Nicole Franzen
The Dauphin cocktail at Le Boudoir in New York CIty

A Cocktail Culture Revolution

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Too much of a good thing may be just the right mix, at least when it involves replicating bygone eras and nostalgic icons.
By Alia Akkam September 2016 Spirits

To evade steep taxes in the early 1970s, the Rolling Stones fled the United Kingdom and temporarily decamped to Villa Nellcôte, an ornate sanctuary on the Côte D’Azur. This gilded Belle Époque mansion, where they recorded the album Exile on Main St., is the inspiration for Nellcôte, a Chicago restaurant fittingly adorned with marble and chandeliers. Likewise Estrella—a shout-out to the name mentioned in Joni Mitchell’s “Ladies of the Canyon”—opened last year in West Hollywood and flaunts a bohemian vibe. Estrella’s outdoor terrace, complete with a golden wood trellis and twinkling lights, is meant to channel LA’s bygone hippy era that was defined by personalities like Mama Cass. 

Cultural touchstones have long bestowed bars and restaurants with distinct personalities. Consider the rock and roll–infused behemoth Hard Rock Café International, or the breezy, Polynesian-style tiki bar–concept Trader Vic’s. 

Themed establishments draw in customers, curious tourists, and nostalgic locals alike, with a menu and décor that together conjure specific people, pastimes, and periods. While a niche approach can easily veer into gimmicky territory, many savvy entrepreneurs realize that embracing such a narrow focus can be a boon to business. A culturally induced ethos, when executed with precision, has the power to resonate with guests, taking them on an immersive journey. Additionally, as the food and drink scene grows even more competitive, a tailored vision is one way of standing out. 

In New York City, for instance, the newcomer Beetle House is an ode to director Tim Burton, luring in a Halloween-loving Gothic crowd who come for the egg and Sriracha cream–topped Edward Burger Hands, and stay for the Coco Skellington (Bacardi rum, crème de coconut, lime juice, orange blossom, crushed ice, and orange zest). The owners of Beetle House are also behind the nearby Stay Classy New York, a bar that channels actor Will Ferrell through drinks such as There’s a Bear Loose in the Coliseum (gin, tonic, lime, sea salt) and amplified by paintings like that of Ferrell’s protagonist in “Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy” dressing the walls. The trending of themed concepts bodes well for New York’s Rue La Rue Café, the forthcoming “Golden Girls”–themed restaurant that pairs memorabilia and cheesecake. After all, Saved By The Max, the Chicago pop-up diner and bar dispensing the likes of Lisa Turtle milkshakes, was a successful way of paying homage to “Saved By The Bell.” 

Historical Backdrops

Pop culture is one obvious and often flashy way of bonding with a wide swath of like-minded guests. Some owners, however, prefer to take a subtler, more meaningful route. The Pastry War in Houston is named after a circa-1838 conflict between Mexico and France, and as a result the mezcaleria celebrates Mexico with a smattering of French touches.

“Frequently, establishments that thematically replicate foreign cultures or settings do so to create a pseudo-experience that differentiates their establishments from commonplace bar experiences,” says co-owner Bobby Heugel. “The problem is that their motivation is sales-based. Our goal is to pay tribute to people we find to be inspiring in Mexico: mezcaleros, bars, and friends. There’s a connection to an actual person with every single drink, spirit, and piece of art.” That’s why The Pastry War’s drinks are “less about applying Mexican spirits to American archetypes and more about building cocktails that help guests to experience traditional beverages that are actually served in Mexico,” he says. Even the bar’s design puts artifacts made by Mexican folk artists in the spotlight.

Nicole Franzen

Heugel and his partners run a number of successful bars throughout the city under the Clumsy Butcher umbrella, yet he asserts that The Pastry War was never intended to make a ton of money. “Our goal is to be a lightning rod,” he explains, “to support our friends in Mexico, to prove that quality agave decisions have a place in American bars, and to compile a spirits list that endorses specific brands and encourages other bars to do the same, while challenging those who say it can’t be done or [won’t] take the time to do so.”

