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A food and cocktail pairing at Over Proof
A food and cocktail pairing at Over Proof
Wes Rowe

Cocktails Now Take Top Billing at San Francisco Restaurants

Food is increasingly playing supporting roles in restaurants around town

Pairing cocktails and food isn’t a new concept for Ryan Fitzgerald and the bar team at ABV. Fitzgerald’s been serving the two together for 18 years, having previously helmed restaurant bars at Beretta, Foreign Cinema, Tres Agaves, and Bacar. But this year, as a managing partner at ABV, he and the other co-owners are trying something new: presenting an orchestrated meal of paired drinks and dishes in their upstairs enclave.

“The closest word I can think for it is omakase,” Fitzgerald told Eater SF, referring to the Japanese tradition of letting the chef decide on the dishes for you. “We get to serve people the kind of food and cocktails we like.”

And ABV is not alone — a growing number of bars are venturing into set cocktail menus paired with food. Other programs include Roka Akor’s in the Financial District, which presents its own take on a cocktail omakase along with a selection of bites, as well as Lazy Bear bar manager Nicolas Torres’ and chef/owner David Barzelay’s forthcoming partner project: A cocktail-first restaurant with food to match the drinks, instead of the other way around.

The result of this beverage boom is a range of new cocktail-and-food guided experiences in San Francisco that are taking the cocktail experience one more creative step.

“This is the first time it’s happened in history, really,” says Tim Hagney, bar manager of Maven, which was one of the early spots in 2011 to match cocktails with specific plates of food. “There’s more and more dialogue that’s happening between guests, and the more that happens, it becomes a guided experience. If we can do that ahead of time, and say, ‘here’s a ticket for the ride, hop on’ — that makes a lot of sense.”

It’s not just a San Francisco thing

The growing trend in San Francisco is consistent with what’s been happening on both the national and international stage. In 2012, the James Beard Awards introduced its “Outstanding Bar Program” category for the first time, which was then awarded to Chicago’s The Aviary, owned by Alinea chef Grant Achatz and partner Nick Kokonas. The category’s addition proved an early signal of the popular convergence of food and cocktails, according to Charles Joly, former chief bartender and beverage director of The Aviary, and co-founder of Crafthouse Cocktails. The Aviary, in particular, was industry changing in its kitchen-line approach to exquisite cocktails and for its program which paired drinks with food from the ticketed restaurant Next.

Thus, the global convergence seems to be growing. Over the fall and winter, Joly took an informal poll of the bartenders in the cocktail trainings he conducts around the world, to gauge how many work at venues serving both food and cocktails. It’s “almost always north of 75 percent, and often higher,” says Joly.

“The age-old, symbiotic relationship between bar and kitchen is finally out in the open,” Joly says. “As more bartenders began to understand flavor and develop their own palates and techniques, food and cocktails was bound to become prevalent.”

California’s beautiful produce is part of the allure for kitchens and bars

Lazy Bear CocoBang
Nicolas Torres’ CocoBang
Lazy Bear

Locally, the rise in mainstream interest in craft cocktails has emboldened many bartenders to pursue programs that bring food and drink together. Doing so was a core part of the concept of ABV from the very beginning. It also provides another avenue for the bar to join in on the California kitchen’s bounty of local ingredients.

“At Lazy Bear, we celebrate richness of California produce, and the awesome farmers that raise these beautiful crops that liven our plates and drinks,” says Torres. “The new project will do the same — it’s just that the drinks will have more of a presence with badass food to go with it.”

The inevitable rise of low-proof cocktails

Traditionally, food and cocktails did not overlap often, starting with Pre-Prohibition and Prohibition, the cradle of the modern cocktail, which did not embrace food. Plus, the high alcohol content of many of these classic drinks easily washed away the nuanced flavors of many dishes — meaning that cocktails made a great before- or after-dinner drink, but wine still went best with the food.

“I don’t think cocktail pairings will ever replace or be as good with food as wine is,” says Torres. “This is not to say that it can’t be done, and it’s true more people are doing it. [But] the culinary influence in the cocktail world has naturally put the cocktail in the middle of the meal, not just the beginning and end anymore.’’

Food and drink from Over Proof
Food and drink from Over Proof
Wes Rowe Photography

Add to that a growing taste for mellower, lower alcoholic drinks — often called low-ABV (alcohol by volume) drinks — and intermingling cocktails with dinner has become a lot easier. It also makes it possible to present a wider range of flavors since people can try more drinks without becoming intoxicated along the way. (Unsurprisingly, dinner with an eight-course wine pairing ends a lot differently than an eight cocktail situation.)

“It helps us stagger the flow of the evening, as well as not knocking people out right away,” says Alex Riddle, Roka Akor’s cocktail curator. “It allow cocktails to move in the same way that the traditional food coursing does.”

The economic advantage for restaurants

Of course, there are logistical and economical underpinnings as well: It’s very hard to open a liquor-only establishment these days. San Francisco caps the number of liquor-only licenses available, making it difficult to acquire, particularly compared to the days before craft cocktails grew in popularity.

Licenses for both food and full liquor are slightly more available, but still tricky. They’re extremely expensive to secure and come with a price tag of $250,000. And food is widely considered a loss leader in the restaurant business, a dynamic compounded by the high costs of labor in an expensive city and a widely reported dwindling kitchen workforce, says Fitzgerald. Putting the focus on cocktails includes the added bonus of more profits.

How it’s playing out

ABV’s program takes you through a six-drink rum journey alongside dishes like spam musubi, smoked lamb curry, and stuffed clams from notable rum regions. Roka Akor last year expanded its frequently-rotating, five-to-seven drink omakase with the addition of food pairings — like a sake and plum wine cocktail with amberjack, a fragrant sake and vodka yuzu sour with nigiri, and a stirred whiskey drink with steak, robata corn, and brussel sprouts. Torres’s and Barzelay’s widely reported new cocktails-plus-food venture is still in development, but promises to be unique.

All of this is creating a perfect storm of cocktails in San Francisco in 2017, and the new options are creative and compelling. The increasing enthusiasm from guests is making the attempt to do food and spiritous drinks together feel feasible and satisfying — if executed well.

“It’s about sharing what we love and what we like with the guests,” says Fitzgerald.

Editors: Stefanie Tuder and Ellen Fort


3174 16th Street, , CA 94103 (415) 294-1871 Visit Website

Roka Akor

801 Montgomery Street, San Francisco, CA 94133 415-362-8887

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