Why Cocktail Bars Are So Damn Stingy with Their Menus
Bartenders explain their most annoying quirk.
BY Aaron Goldfarb | Aug 25, 2017 | Food & Drink
Hey, cocktail bars, why are you so damn stingy with your menus? Every time I sit down with a group of friends, this, inevitably, is how it goes down:
"When you guys are ready, I'll help you with your drinks."
(Five seconds later, server returns, asks for orders.)
"Uh, can we have a little more time to look at the menu?"
(Server leaves. Thirty minutes pass.)
"Is that server ever coming back?"
We're never ready to order a drink because we haven't had a chance to look at the menu. We haven't had a chance to look at the menu because we're a group of four, and we've been given one solitary drinks menu, which we had to unearth from a deck of food menus and dessert menus and specials menus and—was that a promotional postcard?—just to find. We then had to huddle around it like an offensive line examining the playbook, some reading it sideways, others upside down, this list of made-up cocktails with esoteric ingredients (zucca?) and corny names ("Do I really want to order the Rye 'n' Gosling?").
Are bars too tight-fisted with their heavily-bonded menu paper and laser-jet ink? Is this paucity of menus due to some environmental pet cause perpetuated by a former member of Entourage? Or is this whole thing just a psychological experiment to test our ability to work together for the common good of getting drunk?
"Owners of bars and bar managers have way better things to do with their time than spending it printing, cutting, and stuffing menus," notes bar owner Ryan Fitzgerald. He claims he happily gives every guest their own menu at his San Francisco bars ABV and Over Proof, but admits trying "really hard" to get them back once they've ordered a round. Other bartenders explained to me that they give out so few menus because it helps facilitate conversation, especially on a date. You lean in together to coo, "Ooh that looks good," and next thing you know you're ordering the $50 Scorpion Bowl for two.
Same holds true after the order is placed. "I take the menus away to help you socialize and drink," says Russell Davis, a former Bartender of the Year and mixology expert for Bar Rescue. "When left in front, customers focus on the menu." (Then again, with some people I'm forced to drink with these days, menu-focusing is my saving grace.)
Image by Getty
The worst is when you're by yourself, bellied-up to the bar, and menu-snubbed. I usually just pull up the bar's website on my phone, but that has its own issues. A few weekends ago at a busy cocktail spot in Asbury Park, unable to procure a drinks list, I did this very thing. The Sazerac variant looked pretty good, so I ordered it. The bartender said they didn't have it. OK—I figured they must have been out of absinthe. I asked for their Tipperary instead. "What menu are you looking at, guy?!" the perturbed 'tender exclaimed, eventually noting their website menu wasn't exactly up-to-date.
Speed has become crucial in today's cocktail bars. As the craft cocktail revolution has seen its best spots go from quiet, 12-seater neo-speakeasies to giant "high-volume" madhouses cranking out Negronis and Old-Fashioneds as fast as people can order them, you'd think bartenders would want people ready to order as fast as possible. Alas, there are still never enough menus to study.
"More importantly though, which may shed some light as to why other cocktail bars are so stingy with them, is they need to be clean and free from food or drink stains," Fitzgerald tells me. "The fact is that most guests don't give a shit about menus. They'll gripe if they look shitty but will happily turn them into a coaster after the second round."
"THEY'LL GRIPE IF THEY LOOK SHITTY BUT WILL HAPPILY TURN THEM INTO A COASTER AFTER THE SECOND ROUND."
Of course, many of today's best bars have taken menus to an art form, offering drinks lists suitable for displaying in your personal library next to that Foster Wallace tome you still haven't read. New York's Dead Rabbit presents guests with a menu in graphic novel form; its sister bar BlackTail offers an 88-page book laced with a short story about Cuba. Trick Dog's current menu resembles a Seussian rhyming book. The matte-finished, hardback menu—slim and oversized, almost looking like a high school yearbook of beautiful libations—from the Baldwin Bar (one of Esquire's Best Bars in America 2017) is just as ornate as its drinks. I decided I wanted one as a keepsake when I last visited. I paid for that menu, but apparently many others don't.
"Kleptomania is suppressed in most of us, but alcohol tends to lessen the suppression," says Rob Pate, the owner of Austin cocktail bar Péché. "The reason why most bars don't give out a lot of menus is because most menus have been stolen. You can chain the menu to the tables, but you lose a lot of the feel your interior designer was going after."
Pate figured out a solution, though, one which allows him to give every single drinker his or her own damn menu. "We now use a big format menu, which is impossible to put in your purse or pocket," he says. "I know because many have tried with no success."