The Rise of the Fast-Casual Cocktail Bar

Now that drinkers have grown accustomed to cocktails made with fresh ingredients and top-notch skills, bar-owners are starting to offer them in more casual settings—often right alongside their high-end counterparts. From NYC's The Happiest Hour to LA's Honeycut, Leah Mennies on what's fueling the boom of "fast-casual" cocktail bars.

fast casual cocktail bars illustration natalie nelson

If you order the Tahitian Coffee for Two at the subterranean cocktail bar Slowly Shirley, what arrives is as much spectacle as cocktail: a curvaceous Chemex coffeemaker, here acting as a jumbo-sized glass, domed with crushed ice and filled with a mixture of high-end aged rum, pisco, cold-brewed coffee and a slew of fresh juices and housemade syrups. The pricetag for the cocktail (which is portioned to serve two): $35, or $17.50 per person.

Upstairs from Slowly Shirley is the Happiest Hour, from the same owners, where there’s a menu of greatest hits—Sazeracs, Manhattans, Tom Collinses, etc.—offered alongside a slew of thoughtful soda-based mixers ready to be customized with the well spirit of the patron’s choice. Old-Fashioneds come from a keg, and cocktail slushies are served in tiki mugs. The standard price for all of those? $12.

To place Slowly Shirley on the restaurant-style spectrum of high to low, it would squarely fall into the camp of fine dining, with its elaborate serviceware, well-known bartenders, cushy leather banquettes and pricey spirits and liqueurs. “If a drink has a lot of expensive ingredients in it, you have to charge more,” says partner and head bartender, Jim Kearns, by way of simple explanation. “Same as a plate of food—you don’t expect to go to Eleven Madison Park or Gramercy Tavern and have the blue-plate special.”

When it comes to food, diners who save up for a splurge-worthy meal at Eleven Madison Park still want something high-quality when they’re on their lunch break—hence the rising popularity of upscale fast-casual concepts like Superiority Burger, Fuku and, of course, Shake Shack.

If Slowly Shirley is Eleven Madison Park, does that make the Happiest Hour Shake Shack? While one bar helps the other in terms of back-end costs, it also helps absorb the wallet sting associated with going out for drinks in recent years, as the rising costs of goods and skyrocketing rents mean that it’s increasingly rare to get a $12 cocktail in a high-end cocktail bar.

Kearns, it turns out, is onto something here. The first wave of the cocktail movement was about educating the public that a great drink—with quality spirits, fresh juice and expert craftsmanship—was worth savoring in a reverential space. But the paradigm has shifted—now that urban drinkers have become accustomed to properly diluted drinks and fresh citrus, they expect a good drink nearly everywhere.

Bartender TJ Lynch is looking to bring a dance bar, Good Love, to Bushwick next year. The plan is to have about 80 percent of its cocktails served from kegs, slushie machines and by the can. Prices will be in the $10-$11 range, and to negate breakage issues, glassware will be acrylic. “I think the market now could handle it—if you tried to do it five years ago, people would have said ‘Go fuck yourself,’” Lynch says of his plan for Good Love. “People would have thought you were giving them a shitty product, but now people understand more about it… I think they’re warmed up to it.”

What’s resulted is a wave of bars that land on the extremes—sometimes within the same space—that both rely on experiential environments to offer more to the customer. It’s a mindset that’s essential for a value-driven experience, says David Kaplan of Proprietors LLC (Death & Co., Nitecap, Honeycut and more), noting that the operator is likely making a better margin on the $12 drink than the $18 drink anyway.

Championing the fast-casual model (or, as he calls it, “quality of volume”) is TJ Lynch of Mother’s Ruin, where cocktails (including those on draft and dispensed from a slushie machine) are $13 across the board and served in a boisterous, no-frills atmosphere. “I think when you charge $18 for a drink, no matter the justification, you’re an asshole,” Lynch says. He’s offering drinks as low as $9 in Bushwick, at his new spot Lorenzo’s (something that admittedly wouldn’t be possible in Manhattan). And he’s selling a lot of them—last year at Mother’s Ruin “we served something like 72,000 cocktails,” he says.

For his part, Lynch is looking to bring a dance bar, Good Love, to Bushwick next year. The plan is to have about 80 percent of its cocktails served from kegs, slushie machines and by the can. Prices will be in the $10-$11 range, and to negate breakage issues, glassware will be acrylic.

