Order a Martini at a legacy steakhouse and you’ll likely be served a conical stem filled with a cold, agitated spirit stuck to a soggy, disposable cocktail napkin. The surly bartender delivers your drink with perfectly calibrated steakhouse sassiness; you both know he could’ve made a better Martini. But in most of these establishments, you don’t come for the drinks anyway.
Diners rarely visit steakhouses to peer into the future of mixology; rather, they go to be comforted by the past. The old guard chophouses are temples of excess, where diners down call drinks prepared without a jigger in sight. While the stalwart Martinis and Old-Fashioneds still top the charts, bartenders in many modern steakhouses are looking beyond the tried-and-true with uniform success.
“We’ve found that more people are coming in early for their reservations because they want to have a drink at the bar,” says Westin Galleymore, an Anvil alum and the beverage director of Georgia James in Houston. “Going to a steakhouse is not an everyday thing for most people, especially during the pandemic. People want to have very singular nights, they want to go to one place with as few stops as possible,” he adds. Catering to these needs with a thoughtful drink menu is top of mind for the Houston restaurant.
The Smokie & Alice has been on the cocktail list at Georgia James since it opened in 2018 and exemplifies the creative spirit behind the bar. Named for an obscure song—“Living Next Door to Alice,” by the ’70s English rock band Smokie—the drink tastes like a kicked-up Penicillin made with Japanese whisky, peated Scotch and a housemade black tea syrup.
London import Hawksmoor’s first New York City location opened last fall with a Sour Cherry Negroni on the menu, which has since become one of the top sellers. The riff on the classic aperitif uses acid-adjusted sour cherry juice and rosé vermouth to put a contemporary spin on the familiar template. “Our approach is simplicity and flavor without inundating guests with obscure ingredients or long-winded descriptions,” says Ciarrai Kelly, Hawksmoor’s head bartender.
At Argentinian-inspired steakhouse El Che in Chicago, meanwhile, the beverage program celebrates South American flavors and traditions. Its Caramelized Rum Old-Fashioned is a nod to the Buenos Aires style, according to bar director Alex Cuper. “In Argentina, rum Old-Fashioneds are traditionally built by making a paste from Demerara sugar and Angostura, rolling it around the inside of the glass and caramelizing the sugar by lighting it on fire,” he explains. “It was often very difficult to find really good bourbon in Argentina, but they have more access to many great Caribbean, Central American and South American rums, so you see many bartenders using rum in its place.”
Complementing the bold, tangy flavors of the menu and the sizzling Korean-style grilled meats is central to the cocktails served at Cote, a Korean steakhouse in New York. Bar director Sondre Kasin looks for creative ways to incorporate distinctive Asian flavors into his cocktails, as in the Master Bandit, a soju-based Gimlet shaken with lemongrass, navy-strength gin and a saline solution made from diluted MSG.
Across the East River in Brooklyn, the recently opened Gage & Tollner is a reboot of a classic housed in the original restaurant space; one of the oldest in New York, the first restaurant bearing the name opened in 1879. Its bar program features a spare roster of throwback cocktails highlighting recipes that appeared on the original Gage & Tollner menus throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, with an emphasis on local spirits. Their Pink Lady, for example, uses Neversink gin and unaged apple brandy both distilled from New York state apples shaken with egg white, then topped with a few dashes of Peychaud’s bitters.
Steakhouse bars have also become exciting places not to drink. Finding respectable nonalcoholic options beyond the obligatory juice-based mocktails was once rare, but now drinks like the nonalcoholic Zirconia at Georgia James regularly feature alongside house Martinis and Old-Fashioneds. The spirit-free cocktail is built on a rotation of seasonal shrubs made from fruits and vegetables, such as persimmon and cucumber, then christened with a dash of CBD from Bayou City Hemp Co., a Houston-based CBD purveyor.
Just like the bars that produce them, the modern steakhouse cocktail is not one-dimensional. They offer unexpected twists on the traditional, complement a variety of cuisines and demonstrate a mindful approach to sustainability. But above all they are unified in their creativity, collectively ushering in the modern era of the steakhouse cocktail.