The Method Behind the “Bartender’s Choice” Cocktail Bar

In a few select bars around the country, menus have been replaced by conversation between customer and bartender. Drew Lazor explores where the concept of "bartender's choice" cocktail bars originated, and how drink-makers navigate the path from a collection of nouns and adjectives to an original cocktail.

bartender's choice cocktail bar

A guy walks into a restaurant. He sits down at a table, and a waiter quickly descends on him, bill of fare in hand. Turns out this guy doesn’t even need it. “I’ll take chicken parm inspired by the color of my aura—whatever you see with your third eye,” he instructs the server authoritatively. “But I’m starting with soup. My favorite movie is Roman Polanski’s The Tenant, and I assume the kitchen does something with that. Oh, and for sides, I’m a Taurus and I dabble in rock climbing. Dessert-wise… feeling mildly crestfallen this evening, so whatever you recommend.”

What sounds like a rejected Portlandia sketch is a professional reality for Lauren Scott, the bar manager at Angel Face in Portland, Oregon. Patrons will cite their metaphysical glow, current emotional state or favorite Star Wars quote when requesting a cocktail from her—because, unlike at our fake restaurant, there’s no spelled-out list of drinks to serve as a starting point. It’s one of a handful of bars in the United States that prefers a highly personalized, free-form style of cocktail service, no physical menu required. And when there’s no hard copy, bartenders at these places will tell you, things can get difficult.

Given the contemporary prevalence of leather-bound cocktail tomes, it might seem safe to assume that the off-the-top style was one favored by the bartenders of yore, back before many drinks we enjoy today even existed. Turns out the printed cocktail menu has been around nearly as long as cocktails themselves. In Imbibe, David Wondrich digs up “fancy drinks” lists offered in New York and Boston bars in the 1830s and ’40s; he cites a circa-1863 bar in D.C. that had a menu of 83 choices, a figure that’s ambitious even by today’s standards.

So when did the customer-dictated approach often referred to as “bartender’s choice” start to become a thing? Hard to say exactly, but luckily there’s a bit of living history with which to work. Bryant’s Cocktail Lounge in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, has been open since 1938. Its founder, Bryant Sharp, introduced a no-menu policy on day one, and current owner John Dye felt it was important to keep it that way when he purchased the place eight years ago.

“One time, someone said, ‘I want something that looks and tastes like a penis,’” says Star. “Sorry, I don’t really know what that tastes like—I’m a lesbian.”

“He just thought it limited people’s experiences,” says Dye, whose employees consult a dog-eared Rolodex kept behind the bar when choosing from their repertoire of 500-plus drinks, ranging from temperance-time classics to blender drinks made with ice cream. “And it’s really dark in here. I don’t think people could read a menu if they wanted to.”

Moving into modernity, the individual most associated with bartender’s choice is the late Sasha Petraske, whose Milk & Honey, which opened on New Year’s Eve 1999, popularized the philosophy among booze-conscious Manhattanites. Funny origin story here, too: “When Sasha first did it, it was famously because he couldn’t operate a laser printer. He wasn’t actually capable of printing a menu in the first place,” says Sam Ross, a Milk & Honey bartender who now operates the similarly attuned Attaboy at the same Lower East Side address.

Regardless of what inspires a cocktail bar to go paperless, the guidelines for how to do it right seem to stick across the board.

For starters, strict head counts are vital to these bars providing the proper experience. “It’s a very intricate thing that really can only work when you have a certain ratio of staff to customer,” says Ross. Attaboy is at capacity once the room hits about 35; pile in an extra five to 10 drinkers, Ross says, and “I really don’t think we could keep up with that same level of service.”

Once the math is settled, it’s all about interpreting the prompts customers provide—or, on a more elemental level, making them feel comfortable enough to provide such prompts in the first place. “The point is to have a conversation and get you drinking what you like drinking,” says Angel Face’s Scott.

Easier said than done.

Customers with some grasp on how bartender’s choice works tend to utter the same phrases over and over. Vodka, not too sweet. Spicy with tequila. Gin and interesting. Something with whiskey. But others, intimidated by the scope of the open-source format, will blank when asked for their order. It’s here that a very specialized skill vital to the function of these bars—a combination of hand-holding, verbal salesmanship and Holmesian deductive reasoning—comes into play.

“One of my favorite methods is to start with what they already drink,” says Ezra Star, the bar manager at Boston’s Drink, which also has no menu. This helps immensely—even if the answer is not a cocktail, or even a spirit. Star will coax a pinot grigio drinker over to a light and refreshing option, or point a porter fan toward a Vieux Carré, which possess comparable dark and roasty characteristics.

Joslynne Kauilani, of Bar Marco in Pittsburgh, pulls from a call-and-response repertoire of cocktails that have proven track record. Long Island Iced Tea people like the Stiletto, an easy-drinking whiskey-amaretto-citrus concoction. Jack and Coke types tend to take to amari. And there’s a notable amount of overlap between people who love Cosmos and people who love a good Aviation. (To guard against sticker shock, Bar Marco’s cocktails cost $13 across the board; most choice-driven places follow a flat-pricing rubric, or make sure customers are aware of upcharges before they order.)

Ross, who estimates that only about five percent of Attaboy customers call their drinks by name, finds that walking a timid patron through two general “forks in the road”—light or dark spirit, and bright/citrus-y or stirred/spirit-forward—will almost always result in someone landing on something they love. They’re often the oldest drinks in the (non-existent) book. “We definitely have some go-to classics that if you don’t like, [you] probably won’t like any cocktail,” says Attaboy bartender Dan Greenbaum. Ross’ tried-and-true “crowd pleasers” in this regard include riffs on the Queen’s Park Swizzle and Dark ‘n’ Stormy.

Following these strategies ensures that almost every request can be handled. Almost. “One time, someone said, ‘I want something that looks and tastes like a penis,’” says Star. “Sorry, I don’t really know what that tastes like—I’m a lesbian.”

With preferences of all kinds varying wildly, what exactly is the point of operating a cocktail bar under such unpredictable conditions? Wouldn’t it be easier, physically and psychologically, to plunk down a menu and wander off, returning once a fully realized round is ready to fire?

“I really enjoy interaction with customers,” says Scott, echoing identical sentiments shared by her menu-less compatriots. Yes, it’s more taxing, but the rewards—the satisfaction of nailing a drink pick, exposing people to new stuff and cultivating regulars in the process—are sweet enough to keep them going.

“It gets frustrating sometimes, but all in all, it makes us who we are,” says Dye. “You have to love that.”

OTHER STORIES YOU MAY LIKE:

Is the Era of the Bar Manual Over?
The Art of the Unmeasured Cocktail
The Return of the Tableside Bar Cart
What Does Mise en Place Mean in Cocktail Bars?

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