How High-End Cocktail Bars Are Pivoting During the Pandemic
Nothing can quite compare to enjoying a drink at a high-end cocktail bar. The entire visit is an experience, from entering the often low-lit and stylized bar to perusing the menu and interacting with your bartender to finally being presented with a perfectly crafted cocktail. Every detail, including the bar’s design and glassware, is carefully considered.
But during a pandemic, when on-premise dining and drinking has been severely curtailed or prohibited altogether and the hospitality industry is in sheer survival mode, trying to comply with ever-changing health and safety regulations while attempting to simply stay afloat, how can craft cocktail bars still offer the experience and hospitality for which they’ve become known?
Bringing the Brand Home
“We’ve taken our model and applied it to the circumstances,” says Matt Belanger, the head bartender at Death & Co Los Angeles. The most recent location of the seminal New York City cocktail bar (with another outpost in Denver), Death & Co LA launched outdoor dining in September, constructing a pop-up bar and using smart batching to simplify the cocktail-making process.
“It’s definitely a learning curve,” says Belanger. Although a sunny LA street offers a different vibe than a dimly lit subterranean bar, he feels the essence of Death & Co still comes through for the bar’s guests. “It’s challenging but rewarding to give people a chance to forget about what’s stressing them out,” he says.
While all three of the bar’s locations currently offer outdoor and/or limited indoor seating, the brand has also launched Death & Co At Home, a line of to-go cocktails available at all locations. To-go cocktails have become a lifeline for many bars during this time, and Death & Co put its signature touch on its cocktails by designing packaging consistent with the bar’s aesthetic, featuring elegant glass vessels and pop-topped bottles with floral labels.
“We wanted to keep the brand on people’s minds,” says Belanger, adding that, for the first time in its history, D&C is forgoing its first-come, first-served approach and instead offering reservations.
In May, Nate Tilden, the owner of Clyde Common, a Portland, Oregon, restaurant renowned for its bar manager Jeffrey Morgenthaler’s cocktails, announced that the business would not be returning in its original format. It would instead be converting into a more casual tavern-style dining experience with a to-go marketplace.
“There was never any question of not bringing back the bar program and the bar team,” says Morgenthaler, who returned to work as the bar manager of the newly revamped and renamed Clyde Tavern when it opened in July with outdoor and, more recently, indoor dining. Oregon’s liquor laws don’t allow to-go cocktails, so making on-premise dining and drinking work is essential to the restaurant’s survival.
Morgenthaler admits, though, that it has been different to rework a familiar service model. “We have to rethink the most simple tasks,” he says. “How do we clear plates safely? How do we interact with customers indoors?” And he’s not certain that what works for his restaurant will work for other pivoting businesses. “It’s so case-by-case; there’s no magic bullet,” he says.
“We’ve simplified everything; our drinks were always approachable but even more so now,” says Morgenthaler, adding that one of the benefits of converting into a more casual space is that the team can use different tools behind the bar, such as a blender to make a frozen White Negroni. The bar menu has been pared down but still includes Clyde Common staples like the Barrel-Aged Negroni.
A Narrowed Focus
The Aviary in Chicago was able to quickly engineer to-go cocktail kits to accompany meals from its sister establishments in The Alinea Group—Alinea, Next and Roister—shortly after the start of the pandemic in March, thanks to the quick thinking of Nick Kokonas, a cofounder of the Alinea Group and the CEO of Tock, who also launched the takeout ordering service Tock to Go around that time.
The Aviary reopened in June with patio and limited open-air indoor dining for tasting menu courses, such as a three-course cocktail progression or paired cocktail-and-food experiences. “For sure this is still The Aviary; it’s just narrowed down and focused,” says Kokonas. He advises struggling businesses to similarly pare down. “Focus the experience you offer,” he says. “This is about building a bridge to the other side.”