I've found myself dining drunk a lot lately. And I don't mean after a long-winded, multicourse, wine-pairing dinner, when there’s nothing left on the table but crumbs and a drip of digestif. No, these days I’m already halfway to wasted by the time the salad arrives.
I could blame my boozehound tendencies, or my admitted status as a lightweight. I could claim to be infected with the Mad Men–itis that’s inspired a nation to stylishly swill old-fashioneds at all hours like a school of mid-century fish. But I think that there’s another culprit here, and it’s related to the rise of the city’s restaurant bar programs.
Just the fact of that phrase—“bar program”—points to a change in the way restaurants are engineered these days. At every other restaurant, it seems, a server greets the table with a tiny menu full of unfamiliar and therefore extra-tempting exotic libations (housemade orgeat! punt e mes! bénédictine!), giving diners a moment to rub their hands together with the kind of giddy, juicy anticipation that used to be reserved for dessert—or, among us drinking types, for wine. But increasingly, the sparkle of the sommelier has dimmed, while the bartender’s spotlight just gets brighter.
There are obvious reasons for this change in play. Considering that a bottle of wine serves four while a bottle of liquor can make multitudes of cocktails, the possibility for profit gives a restaurateur all the incentive he or she needs to cash in on a bar program, making such an investment well worth the $250,000 full liquor license. But, truth be told, the booze boom is not just about money. Today, a dining establishment that forgoes a heady cocktail program appears almost neutered—clipped of its virility, not to mention its creative potential. A wine-and-beer-only list? You’re half the restaurant you might have been.
It wasn’t always thus. The last time our economy was this rollicking, in the 1990s, the city’s breath smelled more like Ocean Spray and vodka (a spirit that barely registers on today’s cocktail spectrum), and the cosmopolitan was considered the height of sophistication. Even at the peak of the dot-com boom, cocktails barely rated a mention. When Craig and Annie Stoll, progenitors of many a San Francisco culinary trend, opened Delfina in 1998 with nothing but a strong Italian wine list, no one thought the less of them. But by the time that Locanda, their third restaurant, opened in April of 2011, they knew enough to hang a neon sign in the window that said “cocktails.” A few months later, the New York Times wrote about the restaurant and adorned its article not with a photograph of a chef plating a bowl of sumptuous housemade pasta, but with one of a bartender in a vest stirring a drink. The cocktail is no longer the caption—it’s the headline.
In 2000, when the San Francisco Chronicle’s Michael Bauer reviewed the former hotter-than-hot restaurant and bar Azie (which he described as “like a sociological Petri dish for the study of dot-com dating patterns”), he devoted a couple of paragraphs to the wine program and mentioned but one cocktail—the Ginger Rogers. In his review of Alta CA, this year’s Azie equivalent, Bauer gave five paragraphs to the cocktails alone.
A similar treatment has been given by the food-media cognoscenti to a long list of buzzworthy, cocktail-centric Bay Area restaurants. Just to start, there’s Bar Agricole, Rich Table, Ramen Shop, AQ, and Penrose. Stuart Brioza and Nicole Krasinski of State Bird Provisions will debut their first cocktail menu when they open their new restaurant, the Progress. As to why they took the leap into the drink, Brioza says, “It’s another element to explore from serving to creating—there are lots of possibilities.”
The chefly urge to experiment with our sobriety actually began in the mid-2000s, when restaurant cocktails became interesting enough to make people like me want to drink a lot of them. By that point, restaurant bars at Nopa and the Slanted Door had be- come hotbeds of bartenders manhandling Kaffir lime leaves and strawberries with custom-made muddlers. It was the age of fanciful garnishes and fresh citrus deftly squeezed to order. In 2008, Scott Beattie—whom Playboy called a “virtuoso among drink designers”—published a book called Artisanal Cocktails, full of infused syrups and pretty edible flowers. Phil West, chef-owner of Range, the 2005-born restaurant known as much for its thoughtful cocktails as for its coffee-rubbed pork shoulder, recalls, “If you looked at our cocktail menu back then, you would have seen an apricot drink, a peach drink. That kind of seasonality was our M.O. because it’s how we cooked in the kitchen.” Many of those drinks were impressively laborious, yet sissy and low-alcohol compared to what’s in vogue today.
Which leads me to perhaps the main culprit in my dinnertime intoxication—the increasing ABV (alcohol by volume) of today’s libations. Bartenders have largely been abandoning juice infusions in favor of sadistically strong drinks made up of 100 percent booze. Goodbye, muddler, hello, long spoon, used for stirring all-booze concoctions poured into deceptively innocent-looking little coupes. If you don’t select carefully, the most juice you’re likely to get is an aromatized spritz. At Penrose, you can order a Vieux Carré made of rye, brandy, sweet vermouth, bénédictine, and angostura and Peychaud’s bitters. Range’s menu now serves a potent cocktail called the Stone Pony, concocted with mezcal, tequila, amaro nonino, crème de cassis, and mole bitters. At Trou Normand, Thad Vogler of Bar Agricole’s second restaurant and bar, which features drinks like the Dempsey (gin, calvados, grenadine, and absinthe), you’d be hard-pressed to find an ice cube, lest it dilute the hard stuff.
Ashley Miller, the talented bar manager at Alta CA, admits that there’s a certain industry-wide obsession driving this trend: “Brown, stirred cocktails are still very much here because bartenders like them,” she says. Spirits writer Jordan Mackay has his own theory: “Generally speaking, I think that boozy cocktails used to be considered East Coast style and fruity cocktails West Coast style. But starting a few years ago, the East Coast won. People wanted their drinks faster, so bars started adapting their cocktail recipes to accommodate better service.”
I’m not sure I can agree with that. My insta-toxication these days is not just an ABV issue, but also a timing one. Perhaps somewhere—probably in Europe—there’s a utopian restaurant that allows its diners ample time to let an alcoholic beverage enter and exit the bloodstream. “In France,” Vogler says dreamily, “they have the aperitif, which is an hour of just sitting around and having a drink. I think we imagined our restaurants would be places where you could do that before dining.”
But alas, San Francisco isn’t Paris. We’re living in the age of Yelp and OpenTable, of customer impatience and narrow profit margins, a time when dining is both business and blood sport. The interlude between the drinks-plying stage and the arrival of the salad is generally about 15 minutes—simply not enough time to metabolize a drink strong enough to flatten Rob Ford.
What’s worse, these multi-liquor symphonies are often labored over so long by gravely attendant bartenders that they don’t arrive until seconds before the first course—or five minutes after. This leaves diners with the painful choice of sipping that cocktail or tucking into that dinner— or, worse yet, doing those two things in tandem. The latter is often a bad idea because the likes of a negroni, for example, does not enhance the likes of a salad. The truth hurts, but I’ll say it: Purely spirituous cocktails generally make terrible pairings with just about anything you’d want to eat, barring peanuts.
Of course, when I have to make this choice, there’s only one solution that I can truly stomach. I throw back the cocktail so I can focus on the food, and often the wine that we order to go with it. And that, to put it bluntly, is why I’m so damn drunk.
Originally published in the July issue of San Francisco