If you could pick two taps for beer at your restaurant, what would they be? What would those selections say about you?
Would you choose an obscure IPA from a tiny microbrewery? Would you choose a a big domestic beer that would satisfy a broad customer base? Or perhaps both?
The choices bars and restaurants make determine the atmosphere the owners are trying to create. How does that restaurant want to make the customer feel? Curated bars and restaurants consciously make choices that reflect an expression of identity.
Take as a working example, Balthazar in New York City. This venerated French bistro and lower Manhattan institution executes breakfast, lunch, and dinner in an elevated, yet approachable manner seven days a week. As a rule, they offer Stella Artois on draft. Now, I don't personally drink Stella at home or purchase it at the store, but I find myself always holding a cold, perfectly poured Stella in appropriate glassware whenever I'm at Balthazar.
Perhaps it's Balthazar's deep rouge banquettes or its golden, old world glamour. Perhaps it's brilliant marketing or brand recognition. Perhaps, it’s just muscle memory, and that's what I order by default when I am there…
Whatever the case may be, Stella Artois is intrinsically linked in my imagination to that specific restaurant. Balthazar has made a tap beer selection that speaks volumes to who they are and more importantly, the way in which they want their customer to feel.
For this aging writer, when I'm at Balthazar drinking Stella, I feel like I'm in the dining car somewhere in Central Europe traveling by rail…
A second working example is the world famous cocktail bar and restaurant, Employees Only, nestled in New York City’s West Village.
Over ten years ago, Employees Only was founded by a group of bartenders who worked previously at Keith McNally’s now defunct Pravda in the Soho neighborhood of Manhattan. They were a blue collar bunch, originally hailing from an Eastern European diaspora including Bosnia, Serbia, Croatia, Montenegro, and the Czech Republic. They wanted to create a bar and environment for fellow members of the hospitality industry.
A place where a person could grab a wonderful bite and a stiff drink into the wee hours of the morning when many bartenders and fellow hospitality folks tend to get off for the night.
Hence, the adoption of the name, Employees Only.
The beer selection communicates to a customer the element of family and heritage interwoven in the owners' story.”
The owners decided to forgo a tap beer system entirely, instead highlighting the importance and craftsmanship in their signature cocktails.
However, staying true to the spirit of their Eastern European heritage, the guys elected to offer two beers by the bottle: Spaten and Pilsner Urquell.
The choice is a wonderful homage to their collective ancestry and lends the bar a certain grace of home.
Employees Only has always described itself as a family, and on any given night at the restaurant, one can find a number of young or new employees who have recently moved to the United States from various spots in Eastern Europe. In this way, Employees Only has emerged as a émigré hub in Manhattan. The nucleus to a larger expatriate community looking to recreate some semblance of legacy. The beer selection communicates to a customer the element of family and heritage interwoven in the owners' story.
Articulating "what a restaurant is" through beer selection can be a tricky thing especially given a new restaurant in an emerging neighborhood.
Take, as a third and final illustration, Café Roze, a brand new concept in the quickly gentrifying east side neighborhood of the culinary “it” city of the moment, Nashville, Tennessee.
Café Roze was borne out of a fondness for the all day cafes found throughout Scandinavia.
It offers locally sourced and seasonally fresh cuisine and has emerged as a popular destination in a creative neighborhood that refuses to be stereotyped or pinned down. On any given day, the restaurant feeds a clientele ranging from elder Southern belles to record producers meeting for a working lunch.
The restaurant only has two taps, and needed two beers that could cater to a wide variety of folks. It also wanted to make a choice that reflected the character of the café as truly embodying a 'neighborhood joint.'
As with the best of things in life, Julia Jaksic, Cafe Roze's owner and chef, decided on a high and low aesthetic that hinted at the diversity and demand of the East Nashville neighborhood she calls home.
She chose Black Abbey Rose Ale and Pabst Blue Ribbon.
Each selection is made with the question of 'who are we?' at the center of the decision making process.”
The Belgian blonde ale from Black Abbey is straight from a brewery native to Nashville, and serves as the perfect complement to Jaksic’s predominately light menu. Although Jaksic initially chose the beer because of its name, she quickly discovered that it was a very drinkable Belgian white ale, and knew “it would appeal to many people.”
It also suggests something of the local aspect engrained in the nature of the café. If the restaurant is meant to cater to a specific Nashville neighborhood, a local selection on draft was essential.
Pabst Blue Ribbon is of course, the democratic choice. As Jaksic describes it, “PBR is a solid beer that can be sold at a really affordable price.”
The restaurant doesn’t want anyone to feel uncomfortable. After all, it’s supposed to be a neighborhood joint, and as Jaksic identifies in her definition of what a café means to her, a place where “anyone may step in.”
Whether it’s the the fantasy of Europe in Stella Artois at Balthazar, the link to heritage at Employees Only, or the neighborhood vibe at Café Roze, each tap selection should be made with the question of 'who are we?' at the center of the decision making process.
Not only is it fascinating, but the idea that a choice of beer can somehow inform a customer’s experience or transport them to a different place harkens back to the reason we go out to eat or drink beer in the first place. If only for a moment, we lose a sense of ourselves..…
We feel different.