► Beverage has always played second fiddle to food – until the advent of gastropubs, mixologists and award-winning wine programs. But a strong new food and cocktail culture is upping its stature again, as more diners look for social experiences beyond eating and drinking.
Add outstanding hospitality – seamless service paired with a stellar, on-brand environment – and the package becomes an entertainment experience that can lift takeout and delivery couch potatoes out of their seats.
“That’s exactly the type of scene people are drawn to,” says Aubrey Mansene, beverage manager for Fox Restaurant Concepts, parent of The Henry, an all-day restaurant with locations in multiple states. “Guests play off that energy to create their own thing – exactly what you want to happen in a restaurant.”
At the Peninsula Hotel Chicago’s Z Bar – named by Forbes magazine last fall as one of the World’s Best Hotel Bars – food and beverage offerings share the same menu, a statement that says they’re equal partners.
“Having one without the other makes it an incomplete experience. Our job is to offer everything guests need to facilitate their own social experience,” says Jason Xu, chef tournant.
Adds Vlad Novikov, director of cocktails and culture for the Peninsula: “The idea that you’re a bar or a restaurant is less of a distinction. You have to be great at both.”
To ensure that food and drink are in peak competitive form, ready to stir up interest and social interaction, consider these concepts working F&B partnerships.
Z BAR / CHICAGO
Approach: Provide all the elements required so guests can cobble together the perfect mix of food and drink. The endgame: dynamic, guest-directed experiences that are uniquely their own.
Vibe: A world-class bar that, whether guests are from down the street or halfway around the world, ends up feeling like everyone’s favorite watering hole – albeit one in a showstopper setting with ultra-luxe glamour and glitz.
Which comes first, the cocktail or the eats? The culinary and bar teams work in sync. “We bounce ideas off each other very well,” says Novikov. “If I put a new drink on the menu, it’s not just coming from me. It has to be a collaborative process with ongoing conversation between Jason and me.
Tips for success: Offer recognizable food made unique, thanks to creative ingredients and preparations. Drinks must be attention-grabbing gold standards. Design food to be shareable, something that guests experience together. “Everything is plated in a way that encourages interaction with the food,” says Xu. “It creates little pockets of energy around the experience.”
THE ORIGINAL / Milwaukee
Approach: Each entrée is followed by a recommended beer, wine or cocktail. “We wanted to make it simple to orchestrate a great experience,” says Co-Owner Eric Rzepka. “There’s a high hit-rate. 60% to 70% of diners select one of the choices, and of that, three-quarters go with the cocktail.”
Vibe: Comfortable, lively and homey, with good energy and attentive service. “We want it to feel like you’re at a great party where food and drinks have been well-thought out, nicely prepared and served with warmth,” says Rzepka.
Which comes first, the cocktail or the eats: Although they aim for parity, food leads, drinks follow. “All of our craft cocktails are built around the menu,” says Rzepka.
Tips for success: Strong cohesion between kitchen and bar, and team members who are adept at making recommendations for drinks and food. “Training has never been more important,” says Rzepka. “Guests love it when they can turn themselves over to the server to help create a great experience. That means servers have to know wine, beer and cocktails, as well as all the details of the food menu."
THE HENRY / Phoenix; Dallas; West Hollywood and Coronado, California
The approach: The Henry describes its culture as “hospitalitarian,” the idea that the space belongs to the customers and that no matter if they visit for breakfast, lunch or dinner, The Henry is spot-on. “We sell food and drink, but our goal is to deliver experiences,” says Aubrey Mansene.
The vibe: A vibrant come-as-you-are aura makes the power suit and yoga pants crowds feel like egalitarians. “Our tagline is 'the greatest neighborhood restaurant,'” says Mansene. “That means you’ll see all kinds of different groups here, business and social, and it all works and makes us stand apart in a hypercompetitive market.”
Which comes first, cocktail or eats? They’re on equal footing, says Mansene. “Our goal as an organization is to make ingredients that go well together. We hunker down and rely heavily on each other to make that happen, brainstorming until we have food and drinks that work.”
Tips for Success: “Food and beverage, sure it matters, but it’s not the most important thing we do,” says Mansene. “Hospitality is, and people sense that. It allows them to have confidence that the front-of-the-house staff will be their tour guides to a memorable time.”
THE RUMPUS ROOM / Milwaukee
The approach: The Rumpus Room stays true to the city’s storied cocktail culture, but ups the game with food that enhances and complements the experience, says John Wise, director of operations and managing partner for Bartolotta Restaurants.
The vibe: In the best possible way, Wise says the restaurant often operates in organized chaos. “It’s lively, loud, energetic, vibrant. Everyone is into their food, cocktails and conversation. There’s no pretension, and there are no rules,” says Wise.
Which comes first, cocktail or eats? Wise says that operationally, food and drink are on equal footing. “It’s a complete partnership between Andrew Koser, executive chef, and the general manager, who oversees the beverage program. They travel together, taste together and create together.”
Tips for Success: From a service standpoint, beer and wine are easier – open and pour. “Craft cocktails involve more technique and skill, and to do it right you need people who are talented and passionate,” says Wise. Increasingly, they also look to bring strong local elements to the cocktails. “Location is
a point of pride.”
High On Low
As the food-and-cocktail culture heats up, conversely, so too has interest in non-alcoholic and low–alcohol cocktails. “The trend is coming up more and more,” says The Henry’s Mansene. “Sometimes you just want a little giddy-up in your glass.” Drinks such as low-alcohol spritzers, specialty liqueurs and champagne are prominent on menus, as are no-alcohol sparkling juices, such as clementine or passion fruit juice with sparkling water. “We’ve had to be more creative to come up with the right offerings, and it has been fun.”
At Z Bar in Chicago, Vlad Novikov sees strong growth. “More and more people want to have a lighter experience, and that includes drinks. There’s less interest in being totally blasted.” He says guests often
are surprised that non-alcoholic drinks are priced the same as those with booze. “We use non-alcoholic botanical distillates from England that can cost more than liquor. But once they try them, they’re completely on board."