As a beverage consultant and bar manager at Provision No. 14 in Washington, D.C., Chad Spangler says that until the last decade, the beverage programs he observed at most American restaurants were more or less uniform across all segments.
“Every restaurant had basically the same thing: seven or eight beers, maybe a good wine list,” he says.
But as food menus have grown more sophisticated, complex, and varied, so too have many beverage menus.
“It’s becoming more obvious that it needs to be a more integral part of the overall strategy,” he says. “Restaurants themselves realize it’s a much more competitive environment. Customers expect a lot more, and the bar should be treated as just as important as the kitchen.”
But offering great drinks isn’t exactly enough. Diners increasingly expect synchronicity between a restaurant’s food menu and its bar offerings. That means flavors, themes, and styles should blend seamlessly between food and drink. It’s especially important for restaurants that hone in on a specific global or ethnic niche.
“You really want that transportation. People want to feel that they are experiencing that culture,” he says. “If you walk into a Thai place and they have an incredible American cocktail menu, it doesn’t make sense. You want everyone to come there to get a true Thai experience, whether it be sitting at the bar or sitting at a table.”
That means an Italian restaurant should offer bitter cocktails and Negronis. A Thai restaurant might have Guinness and Amstel on tap, but they should also offer Thai beers like Chang, Spangler says. Even Mexican concepts with deep tequila lists might not be going far enough.
“That’s great, people have come to expect that,” Spangler says. “But I don’t think that’s as important as saying our entire beverage list has a Mexican theme.”
MO Bar + Lounge manager Steve Minor says context is key to crafting a beverage menu. His bar, one of several establishments inside Miami’s Mandarin Oriental hotel, offers a deep list of regionally inspired Old Fashioneds, effervescents, and barrel-aged cocktails.
But just next door, at Peruvian restaurant La Mar, citrus and tropical fruits rule the drink menu.
“It’s like the polar opposite of my bar,” Minor says.
Pisco, a grape brandy, is a popular and deliberate ingredient on La Mar’s drink menu because of its agreement with the citrus flavors and light seafood fare on the food menu.
“It tends to pair well versus having a bunch of brown spirits on the menu like bourbon and rum that would overpower the delicacy of white fish,” Minor says.
Context isn’t just about flavors, though. Minor says geography plays a role, too. He previously worked in Chicago and has plenty of hot cider and bourbon punch concoctions he’d love to show off.
“Miami’s not a seasonal town. In Chicago, I was used to changing my menu three or four time a year,” he says. “It can be tough for somebody in my position. I have great ideas for all these cool drinks we could offer, but I’m 99 percent sure no one would order them because it’s just too hot.”
In redesigning his menu, Minor says he’s thought conceptually about meshing the food and drink menu, not necessarily how individual beverages might pair with a certain burger.
At Heart Attack Grill in Las Vegas, the concept is everything.
At the provocative hospital-themed burger concept, waitresses wear suggestive nurses’ outfits. Customers, or “patients,” don hospital gowns. And Flatliner Fries and a Double Bypass Burger are mainstays on the menu.
“I’m not in the hamburger business. I’m offended by people who think I am,” says owner Jon Basso (also known as “Dr. Jon”). “We’re in the thematic industry. We’re entertainment and the theme is everything.”
That goes for beverages, too. Liquor is served in pill bottles and wine comes in hanging 1-liter IV bags. Basso says on-theme food and drinks are non-negotiable.
“[Without it] we’d fail within six months. What would separate us from any other gourmet burger?” he says. “On a good day our burgers are an A, on a bad day it’s a B. The only thing that separates us from everything else is that everything is medically themed. Otherwise it’d be boring.”
He thinks that should go for all restaurants, not just over-the-top themed concepts like his.
“Restaurants that don’t do that, they’re just asinine,” Basso says. “If an Italian restaurant were to carry a beer of any origin other than Italian, why are they even in business?”
Basso says restaurants should carefully examine every last decoration and menu item, because if an item doesn’t add to the theme, it’s detracting from it.
“Everything the customer’s taking in consciously or subconsciously needs to scream your theme,” he says.
Restaurants have a fairly obvious reason to pay close attention to the strength of the drink menu.
“It’s a great way to upsell, of course,” says Levi Anderson, a beverage product specialist with Kerry Foodservice Beverage Brands.
But many concepts are not reaching their full beverage potential. Anderson recommends starting small, even focusing on just one single ingredient. For a Mexican-themed restaurant, it might mean using mole, cayenne pepper, or dark chocolate in a few signature drinks.
“What I’m into right now is taking an ingredient and turning it into a different culinary expression. Think of an ingredient and put it into a new format,” Anderson says. “A simple ingredient is the easiest step to start with.”
While there’s plenty of potential with craft spirits and batch cocktails, Anderson says there’s a growing focus and opportunity with quality non-alcoholic drinks, whether it’s flavored waters, teas, or mocktails. At the very least, Anderson says, restaurants should start playing around with house-made sodas.
“No one’s putting in the leg work right now to do something that’s soda-plus, something above a soda, like a handcrafted or Italian soda,” he says. “It’s still an area that a lot of big places don’t know how to get to.”
Not everyone wants alcohol with every meal, and Anderson says young diners are willing to spend money on interesting non-alcoholic offerings.
“We’ll spend $5 on something cool,” he says. “The audience is there, but the supply isn’t there.”
By making sure every drink is fits well into the context of a restaurant’s flavors and theme, this need could be easily supplied, and in the process, restaurants can strive to build a fully cohesive food and drink menu to provide a well-rounded experience to customers.