As if the booze-pump wasn't primed enough for the advance of craft cocktails and other well-made drinks, an article titled "Bar Wars" in last Friday's Wall Street Journal highlighted another recent shift that has the potential to bode well for good imbibing: high-end restaurants are placing a greater emphasis on their bar and lounge areas.
What's prompting restaurants such as Per Se in New York and The Foundry in Los Angeles to expand their bar offering, of course, has less to do with a sudden desire to promote bibulous artistry than with the simple need to survive during catastrophic economic times. As Katy McLaughlin writes,
Around the country, proprietors are turning their restaurants—or significant parts of them—into glorified bars. They're ripping out dining-room tables to make more bar space, applying for late-night and cabaret licenses and adding the word 'bar' to their names. [...] The reason: While consumer spending at restaurants is falling precipitously, drink orders, particularly for cheaper drinks like beer, are barely dropping off. For restaurants, it's now proving more cost-effective to serve lower-priced dishes that diners can munch on as they buy drinks.
Fine-dining sales are expected to drop at least 12 percent this year, McLaughlin writes, but on-premise alcohol sales may dip less than 2 percent. Compounded by the fact that beer, wine and cocktails are typically big revenue generators, we should expect to see more emphasis placed on this side of the restaurant world as the recession drags on.
While I wish the reason for this shift were different, I can't say I'm dismayed to see greater attention paid to the bar side of restaurants. While the WSJ article focuses on changes these restaurants are making to their bar-food menus, I'd hope a companion step would be to take a fresh look at the beer and cocktail menus. I've had many experiences of visiting a prestigious restaurant, only to be dismayed by the third-rate cocktails listed on the bar menu, or by ordering a creative-sounding drink that has been mangled through sloppy preparation of a degree that wouldn't be tolerated in the same restaurant's kitchen. As more bartenders are taking their profession seriously, and curious imbibers are demanding better-crafted drinks, I hope that restaurateurs looking to weather the economic downturn start to raise the quality of the drinks that are going over their increasingly profitable bars.
Have you been stopping at the bar or lounge more frequently than the dining room recently? And what kinds of shifts have you seen in your favorite haunts? Let's hear your perspective.
About the author: Paul Clarke blogs about cocktails at The Cocktail Chronicles and writes regularly on spirits and cocktails for Imbibe magazine. He lives in Seattle, where he works as a writer and magazine editor.