The Delicious, Meteoric Rise of the Foodie-Friendly Cocktail Bar
Because an intelligent cocktail deserves more than just peanuts
Across the country, going to the swankiest cocktail bar in town is increasingly becoming an affair that extends well beyond what’s in your glass. From New York to New Orleans, patrons of any decent boîte or speakeasy are finding not only beautiful, intelligently prepared drinks, but also a smartly edited food menu to pair with them.
Interestingly, the demand for this concept has been heightened by the pandemic: with most local governments requiring bars to serve food alongside alcohol, owners had no choice but to increase their food production. Some did so by cheekily serving patrons a complimentary peanut-butter sandwich or bag of chips with their beer, but others took the opportunity to usher in new food menu concepts that seem poised to stick around long after the pandemic releases its grasp.
This seems like an inevitable conclusion: when you have a cocktail with 14 hours of research and development poured into it, serving it with peanuts isn’t enough. If you have the chance to give a guest a more well-rounded experience, with the level of detail in the cocktail also going into the food, why wouldn’t you take it? More and more often, new cocktail bars are asking themselves that question and delivering the goods.
“I like the nerdy stuff. I’m a food person, I’m a drink person, I’m a person who cooks at home and experiments at home and makes drinks, just always after quality and always chasing deliciousness,” says Michael Capoferri, owner and operator of Thunderbolt Los Angeles. “I wanted a mix. There’s fun places you just go for beers and shots and I love those places, but we were sort of interested in creating something a little different.”
Doffing its hat to Southern inspirations, Thunderbolt’s bar includes a healthy dose of Madeira, a Southern favorite, that purposely complements their food menu’s country ham. Similarly, the deliciously dry Liquid Picnic cocktail (“London Dry Gin, Citron, Tomato, Rosemary, Black Pepper”) balances food offerings like Pork Belly Burnt Ends, Buttermilk Biscuits and Pimento Cheese (they also have salads and veggies as lighter fare, don’t worry).
For Capoferri, the idea was always to serve great food alongside great cocktails. After traversing the U.S. as a national ambassador for a liquor brand for nearly five years, he hoped to create an experience he wanted for himself in a place of his own. In Thunderbolt, which opened in 2019, he’s achieved it.
“[It’s an] absolutely viable dinner option if you want it to be,” he says, “but it is a bar first.” And during the pandemic, Capoferri saw his output change from 70-30 — that being bar-to-food, percentage-wise — to 50-50, and it largely stayed that way even after restrictions were lifted. “When we opened we were getting a little bit of press, but it was about the drinks. We’ve seen a shift in a big way,” he says.
Like Thunderbolt, Chicago’s beloved Scofflaw has also had a small but dedicated menu since it opened in 2012. “I think having a really nice food program and always delivering a great value helps drive business to Scofflaw, helps drive interest,” says co-founder Danny Shapiro. “It’s an amazing bonus when you get there, if you’re just looking for a cocktail, [and] you can get great food as well for a great price.”
Since the bar is gin-focused, the cocktails came first, but Shapiro says Scofflaw chef Matthew Lehto has always been interested in incorporating spirits into his food as well. Gin has featured in the bar’s recipe for mussels, for example, where one might normally use a white wine. Their current, very green spring vegetable ragout also engages with their Art House martini, which features London dry gin, Comoz vermouth, rose-hip bitters and cucumber. “It’s more that we’re both on the same page of trying to be seasonal, creating things relative to one another,” Shapiro says of Lehto. Even though the menus are created independently, they’re pulling from the same sources, so they end up being complementary by nature.
The pandemic also influenced Scofflaw’s relationship to its kitchen, as the bar prepared virtual dinner and tasting events under the moniker “Chin Up, Buttercup,” with comfort foods and cocktails available for takeout. Engineered to help get diners through Chicago’s infamous winters, Chin Up, Buttercup featured foods like mac and cheese, Swedish meatballs, chocolate chip cookies and the like, along with comfort cocktail pairings like an eggnog made from scratch and a hot buttered rum kit. Though the program has since ended, Scofflaw’s engaging food menu remains and changes with the seasons.
