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Cocktails

What Is a Steakhouse Cocktail?

November 01, 2021

Story: Adam Reiner

photo: Lizzie Munro

Cocktails

What Is a Steakhouse Cocktail?

November 01, 2021

Story: Adam Reiner

photo: Lizzie Munro

Once bridled by uncompromising tradition, the modern steakhouse cocktail has evolved to meet a new moment.

Not long after the pandemic shut down restaurants in New York City, chef Angie Mar announced that she was replacing her opulent steakhouse, The Beatrice Inn, with a new concept next door, Les Trois Chevaux, that would abandon serving steak altogether. Mar had made her name as an evangelist for carnivorous consumption—notably, aging entire sides of prime beef wrapped in whiskey-soaked bandages—so it came as a shock to her ardent fan base that she was hanging up her cleaver. But with the climate crisis reaching a breaking point, the traditional framework of an American steakhouse was simply unsustainable.

Steakhouses have long stood as cathedrals of unapologetic extravagance, conduits for consuming copious amounts of saturated fat and unadulterated high-proof spirits. They are among the few realms in the restaurant world where change is considered compromise and modernity regressive. The go-big-or-go-home ethos of steakhouses has always been inherently escapist and essential to their allure, but finding luxurious hiding places is increasingly fraught as the sense of urgency builds around the need for more mindful consumption—cocktails included.

Prior to the pandemic, there’d been a wave of nostalgia for old-timey American chophouses and retro cocktails. The beverage programs in this era of the steakhouse dedicated themselves to refining the classics and preserving a glamorous past. Take, for instance, The Grill, which took over the iconic Four Seasons restaurant space in Midtown Manhattan and opened with an array of Martini variations like the Alaska and the Tuxedo, dispensed from elegant Christofle decanters. Today, every major contemporary steakhouse is still expected to have at least one permutation of a classic Old-Fashioned on its menu—be it fat-washed, dashed with proprietary tinctures or infused with a local maple syrup.

Hawksmoor, the recent London import to New York City’s Flatiron District, embraces the classics while carefully charting its own course to meet the moment. The menu begins with an array of “Highballs, Fizzes and Aperitifs,” plus, in recognition of the expected templates, “Ultimate” versions of Martinis, Gibsons and Manhattans that are “aged” by zapping the liquid with an ultrasonic jewelry cleaner. The batched cocktails are then hyperchilled below freezing and poured from insulated metal thermoses into slender Nick and Nora glasses. Hawksmoor’s own house classics, meanwhile, have been “remixed and refreshed” for the New York debut, according to the menu, including a riff on the Silver Bullet with Hepple Douglas fir–infused vodka and a 1970s throwback called The Wallflower, a leaner 2.0 version of the Harvey Wallbanger with Don Julio Blanco, jasmine and orange.

While some steakhouse bars cultivate a clubby atmosphere, Hawksmoor’s is focused on making the experience more approachable, according to Ciarrai Kelly, the head bartender, who left her post at the London bar to open the New York location. They’ve implemented what the team calls the “Mom Test,” where staff members send copies of the cocktail menu to their mothers for review, to ensure the descriptions are discernible for non-experts. “Gone are the days when you need to have 17 different bottle-grabs for one cocktail,” says Kelly. “Our approach is simplicity and flavor without inundating people with obscure ingredients or long-winded descriptions. No one wants to wait 20 minutes for a drink in a steakhouse.”

Sustainability, too, is a point of emphasis for these new-styled steakhouses. Mirroring the kitchen’s commitment to serving only ethically sourced, pasture-reared beef, both Hawksmoor locations—initially inspired by the sustainability-minded cocktail collective Trash Tiki—have focused on minimizing waste and reducing their reliance on fresh fruit flown in from distant locales.

The Empire Sour and the Ultimate Manhattan from New York's Hawksmoor are emblematic of a new breed of steakhouse cocktail.

The new restaurant’s Empire Sour, a nod to the classic New York Sour, is featured on the menu’s “New York State (Of Mind)” section, which showcases in-state distilleries and purveyors. The drink incorporates Brooklyn-made Ragtime Rye and Current Cassis, a black currant liqueur from the Hudson Valley, and forgoes fresh lemon juice in favor of cordial made with citric acid. The vinegary kick of verjus imparts the tang of a shaken sour when the cocktail only sees a quick stir over a big rock.

As steakhouses have evolved beyond a monolithic appearance, so have their cocktails. To complement a wider variety of cuisines centered around steak, the modern steakhouse cocktail is more versatile than ever before. Mia Van de Water, the head of beverage operations at Cote Korean Steakhouse in New York City, emphasizes that the restaurant’s cocktail list is carefully calibrated to suit the menu of modern Korean barbecue. “The flavors of Korean cuisine are more intense than those of the classic American steakhouse,” says Van de Water. “We’ve built the cocktail program to mesh harmoniously with them.”

At Cote, Sondre Kasin, the principal bartender at both the New York and Miami locations, conceives of new cocktails with an eye toward showcasing uniquely Asian flavors like ume plums and perilla leaves, and presents them within the framework of a modern steakhouse, where prized cuts of beef are seasoned with more than just salt and pepper. Kasin cites the Master Bandit as an example, which incorporates Hwayo Soju, navy-strength gin, lemongrass syrup, lime and even a trace of MSG. “MSG makes everything taste better,” adds Van de Water.

At El Che Steakhouse in Chicago, a 12-foot Argentinian-inspired grill is the beating heart of the restaurant. Beverage director Alex Cuper is always imagining new ways to incorporate the live fire into his drink menu. As a playful nod to the popularity of Fernet-Branca & Coke in Buenos Aires, Cuper created the #4 With A Smile; the twist on the Toronto cocktail uses smoked Fernet, made by pouring it into a hotel pan and submerging for over an hour under the fumes of the asado, and a concentrated Coca-Cola syrup stirred together with rye. It captures a playful streak and inventiveness that’s been absent from the staid, humorless steakhouse bars of the old guard that choose comfort over innovation.

The pandemic has also changed the way people don’t drink in steakhouses. Hawksmoor and Cote both have invested significantly in developing zero-ABV cocktail options. “Guests who choose not to consume alcohol ought to be able to have as many delicious options as those that do,” says Van de Water, who notes that Cote’s bar has seen a sizeable increase in nonalcoholic beverage sales compared to 2019. Hawskmoor, meanwhile, has introduced an impressive roster of “Temperates,” including the Mother Mule, a riff on the Moscow Mule that incorporates SOM Ginger, a drinking vinegar from Portland, Oregon.

As recently as five years ago, to offer even one nonalcoholic cocktail on a steakhouse menu would have been a rarity; a dedicated menu unthinkable. That these drinks share real estate with conventional cocktails signals a dramatic sea change. And while the steakhouse is often embraced as a cherished artifact of the “glory days,” nostalgia can get thorny. Indeed, the spectacle of monstrous dry-aged tomahawks parading through the dining room behind roving gueridons for tableside cocktail service seems out of touch in today’s climate. In response, the best steakhouse bar programs across the country are finding ways to challenge tradition as much as they pay respect to it. After all, as delicious as they can be, having an Old-Fashioned every time you dine at a steakhouse is, well, a bit old-fashioned.

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Adam Reiner is the founder of The Restaurant Manifesto blog where he writes about life in the service industry and hospitality culture. His written work has also appeared in Food & Wine, TASTE, Plate Magazine and Edible Manhattan. He lives in New York City.