On this episode of the “VinePair Podcast,” hosts Adam Teeter, Joanna Sciarrino, and Zach Geballe discuss the phenomenon of tableside cocktail service and its recent rise in popularity. What kind of drinks benefit from being served tableside? What kind of showmanship is expected with tableside service? Is ordering tableside cocktail service worth the extra expense? Tune in for more.
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Adam Teeter: From VinePair’s New York City headquarters, I’m Adam Teeter.
Joanna Sciarrino: And I’m Joanna Sciarrino.
Zach Geballe: And in Seattle, Washington, I’m Zach Geballe.
A: And this is the “VinePair Podcast.” Joanna, what have you been drinking recently?
J: Oh my goodness. Okay. Went to our local Gold Star Beer Counter recently and picked up a few bottles of Suarez Family Brewery beer, which I’ve never had before. So I was very excited about that. They had them in stock, which is rare and got two beers specifically. One called Triangular Nature which is a Buckwheat Country Beer.
A: What the hell does that even mean? “Buckwheat Country Beer.” What is a country beer?
J: I don’t know. It’s a beer you drink in the country.
A: I feel like brewers just make it all up at this point. You know what I mean?
J: Of course.
A: Listen, here’s my thing. “This is a porch beer.” Like, “Cool.” They could all be porch beers.
J: Yeah. Well, not all of them are porch beers. Anyway, this one was very good, very citrusy with some honey sweetness. And then we also got another one called Crescent, which is a saison brewed with raw emmer wheat, which was very light and with a little spice and some bitterness. So that was my drinking highlight from this week.
J: What about you, Zach?
Z: I am in the fresh hop season full on. It’s been freaking awesome. So they’ve been rolling out over the last-
J: You’re just drowning in fresh hops out there.
Z: I am. I am fully submerged, just like the hops. So three that I had in the last little while was the Field to Ferment from Fremont Brewing, which I believe you guys have tried before. I think we had that sent to you last year.
A: Yeah. I think you helped get it to us.
J: You facilitated that. Yeah.
Z: I sure did. And then the Fresh Hop Hazealicious from Reuben’s Brews and The Hop Aquatic which is from Cloudburst; three of the better breweries in the city. All delicious. Folks, I’ve said it before. I’ll say it again, nothing quite like fresh hop season out here in the Pacific Northwest to try and put to words what is, in some sense, just a thing you must experience. The appeal of the fresh hops is that since the hops don’t get dry, they don’t go through any kind of processing really. And they just go, as the Cloudburst Beer describes it, they’re wet hops. So they go straight into the beer from basically being picked. What you get is actually a surprisingly delicate flavor, I think, because they’re not going through the drying process. They’re not going through the cryo preserving process that some hops go through. The flavors are a little subtler and what’s cool is you’re seeing more and more people make fresh-hop beers that are not just IPAs. I mean, most of the fresh-hop beers we’re seeing are IPAs understandably. The beer that’s going to call for a lot of hops in the first place. But Reuben’s actually doing a fresh hop almost like a lager, which I think is a really interesting way to look at the hops through a different lens because you’re not getting the same hop load or the same hop kind of, I guess, weight, even though they use a similar quantity. So yeah, no, it’s really good. And I’ve been really enjoying it. And thankfully there’ll be a few more weeks of that. So get used to me talking about fresh hop beers. How about you, Adam?
A: So I’ve had a few delicious things recently. I got to be out in California recently for work and went to this pretty amazing dinner with Keith and a few other people at VinePair. We had some really special wines, including some Meursault. We had a really amazing Champagne from Michel Gonet, we had a Volnay, so just some really cool wines. And then I also had the most expensive Vodka Martini I’ve ever had in my life. And it still did not convince me that I will ever like Vodka Martinis.
J: Oh, tell us about it.
A: So Tim asked me to get a drink after work earlier this week. And so we went to Verōnika and we had the $36 or whatever Vodka Martini that comes-
J: With the caviar?
A: With the caviar. And it was good. It’s not it for me.
J: The vodka?
A: Yeah. It’s just not it for me. It needs to be gin. It needs to be gin. And I had a much better Martini, I feel like, in Carmel-by-the-Sea at this place called Bud’s, which was this old-school bar inside La Playa Hotel that was really awesome.
J: Like a cocktail bar?
A: Yeah. Well, I mean like an old-school bar. They still have the lockers where you can have your own liquor bottles.
J: Oh, amazing.
A: And just a really classic Martini. And it was absolutely delicious. I don’t know. I don’t think I’m ever going to be on the Vodka Martini train and I think that’s okay.
J: I think that’s okay.
A: I think that’s okay. Just not for me.
J: But you tried it.
A: I tried it. What is for me, though, the thing is, I liked the pomp and circumstance around the cocktail. I thought it was cool. And this is what we’re going to talk about today is the pomp and circumstance around cocktails and specifically tableside cocktail service. So that’s become a whole new thing.
