Justin Lavenue listens patiently as I read aloud a veritable chorus of arguments against the large cocktail menu, gleaned through polling my social media town square. He is the co-owner with Dennis Gobis of award-winning Austin bar The Roosevelt Room, whose ambitious menu spans 85 craft cocktails — and counting.
“I have always thought five or six cocktails, max, is the sweet spot. Ten is a flag, and just kind of annoying.”
“If there is too much going on, the drinks themselves might not feel as focused — it’s a lot for a bar staff to have to memorize and perfect a million recipes.”
“It feels a bit desperate, like they can’t trust themselves to curate their own drinks.”
“I despise lengthy menus of all kinds everywhere but the diner.”
“Feels like they’re all over the place, with no clear vision, that the booze is old, and that none of them are made very well.”
“They’re all accurate,” Lavenue sighs, to my surprise. “If it’s not executed well, they’re absolutely right. And it’s very difficult to execute a large menu for sure and to keep things fresh.”
What constitutes a lengthy menu, though? Some say 30 or 15 cocktails; others say anything longer than a single sheet of paper. I self-identified squarely with the latter the day I took my seat in a deep booth opposite The Roosevelt Room’s shotgun-style bar beneath a formidable menu board. My instinctual reaction on first scroll through three centuries of cocktails is best synopsized by longtime bartender and owner Jill Cockson, who considers most large-format menus to be passive-aggressive — meaning there’s “no sincere intention” of people reaching the last page.
“‘Here, read Moby Dick,’” she quips. “Server returns five minutes later: ‘Have you decided?’”
I wouldn’t call myself a convert per se, but I’ve come around to the notion that a cocktail bible doesn’t solely exist to intimidate or belabor its beholder. Done right, this ambitious approach recalls the almost gleeful nerdiness that permeated the early craft cocktail renaissance, and illustrates the quiet power of excellent hospitality and airtight process. Though, like so many things, there’s a time and a place.
Menus for (Literally) Every Style of Drinker
What I also didn’t know, as I later sipped my perfectly calibrated Martinez in a Nick & Nora glass beside my companion who gushed over the best Espresso Martini she’d ever had, was that The Roosevelt Room server who deposited them also worked as a barback and busser for at least six months before hitting the floor. The bartender who made them underwent a year of training, which included a five-hour exam covering drink concoction order by durability and the roughly 2–3,000 details that go into every cocktail, from its history to build, ice and glass type, garnish, and length of straw.
The bar debuted in 2015 with just eight house cocktails. But after a few weekends of drowning in revelers three deep with nowhere to stand, the owners leaned into the space’s elongated shape in a historic downtown structure and pivoted to a more regal, ambitious concept of cocktails as an introduction.
“We wanted to appeal to and have something for every style of drinker,” Lavenue says. “The conversation naturally went to a classics board, which had been done before, but there weren’t many — I don’t think any — that took people from start to finish, like cocktails as an introduction, even predating them with punches and juleps.”
They adapted the 19-step (technically 20 because there’s a step zero) approach to building a round of drinks that Lavenue learned from partners Sasha Petraske and Eric Alperin while working at Austin cocktail bar Half Step. Petraske originated this concept of an order of steps required to build a round of drinks to their perfect specs. A stirred, Old Fashioned-style drink, for example, is more durable than a shaken cocktail so is typically prepared earlier, “so as long as you don’t fully ‘cook it’ before it hits the table — meaning you stir a little less than it needs to get the perfect temperature and dilution at the end,” Lavenue says. The Roosevelt Room’s process has since swelled to 32 steps, by the way, with substeps breaking down the order of garnish creation or calling an audible to prepare a drink with a stamped ice cube last so the stamp doesn’t melt, for instance.
Blame It on London?
A handful of respondents to my unofficial poll indeed said they like a large menu at an explicitly cocktail-focused bar, or one “hallowed for its encyclopedic talent.” After all, one of the hallmarks of American consumerism is self-expression through infinite choice.
“I love when a place curates the lineup and puts their own stamp on various classics,” one said. “It tells me what vibe and experience they’re trying to create.”
“If you go to a certain length or number — it doesn’t matter if it’s 36 or 96, it’s a long menu — you’re very much saying the same thing: that you take cocktails incredibly seriously and you are very interested in actively pursuing finding the right cocktail for your guest.”
