Boutique Ethos

One thing I’ve been thinking about lately is a perceived rise of a boutique ethos among certain bars and bartenders.

It seems like a lot of the controversy or discussion started with this article in the LA Times:

The new rules of cocktails

The age of the cocktail parlor — the modern speak-easy — is here, and patrons are requested, nay, required, to behave accordingly. Bartenders are going to the trouble of making their own bitters, sourcing obscure vermouths, hand-chipping ice, precision-stirring and wearing dapper vests, and in return, they’re asking that their customers show some manners, in appreciation of a great cocktail. To enforce etiquette, they’ve made rules. And these rules, more and more common in New York, are starting to show up in Los Angeles.

With the advocates on one side starting to sound like cranky old “Mr. Wilsons” and the advocates on the other sounding like young party animals.

I can see the points on both side of the divide. Heck, I like to go to real taverns like Toronado and Zeitgeist. And I like to go to places like PDT or Death & Company. I just don’t expect to get a quality drink at Zeitgeist and realize I’m going to have to make a reservation or stand in line at PDT.

The best places, to me, are the ones that straddle both. Somewhere you feel OK going after work and you aren’t going to have to make a reservation or stand behind a velvet rope. Where the staff will treat you OK no matter who you are or how you are dressed.

To be perfectly honest, I’m kind of a shy person. Not particularly social. While I think it is cool that bartenders and drinky people think my obsession with cocktails and drink is interesting, if I have to be recognized or say, “Hey, I’m that guy with a blog,” to get good service, I think that’s kind of crap.

And that is my concern. That some of these venues are turning into private clubs for the cocktail cognoscenti.

I was out in one place recently, where it seemed like everyone in the bar was either in the Food and Drink business or a cocktail geek. I mean that’s kind of cool, and all. That we have somewhere to meet. But, still, to me, it gets away from the point of going to a bar.

I mean, I know in the food world, that there are places that serve practically no one but a certain sort of customer. Places like El Bulli, where there is a lottery or something, every year to get one of the reservations during the season they are open. So basically, they are only serving foodies and industry people. And I guess they are doing things that might not be interesting to the general public. Sardines in cotton candy and such like. And someone has to do that stuff. Get out there and do new things, so the rest of us can learn from it. And I guess these new bars can be seen in that light.

Again, to be honest, that’s a bit above the plane of my concern.

In an ideal world, I’d like to see:

More respect for the craft of bartending and bartenders. Not just for making drinks well, but providing the social experience in a bar. I don’t know if it is a relic of prohibition or of puritanism that the women and men who work behind the mahogany in restaurants and bars aren’t viewed as people in a “serious” career.

More bars and restaurants taking executing a drink program seriously. Too often, especially in restaurants, it seems like the bar program is viewed as nothing more than a cash register. They pay some celebrity bartender to create a drink list and then promote a girl or guy from the wait staff to execute it. In San Francisco, I can probably count on one hand the restaurants where I would order a drink.

Better ice in bars. If you don’t realize this already, I will point out that about a third of that cocktail you just ordered is melted water from the ice. Crappy ice makes for crappy drinks.

More fresh juices and ingredients. Death to pre-packaged sour mix and other bottled mixers.

A bottle of Angostura Bitters and a bottle of Regan’s Orange Bitters No. 6 on every bar. And bartenders that know when to use them.

Really, these are just selfish things. In an ideal world, I’d like to be able to order a Manhattan from a friendly and courteous bartender and get a good drink and good service. I don’t really even care if it is made with Bourbon or Rye. I just know, right now, over half the time Manhattans aren’t very good. But maybe if we work together and ask for the right things, one day it will be possible.

And then we can start working on more exotic things, like incorporating modern food science behind the bar.

5 thoughts on “Boutique Ethos

  1. What a great post. I spend quite a bit of time and energy railing about topics just like some of the ones you mention…. the easiest thing to do is concentrate on one thing and do it well (i.e. great food but mediocre drinks or vice versa, comfortable atmosphere but lousy cocktails vice versa and I could go on and on). The old saying goes that “you can’t please everybody” but why the heck can’t you at least give it a good try. I’ve yet to see a stunning beer, wine and cocktail program backed with innovative and delicious food backed with relaxed but attentive service. There are at least two reasons I can think of…. 1) ego. Chefs want the spotlight, top bartenders want the spotlight, but neither wants to share it and 2) identity. For marketing and other purposes, it’s easier to say you’re a Steakhouse, or a Cocktail Bar, or a Beer Joint or a Wine Bar etc. Sure wish someone out there would just throw it all together under one roof, or, better yet, give me the money to open a place like that.

    Great post.

  2. Great post indeed. I’ve been thinking about many of the same issue recently, and now I don’t have to write about it:) I’m especially troubled by the seemingly increasing practice of restaurants and bars bringing in consultants to create drink menus and train the staff to just make those drinks. It feels like there is an increasing number of places that are opening or jumping on the bandwagon to make a quick buck off those people that see cocktails as just being another scene, and put just enough focus on drinks to give them some sort of credibility. My fear is that people will get good drinks off a menu and then go off menu and get the impression that mediocre or improperly made cocktails are the norm. Or maybe I’m just a pessimistic obsessive.

  3. Not to rake cocktail consultants over the coals.

    Let’s face it, we all have to make a living. And at least with a cocktail consultant, you’re starting from somewhere other than square one.

    Ultimately, like any other aspect of the Food and Beverage industry, it comes down to boring stuff like training, execution and quality control.

    No matter who creates the cocktail menu originally, bar or restaurant, the management and staff have to be committed to maintaining those standards and presenting quality cocktails to the public. If they aren’t, or they lose the fire after a couple months, it will go down the tubes.

  4. Hear hear.

    I think Nopa probably comes the closest on this magic balance of low-key & high-quality in San Francisco for me, with Range & Absinthe right after.

  5. Blast my wretched inarticulateness! Looking over my previous comment it does seem a little harsh which I didn’t intend.

    Erik, I agree wholeheartedly agree with you about cocktail consultants not being a problem. What I was trying to get at is that I feel like there are owners of establishments that are more interested in making a quick buck off something they see as a fad, rather than building and maintaining a real, well rounded cocktail program. In those cases I don’t think they are really worrying about getting a management team and staff that are committed to the standards you mentioned.

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