The Return of the Tableside Bar Cart

In old-school European restaurants the bar trolley has never truly gone out of style. But it's only recently that it's made a comeback in modern American restaurants. Carey Jones uncovers what's behind the tableside cocktail trend.

I’ve rarely seen anything so civilized, I thought, when the gentleman wheeled up the amaro cart. It was five years ago, after a lunch in Puglia that stretched into the early evening, as the best Italian lunches always do. I hadn’t anticipated a digestivo, but with such a spread—easily two-dozen bottles, and at a time when Montenegro and Zucca were still something of a rarity stateside—I couldn’t turn down a few fingers of Amaro Nonino.

At such pleasantly antiquated restaurants, the bar cart has never truly gone out of style. (Of course, in Puglia, the four-hour lunch hasn’t either.) I remember being charmed by a silver Champagne cart at the Ciragan Palace Kempinski overlooking the Bopshorus in Istanbul and by a cordial trolley at an old-world Anguilla hotel.

The appeal is undeniable: It’s hard to resist a drink that’s already in front of you.

But only recently has the liquor cart made a comeback at more modern American restaurants. At Bourbon Steak in Washington, DC, it’s a custom-built bourbon trolley, highlighting the steakhouse’s large whiskey selection. At the Connaught Hotel in London, it’s a Martini trolley, showcasing a few select gins and the hotel’s own label of Italian vermouth.

Some modern American bartenders see it as an extension of bottle service—perhaps not a flawed concept in theory, but a troubled comparison considering that bottle service is now typified by exclusionary attitudes and inflated prices.

Stratus, a lounge atop the Hotel Monaco in Philadelphia, recently began tableside cocktail service, with a fleet including hydraulic bar carts whose surface lifts up to reveal a full bar setup. At the moment, the service is for private tables by reservation only, with costs beginning at around $350, which is about as expensive as your typical Grey Goose and mixers at a nightclub.

Yet it isn’t just bottle service. Alongside a curated spirit come house cordials, specialty mixes and garnishes, as well as a bartender to shake or stir it up for you.

Kevin Gillespie’s Gunshow in Atlanta takes its cue from the State Bird model and goes one step further with chefs themselves delivering dishes. On the drinks front, there is no physical bar or even a service station—just a single cocktail cart, which head bartender Mercedes O’Brien wheels around the dining room during service.

So too at The NoMad in Manhattan, which recently won a James Beard award for its bar program. “I think the idea of bottle service traditionally is a good concept,” says bar director Leo Robitschek. “It’s communal; it’s social; it’s you and your friends getting together around drinks. But it gets a bad name because it’s usually terribly overpriced and poorly executed.”

The NoMad upgraded the typically blasé bottle service experience by allowing guests the opportunity to experience drinks equal to the caliber of those on the menu. Those who opt for table service are presented a cart with one bottle and multiple mixers—say, gin plus traditional tonic and ginger ale, along with housemade cocktail mixes to create classics like a Southside or Negroni—and are given the option to either craft their own cocktails or employ the services of a bartender.

The self-serve, bottle service-inspired cart seems an outgrowth of high-volume bars in search of higher standards. But there’s been a larger move toward tableside service in the food industry as well. At State Bird Provisions in San Francisco, the vast majority of the menu is served from carts rolled up to each table, dim-sum style; Má Pêche in New York recently followed suit. Other restaurants, such as Carbone and Quality Italian in Manhattan, have also adopted the showmanship of tableside service, igniting flambés in the dining room and serving Caesar salads à la minute.

Fine dining no longer fits into a single white-tablecloth model. Even steeply priced, highly regarded establishments such as Eleven Madison Park and Torrisi Italian Specialties weave an experiential element into their meals—an element of dinner theater, if you will—where the manner in which courses are presented figures into the experience as heavily as the courses themselves.

Kevin Gillespie’s Gunshow in Atlanta takes its cue from the State Bird model and goes one step further with chefs themselves delivering dishes. On the drinks front, there is no physical bar or even a service station—just a single cocktail cart, which head bartender Mercedes O’Brien wheels around the dining room during service.

While Gunshow’s serving system is a dramatic departure from the traditional diner-server-kitchen dynamic, O’Brien sees her “booze trolley” as an opportunity to connect with guests she might not otherwise have the time to engage with from across a busy bar. By rolling up table side, and explaining the three cocktails that rotate weekly—rather than handing out a menu—curious diners appreciate the chance to converse and learn. “If you look at a drink menu, it can be intimidating,” says O’Brien. “It’s easier to ask directly ‘What is Chartreuse, exactly?’ than to flag down a bartender or server.”

Bartenders both create and serve drinks; and by paying each table a visit, the mobile bartender can establish a rapport with every customer over the course of an evening. “You know the two people right in front of your station at a bar—who ask questions about every cocktail you make, and end up trying something they never would?” O’Brien says. “With the booze trolley, every table gets to be those two customers.”

Education is one thing, but entertainment is another. Watching a bartender work is half the fun and putting the bar on wheels allows a restaurant the opportunity to take the show on the road. Conversations transpire and relationships are formed in a manner they may not have otherwise. And whether from a chef, a waiter or a bartender, there’s no denying it: showmanship is a powerful sell.