a comprehensive, contemporary, and innovative wine program that fully engages and empowers diners to explore new varietals. And Red Robin Gourmet Burgers earned a place in this elite group for its ability to elevate an adult beverage menu while staying true to its family-friendly, casual-dining atmosphere.
Across its 65 locations in 28 states, Fleming’s beverage program includes both consistent offerings and localized choices. Among the Fleming’s 100—a wine-by-the-glass collection—approximately 80 wines are consistent throughout the company and 20 are selected by the local wine manager. On average, 30 to 50 of the 80 national core wines will change each year.
“The integrity of the program is key,” says Maeve Pesquera, director of wine. “All of our wine is stored and served at the appropriate temperatures, whites at 45° [Fahrenheit] and reds at 60° [Fahrenheit]. We also preserve the wines correctly because with 100 wines by the glass there could be spoilage and waste—so we use a flash-vacuum system after every single pour to keep oxygen out of the bottle.”
Noting that diners, who were reluctant to splurge on new wines during the recession, now appear eager to explore new varietals, Fleming’s introduced a propriety wine app in May that puts a digital wine list, via an iPad, on every table.
“Our winepad is an amazing way to bring wine to life for our guests,” Pesquera explains. “Every wine has a label and tasting notes, and wines are sorted by varietal, by region, by country, or diners can sort creatively, like by mood. They can email labels and tasting notes from the winepad to themselves or to friends, so we are seeing guests engage in a different way with wine.”
As much fun as the winepad is to play with, the real objective is to get the conversation rolling. “The winepad is not designed to replace the server; it’s designed to enhance the conversation with the server and the diner’s engagement with wine,” says Pesquera.
Engaging diners with the beverage menu is also a focus at Red Robin, where Denny Marie Post, senior vice president, chief menu and marketing officer, says: “There is nothing inconsistent with serving great burgers and beer in a family-focused restaurant. We can be every bit as inventive in our bar as with our burgers.”
Ironically, Red Robin started as a tavern, and the original name included Great Burgers & Spirits Emporium. “Years ago, management threw a blanket over the bar and renamed the company without the reference to spirits,” says Post. “When our new CEO came three years ago, we brought back old favorites—including a happy hour and merchandising beverages on the tables.”
One challenge is implementing a beverage program consistently across 475 locations. The beverage team collaborates with the test kitchen, studying chef ingredients to cross-reference flavors in the bar. “We have to be creative, but keep it simple so we execute 100 percent of the time at every location,” says Donna Ruch, master mixologist. “Mostly we want bartenders who have fun in their job and can give our guests a fun experience,” she says.
Post adamantly agrees: “We’re in a dog fight for market share in the casual-dining [sector], and the person behind the bar absolutely affects the feel and energy of the restaurant. It has to be someone who loves being there and whose energy shows.”
Beer is Red Robin’s biggest-selling alcohol category, with a selection of 18 to 22 bottle beers plus up to 16 beers on draft including regional and local favorites. Jill Hendrick, senior beverage manager, says each bartender and manager understands what beers are selling in the local area and makes the decision about which local brews to stock.
The summer’s big hit was “beer-can cocktails,” and the Blue Moon version quickly became the chain’s best-selling cocktail. During the holiday season, Red Robin brings back tried-and-true favorites—like the popular Gingerbread milkshake, served nonalcoholic or with a splash of bourbon. Last year saw the introduction of an Oktoberfest beer shake—which will return this season along with a Spiced Pumpkin Pie milkshake that may be augmented with a shot of marshmallow vodka.