Mixology flair is moving from behind the bar to patrons’ tables as innovative restaurant operators offer drinks theatrics to their dining room guests. “There’s something inexplicably fun about preparing drinks tableside,” says Leo Robitschek, bar director at Eleven Madison Park in New York City. “It’s like having your own private bartender.” Eleven Madison Park’s tableside cocktail program began with Martini service six years ago, but was later replaced with a Manhattan cart. The restaurant typically prepares 15 Manhattans ($18) tableside each night. “Once one table orders it, other guests see the magic and often place an order of their own,” Robitschek says.
At Restaurant 1833 in Monterey, California, general manager Kyle Beauregard has promoted a rotating special cocktail served tableside since opening five years ago. The program has been so popular that a separate Martini cart was added last April. “It’s an entertaining element for guests,” Beauregard says, noting that the restaurant typically sells 15 to 20 cocktails ($15 to $45) prepared tableside each night.
Travelle Kitchen + Lounge in Chicago’s Langham Hotel offers a variety of premium cocktails, curated by beverage director Priscilla Young and made to order at the table. Recent examples include the Corn Bread & Butter ($13), comprising brown butter–washed Death Door’s white whiskey, cranberry and orange marmalade; the Blutopia ($17), a blend of Oxley gin, Pernod absinthe, Cocchi Americano, lavender-infused Bol’s White crème de cacao liqueur, lemon and sugar; and the Smoke Metal + Wood ($14), made with Bank Note 5-year-old blended Scotch whisky, Southern Comfort, lemon, bergamot and rhubarb.
Gunshow in Atlanta has no bar and has served cocktails prepared on a drinks cart since opening in 2013. The service is in keeping with the eatery’s “experience-driven” hospitality strategy, explains cocktail director Mercedes O’Brien. Gunshow’s drinks cart is stocked with premium spirits and fresh ingredients for eight different cocktails ($10 to $12), which change weekly. The Toasted Old Fashioned, made with Old Forester Bourbon, burnt sugar syrup, orange bitters and bruléed cinnamon sticks, is the venue’s flagship cocktail. O’Brien says the drinks cart is one of the restaurant’s most popular features, which helps cocktails easily outsell wine and beer. “We average 160 cocktails a night,” she adds.
Tableside cocktail programs give servers and mixologists an opportunity to educate guests. “Cocktail menus sometimes can be intimidating, so we’re right there at the table to make ordering more relaxed,” O’Brien says. “There’s also a benefit for waitstaff. It’s nice for a bartender to get out from behind the bar.” Robitschek of Eleven Madison Park notes that guests are eager to learn tips from servers on how to improve the Manhattans they make at home.
But the practice has its challenges. “Tableside service requires good time management and preparation,” Robitschek says. “There’s a limit to what you can make, because you can’t bring the whole bar to the table.” Staff training is also essential, he adds. “The person preparing the drink has to know exactly the right measurements and techniques to ensure perfect execution,” he notes. O’Brien adds that tableside bartending can also be tough in a crowded dining room. “You’re preparing cocktails in a small area and guests are walking behind you,” she explains.
While tableside cocktail preparation is becoming more popular, operators appear divided on whether the trend will have wide appeal. “Tableside service is popular overseas, especially in London,” Robitschek says. “I’ve seen an increase in tableside presentation in fine-dining establishments, but due to the difficulty in execution, I don’t see it gaining mass popularity.”
Beauregard of Restaurant 1833, however, predicts a bright future for the practice. “I’ve been seeing it pop up everywhere,” he says. “Guests enjoy it, and that creates a chain reaction. I think tableside drinks will continue.”