Can I Have a Translator With That Drink?


After a recent night out at Bar Bolinas, where most of their Northern California-inspired menu was a hit, one annoying miss stood out–the obscure words and vague menu descriptions that have become the norm at Brooklyn restaurants. What’s with this trend of menus that keep the explanation of dishes so short and sweet that it’s not clear to even well-eaten diners what’s going to actually be in each dish? Nowhere is this more prevalent than on cocktail menus. For example, here’s Bar Bolinas’ brief list:


Now I’m no trained mixologist, but I do drink out enough that I feel like I shouldn’t need a translator to figure out what any of these drinks are going to taste like. I get that Elijah Craig is fairly well known, but would it kill their hipster hearts to write “Elijah Craig bourbon? Or to note that Dolin Rouge is vermouth?” And what/who are Suze and Salers? Are those the people who make the drinks? For the record, the server didn’t know either, but was happy to return and explain that Suze is a gentian liqueur (from the root of the gentian plant), with citrus-y and slightly bitter notes. I don’t say this to hate on Bar Bolinas–the service was friendly and the cocktail was excellent, whatever the heck a gentian is–I just think restaurants in general can stop prioritizing sounding sharp and cute over telling us what’s actually in something.

One Response

  1. Jake -

    Maybe they could have written “Elijah Craig Bourbon” and “Dolin Rouge Vermouth” – fair enough. Or maybe “Suze gentian liqueur.” But at a certain point, it’s up to the server to explain the ingredients, otherwise you get a menu that is somewhat patronizing in its explanations and way, way too long. Managers who make menus are going for concision because of both space and readability concerns. Consider if the menu had been more in the vein that you want:

    THE RIDGE: Old Overholt Rye, Suze gentian liqueur (a floral, bitter French aperitif), Dolin rouge (sweet) vermouth
    LIL’ MESA: Mezcal (like a smokey tequila), Lillet (a white wine-based French aperitif made with herbs and flowers), Grapefruit juice, honey syrup

    Each of those descriptions gets pretty unwieldy and goes onto a second line, making for a less attractive and, frankly, more overwhelming menu. Plus you don’t get a good sense of what the overall drink is about. At least looking at that second drink, you recognize lemon, bourbon, and ginger, so you have a vague understanding that this cocktail is probably some variation of a sour with some sweetness and then whatever flavors those unknown ingredients add. Some bars have descriptions of the drink or some more obscure ingredients in a little blurb underneath the cocktail (Tooker Alley does this really well, IMO). But I’ve heard plenty of people at Tooker Alley say that the menu is confusing or overwhelming because of how much information there is.

    And then where do you draw the line? Does the difference between Rye and Bourbon need to be explained? Or the subtle differences between Maker’s Mark and Four Roses bourbons? Do you assume that the guest knows what mezcal is but then explain rhum agricole? Do you explain that Cynar is artichoke-flavored and Zucca is rhubarb-flavored? Opening this pandora’s box ends up assuming some even level of common knowledge that is essentially impossible to determine.

    The best option, then, is to explain just enough so that the guest has an idea of the drink, and then make sure the servers are well-informed to be able to explain all the ingredients to the guest when they ask. Wine lists are the same – most places don’t put a description right next to each wine, rather, they allow the guest to use what knowledge they might have (what certain grapes or region’s wine usually taste like) as the base for a conversation with the server/sommelier. I’ve worked in many bars and restaurants and I’ve always seen ingredients like Cynar just listed on the menu as is, no explanation. “What’s Cynar?” plenty of people ask, but plenty already know. “It’s an Italian-bitter liqueur that tastes a bit like sweet artichokes, it’s actually really good,” I answer. Service. Hospitality.


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