One might point to New York’s Death & Co as pioneers of the book-style cocktail menus in the U.S. that became popular at artisanal cocktail bars in the early aughts. The original location opened late in 2006 with a “reasonable number” of cocktails, as the then-prevailing wisdom suggested menus should top out at eight, co-owner Dave Kaplan recalls. Goaded by a February 2007 New York Times article that declared London a superior cocktail town, Kaplan and head bartender Phil Ward took an exploratory trip to England, where they fell in love with book-like tomes grouped into digestible sections at the city’s most lauded bars and restaurants.
When they returned, the bartending staff undertook a somewhat masochistic quest to see how big they could take the concept of cocktail bibles within the limits of the space and their own wherewithal. Answer: 96 original cocktails, involving some 50 cheater bottles (clear, unmarked speed-pouring bottles) arranged in a single row from left to right. Death & Co has long since pared back its menu to 30-something cocktails (the number varies by location), always grouped beneath the same subheadings, like “Elegant and Timeless” and “Bright and Confident.”
“If you go to a certain length or number — it doesn’t matter if it’s 36 or 96, it’s a long menu — you’re very much saying the same thing: that you take cocktails incredibly seriously and you are very interested in actively pursuing finding the right cocktail for your guest,” Kaplan says. “The menu hopefully is the first gesture. In reflecting back, there is a size where a menu no longer feels hospitable, when it starts to feel like work. We always want the menu, even though we put so much into it, we want it to feel like it’s just an option.”
“I’m going to put drinks on the menu that are bangers, universally liked, and frankly that make me a lot of money.”
In a similar vein, Laura Newman debuted her first bar, Queen’s Park in Birmingham, Ala., with 65 cocktails in part to throw down the gauntlet showing her capabilities. She’s since cut the menu in half but says the long menu comes down to hospitality.
“In putting in a large menu, I think … you’re trying to anticipate the guest’s needs,” she says. “I’m the sort of person who’s like, ‘Surprise me; I want gin.’ But there are lots of guests who are not like that, who just need more guidance.”
A Time and a Place
Guidance may look like a sprawling menu categorized by stirred and boozy or citrusy and refreshing. It might also mean a single-page menu or none at all, instead emphasizing staff and customer interactions.
“I’ll play the ‘What do you like?’ game all night,” says Cockson, who co-owns Kansas City, Mo., bars Drastic Measures, Swordfish Tom’s, and Chartreuse Saloon, and Anna’s Place in Omaha, Neb. Her lengthiest menu tops out at 15 cocktails.
In other words, there’s a time and a place. No one simply “turns up” at Death & Co, as Newman points out. It’s not unlike when they hit up her raucous, late-night, karaoke roadhouse Neon Moon, where the fanciest they’ll probably go is a PBJ shot (Dickel rye, peanut butter, and grape jelly). Though by that point in the night, they’re more likely drinking High Lifes.
“Bud Light and Vodka Soda are comfort zone drinks. When people are overwhelmed, they default to ‘old faithful.’”
Newman’s more formal Queen’s Park menu has 16 staples grouped by the base spirit usual suspects, supplemented by nine or 10 “staff favorites,” which change three or four times a year. All come with illustrated visuals. The range of options suits the typical clientele: people on dates early in the evening; first-timers under 35 stopping in for a round or two on a night out. “I’m going to put drinks on the menu that are bangers, universally liked, and frankly that make me a lot of money,” Newman says.
Cockson similarly calls the cocktail menu a bar’s best salesperson. Making it user-friendly is more efficient — a “covert op for profitability,” since people decide what they want quickly and with confidence. She points to complaints she hears among young mixologists in her market who can’t understand why so many people order Vodka Soda in a fancy cocktail bar.
“They don’t understand why people are ordering it,” she says. “Bud Light and Vodka Soda are comfort zone drinks. When people are overwhelmed, they default to ‘old faithful.’”
That’s where making the most of a bar’s menu real estate, however long or short, comes in. As Kaplan says, “the psychology of menu engineering is very real.”
For instance, is it better to limit drink descriptions to evocative descriptors (“bittersweet and sultry”) or rattle off every last syrup and tincture, no matter how obscure? Should the base spirit be listed first or last? Should there always be an accessible “hook” descriptor — say, watermelon or grapefruit? Does a cute font matter? How many cocktails should appear per page, and in what order? Should the menu include pictures?
What delights and intrigues one drinker can just as easily alienate the next, much like the prospect of having a big old cocktail bible plopped in front of them. And sometimes even the cocktail nerds among us get lizard brain, when all we want is to point at a picture, Newman says — not that she knows what that’s like.
In fact, I imagine if I were to pose these questions to my social media town square, in addition to the strongly worded opinions for and against, I’d probably get plenty of the maddening reply I received over and over to the question of large menus. “It depends.”