The concept of bars with thoughtful food menus has long been a tradition in Paris, which is where New Orleans’s Bar Marilou draws its inspiration. “The sourcing of the products and the work that goes into the food is every bit as important as the cocktail menu or the wine list. We felt that, speaking broadly, cocktail bars and even wine bars in the U.S. held food as an afterthought, or just something to keep you drinking,” writes Josh Fontaine, partner and co-founder of award-winning Parisian hospitality group Quixotic Projects, which partnered with Atelier Ace, the hospitality group behind Ace Hotels, on Bar Marilou (a bookcase within the bar is actually a trick door that leads into the lobby of the Ace-owned Maison de la Luz guesthouse). “But we wanted to have a food menu that would attract guests as much as the drinks list, and that you could make a meal out of if you so desired.”
Bar Marilou’s cocktails are generally “lighter, more flavorful,” with a bit less alcohol, Fontaine says, and the food menu includes light bites like scallops and caviar, a frisée salad and cheese puffs. But there’s still a hearty hamburger with rich sheep’s milk cheese if you want more of a balance.
“They are designed to complement each other in terms of light eating and light drinking. Not too many heavy food items, not too many high-octane stirred brown drinks, no California Cabernet that sees 24 months in new oak, etc.,” Fontaine says. Similar to Thunderbolt and Scofflaw, he found that Bar Marilou’s food menu was beneficial to them during the pandemic: “a blessing” that allowed guests to have a more extensive experience beyond just meats, cheeses and fried foods.
It was toward the end of pandemic restrictions that New York’s Grand Army decided to expand its bar menu. While the esteemed venue had always had a raw-bar spin (think oysters and ceviche), Chef Thom Chun added recipes and flavors to accompany the already top-notch cocktails. With new dishes like a trouthead sashimi cured with gin and olives, deviled eggs with crab, and black bass with salsa verde, grilled ramps and cotija polenta, the level of execution in the food now matches that of the bar menu.
“[People would come to] Grand Army for oyster happy hour and cocktails, maybe a little this, a little that, and now they’re coming and having a full on flavorful experience,” beverage director Robby Dow says. “We’re in this really cool sweet spot,” Chun adds, where “the standard that Grand Army had as a precedent in terms of cocktails” has helped him raise the bar for what kind of food he wanted to serve.
Of course, Grand Army continues to experiment in the cocktail space as well. Their spring/summer menu features drinks themed according to Nicolas Cage films, and it’s hard to imagine the black bass without a refreshing Raising Arizona cocktail (“vodka collins with yuzu, toasted sesame and salted plum”), or the luxurious, chocolate cremeux without the sweetness of a Leaving Las Vegas (“thai iced tea meets rhum agricole, bajan rum, coconut, maldon, angostura”).
That kind of synchronicity is also something Sother Teague was going for when he opened Reserve by Amor y Amargo. Teague was a chef for 12 years before he started bartending, and for a while, he incorporated that background into his new project. So when the bar in front of Amor y Amargo — from which it leased its space — closed during the pandemic, Teague took over the space with a store (the General Store by Amor y Amargo) and what would become Reserve, a prix fixe cocktail experience pairing five cocktails with curated snacks, all created by Teague.
Make no mistake: Reserve is explicitly a bar. Teague just isn’t going serve you peanuts with your cocktail. “I consider this to be a cocktail tasting, but I don’t want you to get sloshed, so I’m doing it with some snacks.”
For his Cubist cocktail — “Aquavit, Suze, Dry Vermouth, Olive Bitters” — Teague created a homemade everything bagel with cured carrot “lox” (carrots are roasted whole and wrapped in kombu on a bed of kosher salt, then marinated in wakame, amino acids and vegetable oil) with a tofu scallion cream cheese and pickled onions that are also both homemade, then topped with fried capers and dill. It’s a combination of Nordic flavors with both new and familiar dimensions, and that’s just one course.
“I didn’t skimp on the food,” Teague continues. “I enjoy being in the kitchen and stretching those old muscles, but definitely for me, it’s about the drinks.” While the pandemic allowed Reserve to exist as a concept, it’s moving forward slowly: the bar is only open five days a week, with the pairing nights on Friday and Saturday alone.
The old adage is that creativity blossoms where resources are limited, and in this case the limited resources in question can be either material objects or legal restrictions. When faced with limitations brought on by COVID-19, these spaces sought new ways to grow their food contributions even if they were already established. And while the creativity is exciting and the menus are appealing, there’s still the dream, the necessity, that this will be enough moving forward. The hope is that the innovation bars develop in their food and beverage menus keeps them afloat.
“You tread water for as long as we have; just getting to shore doesn’t mean you live,” Teague says. “You still have to survive.”
We’ll drink to that, and to the future of these and all the venues ushering in a new, exciting and more experimental era for the cocktail bar.
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