Iron Gate | Washington, D.C.
With a wine list focusing on small producers making sustainably grown and harvested wines from Greece and southern Italy, wine director Oliver Meade showcases curated varieties that are accessible to everyone. And, like spirits manager Nick Farrell’s cocktail menu featuring seasonal, local southern Italian and Greek spirits, Meade’s list is on brand with Iron Gate’s food menu, pulling influence from the same regions.
Pairings, then, come naturally. “You may start your meal with a cocktail made with [Amaro] Averna and sparkling wine, sail across the Aegean next trying grilled octopus paired with Assyrtiko, and be further transported by finishing your meal with a dessert of loukoumades (fried Greek honey dumplings) paired with a digestif of Amaro Lucano,” Farrell says. “Every touch of your experience is going to convey a sense of place, as though you’re bouncing from island to island in the Mediterranean.”
Steal it: Look for more insightful ways to tie wine, beverage, and food menus together.
Frank’s Oyster House & Champagne Parlor | Seattle
The restaurant’s emphasis may be on Champagne, but Frank’s certainly sells more than sparkling beverages. Like the dynamic neighborhood it is in, Frank’s food and beverage menus are approachable, yet thoughtful and distinct. There’s snacking options like goat cheese deviled eggs to pair with original cocktails from the Parlor. There’s seafood and oysters that cuddle up to a host of bubbly and still white wines. And there’s big, bold dinner options like steak and burgers that find their match in a range of domestic reds.
“In spite of me offering lots of crisp options, Seattle is a red wine town, and customers love our Bordeaux-style blend from local winemaker Fall Line by the glass,” says Sarah Penn, owner/beverage director.
And while she might not win against the steak and red wine–craving customers, she does find herself often recommending a fried chicken and Champagne pairing. “Together [they] are divine,” she says.
Steal it: Know your customers. Even if the aim is to expand their palates, offering drinks in their comfort zones is a must.
Kemuri Tatsu-Ya | Austin, Texas
At Kemuri Tatsu-Ya, a carefully curated selection of 30 Japanese whisky varieties meets a just-as-extensive sake list and a cocktail program that matches daring new tastes with a heavy dose of fun to inspire guests to try new things. All this then pairs with a food menu that playfully moves between Japanese and Texan influences to offer exciting, umami-rich small plates.
When asked what people love about the beverage program, assistant general manager and beverage director Michael Phillips says they enjoy being tricked into liking things they normally shy away from, offering the Matcha Painkiller cocktail as an example. As the name suggests, this cocktail marries matcha tea with the classic tiki cocktail, but Phillips throws in a surprise here, too, with buckwheat shochu—an ingredient he describes as “so funky it’s polarizing.”
The key to making this unique potion a best-seller? A ceramic lucky cat mug, which Phillips calls his Trojan horse. “Even now I’m shocked on the volume of shochu we’ve moved for just one menu item,” he says.
Steal it: Inspire guests to order experimental cocktails by reimagining their presentations.
Husk Restaurant | Charleston and Greenville, South Carolina; Nashville, Tennessee; and Savannah, Georgia
At Husk, the cocktail menu is seasonal and rotating. Southern beers are on draft, and there are nonalcoholic cocktail options, drinking vinegars, and wine. But the star of the restaurant’s beverage program is its selection of 175 whiskeys, including American, Scotch, Irish, and Japanese varieties.
“We have lots of people come in wanting to learn more about whiskey,” says Husk Charleston bar manager Justin Simko, who finds himself recommending the spirit more often than not.
But, with all syrups and infusions made in-house using fresh ingredients from the kitchen, cocktail lovers are very much in luck.
A break from whiskey, one of Husk Charleston’s best-selling cocktails is the Charleston Light Dragoon’s Punch featuring rum and black tea and based on an old Charleston recipe from the late 1700s. “It checks all the boxes of what we want to provide: a simple but tasty cocktail with a good story,” Simko says.
Steal it: Check out historical cookbooks and documents for cocktail-spiration.
Rouge Tomate| New York City
“If we are what we eat, then we are also what we drink,” says Cristian Molina, beverage director at Rouge Tomate. The restaurant’s guests love his experimentation with health-driven ingredients. Take the restaurant’s nonalcoholic kale cocktail, for instance. Fresh kale juice meets house-made ginger beer and Bolivian pink salt. Or, for a more classic cocktail option, consider the Penicillin cocktail composed of house-blended whiskey and barrel-fermented honey—produced in an apiary on the restaurant’s rooftop—and finished with a jasmine-infused mezcal.
Making good use of seasonal ingredients in the restaurant’s kitchen, along with a good dose of natural sweetner—the bar goes through 200 pounds of honey a year—Rouge Tomate’s cocktail, beer, and wine programs offer the best of what the seasons and the market have to offer.
