5 Trends That Could Set Your Bar Apart

From craft ciders to cell-phone-free zones, these ideas are gaining steam.
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As your drink menus get better, learn ways to make sure customers keep coming back. (Photo: Eugene Lee)

Bars in the United States have arguably never been better. Drinks are well made by talented bar staff, beer and wine lists are carefully created by pro sommeliers, beverage directors and owners, and customers are enjoying the results.

Now that good drinks — be they cocktails, beer, wine or ciders — are easy to find, standing out requires creating an experience that will attract guests and keep them coming back.

Here are five trends that could help you differentiate yourself.

“Statement” drink menus

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Paul Calvert, partner at Ticonderoga Club in Atlanta, suggests using smaller menus to keep things clearer and easier. (Photo: Andrew Thomas Lee)

Just as chefs are putting in time to create menus that make a statement, so too are the people behind the bar.

“We try to keep our menu small and really clearly designed around choices that we have actively made,” said Paul Calvert, partner at Ticonderoga Club in Atlanta. “Every single component — every beer, every wine, every cocktail, every cider, every Madeira, every sherry, every vermouth, every single thing that we’re excited about — we make sure it’s very evident that we have put that thing on the menu for a reason.”

“Every single thing on my back bar I’m proud to sell, I’m proud to serve, and every single thing on our bar our staff could speak deeply and intelligently about.”

Smaller menus make things easier for everyone, Calvert said. Customers don’t have to work through a long menu and staff doesn’t have to remember all the little details about, say, 20 vintage whiskeys.

A focus on food and drinks

While there are many successful bars whose sole focus is cocktails, emphasizing excellence in both food and drinks provides a well-rounded guest experience.

Hot Brooklyn spot Leyenda Brooklyn Coctelería couples cocktails from bartenders Julie Reiner and Ivy Mix (who co-founded the female bartending competition Speed Rack) with pan-Latin food created by chef Sue Torres. At Leyenda, the food is just as important as the drinks.

Calvert said Ticonderoga Club tries to pair everything on its beverage menu with items on its food menu, making sure that the experience is cohesive from start to finish.

Even without a full-blown food menu, some bars are stepping up the garnish game to include food.

Said Yael Vengroff, bar director at The Spare Room in Los Angeles, “For me it’s like the notion of an extended garnish. So, serving your cocktail with a little side, whether it’s house-made, house-roasted nuts that complement the cocktail or a piece of chocolate, or we use cookies a lot, [it’s] …almost like a pairing.”

Themes

Themed bars that provide a specific experience (like tiki bars) are making a comeback. No longer do all bar owners feel the need to be everything to everyone.

Whether a tiki bar, a gin joint or something else, customers know what they’re getting at themed bars, Mix said.

Chicago arcade bar Emporium, which has several locations, covers all the classics like pinball, table games and video games. Local Edition in San Francisco is newspaper-themed. The TARDIS Room in Portland, Oregon, and The Way Station in Brooklyn are both all about Dr. Who. Brooklyn’s Camp looks like a common room at an Appalachian summer-camp lodge.
Maritime-themed bars include The Rusty Knot in New York City’s West Village, The Ship in New York’s Little Italy and Queen Mary Tavern in Chicago’s Wicker Park.

“I think that that’s kind of coming back in vogue, not being so ambivalent, but a little more focused, which is great because then we’ll all know where to go when we’re craving something,” said Mix.

Craft cider

Craft beer, craft cocktails — now craft cider. Increasingly, establishments are adding more than just that one token cider to their beverage menu. Calvert and his partners at Ticonderoga Club try to include a few ciders on every menu.

“We love cider for many reasons, but one of the most important reasons is we think that ciders, when made well, especially drier styles, pair really, really beautifully with food. They kind of thread the needle when you don’t want wine and you don’t want beer either,” Calvert said.

Cell-phone free bars

Bars and restaurants are increasingly discouraging cell phone use or even prohibiting it.

Said Vengroff, “Probably one of my favorite bar experiences that I’ve had this year was at a bar called Old Lightning in L.A. They actually take your cell phone at the door. And they’re not rude about it or anything. They take your phone and then, like, you’re forced to sit and talk to the people next to you. And I had the greatest time! You know? Because no one was distracted.”

Bars used to help facilitate cell phone use with charging stations, but Mix noted that many bars are getting rid of those and keeping the bar’s Wi-Fi password to themselves.

A downside, she cautioned, is that social media check-ins and Instagram posts can help boost a bar’s popularity.

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