“I think the market now could handle it—if you tried to do it five years ago, people would have said ‘Go fuck yourself,’” Lynch says of his plan for Good Love. “People would have thought you were giving them a shitty product, but now people understand more about it… I think they’re warmed up to it.”

On the other end of the spectrum is Proprietors’ newest LA venture, The Walker Inn, which requires reservations for its omakase-style tasting menus ($65, with a la carte drinks at $20) which include price-is-no-object drinks like the Rosé All Day, which contains, among many other components, watermelon blended with German white wine that’s then centrifuged, and watermelon “hydrosol” distilled in a rotary evaporator.

But like Slowly Shirley, The Walker Inn is tucked in the back of The Normandie Club, a more-casual lounge serving $12-$14 riffs on spritzes, Manhattans and other classics. An even-more casual recent Proprietors concept, Manhattan’s 151, offers trays of test-tube shooters and $8 shorty slushies. All concepts are targeted at the same demographic. “We are the type of clientele that would love to go to 151 and have a casual silly Friday night or any night of the week, and at the same time would love to go on a date or with a few friends to a bar like The Walker Inn,” Kaplan says.

But even if the customer is ready to move to a fast-casual cocktail scenario, does something get lost along the way? PDT’s Jim Meehan thinks so, comparing visiting a craft cocktail bar to sitting in front of a skilled sushi chef. “I don’t think the most valuable cocktail experience translates into sort of a fast-casual option. There’s nothing fast or casual about the best Martini you’ve ever had,” he says. “To me, there is something very slow and sacred about it. Can it be scaled? Sure! Has it been scaled in the last five years? Yes. Is it as valuable a commodity when it is scaled? No.” 

That said, the fine-dining cocktail bar model is much tougher to keep afloat: the drinks are more expensive to make, the trappings more expensive to maintain, the labor more expensive to train. And with rents continuing to rise, there’s only so long until the $15 drink becomes the $17 drink. And even if that $17 price is entirely justified, it still doesn’t mean that a consumer will be willing to pay it. “I think there’s always going to be a place for those types of bars,” Lynch says. “I just think the widespread acceptance of that right now just can’t last.”

Even at the “fine-dining” level, Meehan admits that there’s a cap to how much you can get a consumer to spend on a cocktail. PDT’s drinks started at $11 when they opened in 2007; now they are $15, a price that hasn’t been raised in a couple of years. “If rents continue to rise, and no one either from the private or public sector realizes what the value of restaurants and bars are in places like Manhattan, then Manhattan will be filled with Applebees in 20 years,” he says. “The consumer isn’t going to afford it and [operators] can’t do business at these costs.”

If that’s the case, the fast-casual concept might just save the special-occasion bar. The Walker Inn is made possible because of its back-end relationship with the Normandie Club. “I think if you just look at the numbers at a place like that, it’s really hard for it to be independently self-sustaining,” Kaplan says. “If you look across the board, it’s kind of the only way the model works.”

In Philadelphia, the seated-only cocktail bar, Franklin & Mortgage Investment Company, recently transformed its upstairs space into a separate, more-casual entity called The Upstairs Bar, where it serves $10 cocktails, $4 happy-hour boilermakers and cheap beer. With two outlets, the concern of alienating a customer with something too esoteric is ameliorated, general manager Sarah Justice says, which has allowed her push the downstairs even further, adding elements like cocktail tasting menus.

Justice argues that the ability have a shot of Old Granddad and a High Life pony upstairs or a $15 gin, Bonal and Chartreuse-based Starbuck Swizzle from a dedicated server downstairs is only a good thing. “More people are familiar with cocktails now, more people want to drink them, and they should totally exist in a bar that’s more casual as well,” she says. “They can exist in both places. And that’s cool.”

OTHER COCKTAIL STORIES YOU MAY LIKE:

Bar Design in the Post-Speakeasy Era
How Cocktail Bars Are Borrowing Each Others’ Style
Garnishes Gone Wild: The Changing Aesthetics of the Cocktail
Inside London’s Growing Crop of Experimental Cocktail Bars
Creating the Closed-Loop Cocktail

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  • angloamerican

    As an Atlanta-raised bartender, the idea idea of charging over about $13 USD for a cocktail is ludicrous to me, save maybe for one rarified menu slot (the $38 ribeye of the cocktail menu). It’s whats driven me slowly away from cocktail-anchored menus after moving to London, especially combined with a culture that treats cocktails like Americans treat champagne. Its definitely justified by cost, and it isn’t [always] intentional snobbery, but slinging £12 drinks to the kind of people who can afford £12 drinks is no way to live.