Steal it: More customers are reaching for nonalcoholic cocktails.
Gracias Madre | West Hollywood, California
To design a cocktail program based entirely on agave, beverage director Maxwell Reis travels periodically to Mexico to participate in the spirit’s production and bring back ideas for the bar menu, along with knowledge to share with guests.
As one of the first restaurants in California to serve cocktails with cannabinoids, Gracias Madre prides itself on expanding its customers’ horizons. “People can come here and try something completely outside the normal realm of drinks,” Reis says. The restaurant has more than 80 mezcal varieties on offer—serving the spirit in traditional gourd cups—and sells an average of 1,000 margaritas a night.
The best-selling cocktail on the menu is Purista, which exemplifies the restaurant’s mission to honor agave spirits in its simplicity and quality. “It uses only fresh-pressed lime juice, agave, and homemade orange bitters to accentuate the base spirit we love so dear,” Reis says.
Steal it: Get educated on interesting ingredients, then teach and intrigue guests by incorporating that knowledge into the bar menu.
Area Four | Boston and Cambridge, Massachusetts
Maybe you’ve seen Area Four’s best-selling beverage on Instagram? It’s large beach glass stuck in a seashell-and-sand-filled bucket with a cocktail umbrella and Barbie doll. That’s the restaurant’s large format version of its Malibu Beach Barbie, a riff on the classic Sex on the Beach cocktail. Not only does it give guests a laugh, but it also tickles their taste buds with a house-infused peach vodka, dry curacao, cranberry, and lemon.
“My goal was to make serious-tasting cocktails while not taking ourselves too seriously,” says Tainah Soares, Boston bar manager. She takes inspiration from Area Four’s decor. “We have such a beautiful retro look that reminds me of the ‘70s,” she says. Her cocktails, then, are odes to that era.
Steal it: Look for classic cocktails to playfully repurpose.
Holy Grale | Louisville, Kentucky
Besides enjoying the world-class beer selection and choice ciders, wines, and digestifs, guests love visiting this Kentucky-based bar and restaurant for the knowledge and helpfulness of its “beertenders,” says Lori Beck, Holy Grale co-owner. “Regardless of whether it is a local ale or international brew, our staff always strives to find the perfect beer for each person,” she says.
Pulling from classic beer cultures like Belgium, the Netherlands, and Germany, Holy Grale has developed a food menu that is locally sourced and goes perfectly with a few cold ones.
The experience of a visit, too, is reminiscent of the old world, as Holy Grale’s building is a 1905-built Unitarian Church. Surrounded by the history of the space, guests can tour across the pond by sipping on a Belgian favorite, like Beck’s choice of De La Senne from Brussels’ Zinnebir, and digging into a plate of Fritjes.
Steal it: Think about experience and how the restaurant space and menu can heighten a guest’s visit.
Rum Club | Portland, Oregon
“Too often rum drinks are just known as bad resort beverages,” owner Michael Shea says. His goal in designing the Rum Club beverage menu was to create cocktails his bartender friends would want to drink.
The bar’s focus on just one liquor has not only led Shea to offer high-end choices—the bar has received multiple private barrel selections from Plantation Black Label—but it has also helped guide Chef Devon Treadwell’s food menu, which draws influence from the same regions that the cocktail menu does. Shea’s best-selling and most recommended creation is the Rum Club Daiquiri, which he says reintroduces people to a drink that is often mischaracterized and gives guests the chance to try a “real daiquiri” with añejo rum, fresh lime, maraschino, demerara sugar, angostura bitters, and absinthe.
Steal it: Take a look at the rum cocktails on your menu. Are they bad resort beverages or the real deal?
Band of Bohemia | Chicago
For this self-proclaimed “culinary brewhouse,” it all begins with the beer. Only after it is brewed to perfection does the Michelin-star-worthy food pairing begin.
For the fan-favorite Jasmine beer, for example, brewer and co-owner Michael Carroll and his team first dreamed up a delicate brew nuanced by jasmine rice and jasmine green tea. The result is a lightly floral, great all-around beer that can stand up to serious food. “Currently we have it paired with our ribeye with maitake and soy beurre monte,” Carroll says.
What customers love most about this unique concept is that nothing is an afterthought for Carroll and his team. “Every element has purpose and a place to interact with other ingredients,” Carroll says, whether that be in the food menu, beers brewed, wine selection, or cocktail creation. These days, Carroll is pairing specific beers and spirits, creating playful tastes that are not only fun for his guests, but challenging to the palate.
Steal it: Have a favorite local brew? Build a dish that highlights its best features.