This devotion to craftsmanship is also on display at Le Boudoir, set underneath the Brooklyn bistro Chez Moi. Evocative of Marie Antoinette, it’s a moody space that calls to mind the queen’s private Versailles chambers, awash in velvet, gold-trimmed mirrors, and sconces salvaged from a chateau. Bartender Franky Marshall’s elegant cocktails are just as aristocratically minded, served in crystal and silver-plated goblets. The Sans Culottes (infused blanc vermouth, Campari, lemon, ginger syrup) paves the way for the Guillotine (mezcal, Scotch, banane, honey).

Far more obscure than Madame Déficit is Venture Smith, an 18th-century slave who, at 10 years old, was captured and sold for a stash of rum and calico cloth. Once his hard work paid off and he was set free, Smith became an entrepreneur and fathered two sons, Solomon and Kuff. This tale of gumption led to the recent arrival of New York restaurant Solomon & Kuff, where more than 100 rums complement a West Indian–centric menu. Co-owner and bartender Karl Franz Williams, who runs the operation with partner Julie Grunberger, says, “We’re not trying to create a culture, we are part of the Caribbean culture. I am Caribbean; our chef is Caribbean, as is our designer. We have an actual understanding and know what is important to emphasize without being heavy handed, both with the food and drink and the aesthetic.” Here, cocktails like the My Mother Ruined My Tonic (gin, bay leaf and sage reduction, mango, lime, agricole, tonic) heighten dishes such as the slow-cooked red grouper with smoked breadfruit and “coco bread” sammies. 

“As this landscape becomes more diluted and commonplace, we focus on ways to elevate and showcase. A Caribbean rum-focused bar enables us to go deeper into the spirit and explore combinations, flavors, and techniques that you wouldn’t find elsewhere,” Williams explains.

Spawning a bar or restaurant in the name of a specific historical figure is certainly ambitious, as is dreaming up one that abides by a more inclusive premise. For example, the Reading Room—inside the Washington, D.C., neighborhood bar the Petworth Citizen—teems with bibliophiles on weekends, when bartender Chantal Tseng churns out literary cocktails that bring to life the works of such authors as Roald Dahl and James Joyce. A recent evening honored Maurice Sendak, for which Tseng crafted the Outside Over There (Linie Aquavit, Contratto Blanco Vermouth, fresh grapefruit, chamomile-honey syrup). 

Meanwhile, in New York City, Giuseppe González’s Suffolk Arms is a gushing love note to his hometown, filled with hand-drawn portraits of local celebrities, including artist Keith Haring. Easy-drinking cocktails like the Horse Apple, in which a guest’s spirit of choice is united with Granny Smith apple and horseradish, are sipped alongside foods from matzoh ball soup to a mélange of fries and chopped hot dogs that are reminiscent of the motley Lower East Side neighborhood. Midnight Rambler, inside the Joule Hotel in Dallas, also adheres to the holistic and mindful curation process exercised by its owners, Chad Solomon and Christy Pope. “We created Midnight Rambler to reflect the thread of our personal reference points of Rock & Soul, Max’s Kansas City, and living in New York City—and infused [the concept] with the locality and rich history of Dallas,” says Solomon. He adds that the city was home to Blind Lemon Jefferson, is one of only two places where Robert Johnson recorded, and served as a major tour hub for bands throughout the 1960s and 70s. 

Whether it’s the coasters fashioned from old vinyl or drinks like the Good Night & Good Luck (rye, Cognac, Amaro Lazzaroni, single-origin cold brew) doubling as the house digestif, every detail traces back to the owners’ point of view, which Solomon says “comes from an honest place, and it’s an organic springboard, not a fixed box.” He adds that this focus can indeed be critical to helping an establishment rise above the fray, but cautions, “It can be a tightrope to walk in terms of expectations. You have to continually work to be consistent.”