J: It’s existed for a while.
A: It always has, but we’re seeing a resurgence of it in the same way we’re seeing the resurgence of chophouses and this massive interest again in Champagne and caviar and again, Roaring Twenties-type sh*t. And so there’s a lot of places that are now offering an expensive, but special, tableside cocktail service where they will actually come to you and make the cocktail. Maison Premiere does tableside cocktail service. That’s the one that I think about the most, but there’s lots of different places that do it. And so thought we would use sort of articles written about it recently to kick off this conversation. But have you both ever had tableside cocktail service before? And what have your experiences been if you have?
J: I have not, but I would love to because I think it would be really fun. And I love watching people make cocktails and I love cocktails in general so I think that part, that theater kind of involved in it would be really exciting to me. But I could see how it wouldn’t be to some people.
Z: So I’ve had tableside cocktail service in a few different formats over the years. One of the first places I really experienced it was a place in Portland, Ore., called the Multnomah Whiskey Library. It’s a really interesting space. I don’t know if either of you have ever been there, but for our West Coast listeners who may have, I mean, library is kind of the right way to describe the vibe other than a very dark library. It’s quiet, there’s high shelves that go up to the ceiling. It was one of the first places I saw, I’ve now seen it in a few other bars, but the library-esque sliding shelves with a ladder that a bartender climbs to get to the special bottles or whatever. And the tableside service was actually a big part of what they did. If you sat in certain parts of the space the server came over with a bar cart and essentially made your drinks no matter what you ordered with maybe a few exceptions. And it’s kind of cool. It’s one of those things where in the right space it’s cool, and I guess that’s probably the right kind of space because you don’t go in there being like, “I’m just going to come in and have a beer.” I mean, people probably do, but it’s not really that kind of vibe. It works, but it’s also kind of like, there’s something nice to me sometimes about not feeling like I’m being… There’s a weird way in which as the guest, you then become part of the show in a way that I don’t always love. You have to pay attention to the person making your drink and ooh and ah at the right moments. I mean, I’ve never done the Benihana-style dining, which maybe both of you have done before. And I feel like there’s maybe that same kind of thing where because the person cooking your food is performing for you, you as the diner have to be on point the whole time. I kind of like being able to order my drink and then talk to my friends and then the drink shows up two minutes later and you’re like, “Great, that’s my drink. Cool. I’m going to drink it.” I don’t really have to carefully observe the process or feel like a jerk if I don’t want to stop my conversation to watch you make my Manhattan or whatever.
J: Well, I mean, I feel like I don’t want every drink made tableside. But for some special occasions or if there’s a special drink that is made tableside, I think that’s kind of interesting.
A: So I think for tableside cocktail service to work really well, I think it has to be one of the classic cocktails because I think what makes the tableside Caesar or steak tartare or whatever cool is it is one of these classic dishes we think about that that has somewhat pomp and circumstance around them, but you could make a Caesar salad at home if you wanted to and it’s not super involved. Personally, I don’t really need to have tableside Margarita service. I don’t need them to be juicing the limes and then, you know. But I think pulling up with a bar cart and having a really beautiful Martini service, there’s something that feels very classy about that.
J: I don’t know. I think something like Bananas Foster or something that gets flambé or something like that, there is value in doing that tableside. And I feel like that could work with a drink like a Ramos Gin Fizz or a Pisco Sour or something like that.
Z: That poor bartender.
J: Right. Yeah. But there’s actually something to the drink where it’s cool to watch it being prepared. But I feel like something very commonplace that doesn’t require a lot of steps.
A: So you don’t need to see a tableside Old Fashioned service?
J: No. Not really.
Z: See to me, I’m actually with Joanna in that I think you need the performative aspect of it. And the other place I was going to mention before also in Portland is a place called Huber’s Cafe, which is famous for their tableside Spanish coffee presentation. Which is the perfect drink for that because it is a performance and you order that drink expecting the performance. It’s the reason people like it for the most part. I mean, it tastes good, but you’re watching your bartender light sh*t on fire and throw cinnamon into the drink and stuff. It’s really cool. So that’s perfect to me, but I’m kind of like, “I don’t really need to see someone stir down a Martini in front of me. Like what the f*ck? I don’t care.” It’s like, “You give me the drink.”
A: Oh, no. You can make that. You can get that flare there. You can get that flare there.
Z: I mean, you can but I think there needs to be some kind of element that is dramatic whether it’s lighting something on fire-
J: Full on set on fire.
A: Set on fire.
Z: Well, I mean it. That’s the kind of sh*t that will captivate people. Again, watching a bartender stir a Martini or whatever is just to me personally, pretty like, “Okay, cool, great. I don’t need to see this.” I think, Adam, I remember you talking about… What’s the bar? It’s called the Hawksmoor or something where it’s super, super cold and they just pour it. There’s no stirring it. It just comes out of a super-cold glass. I’m like, “Okay, great. I don’t need to see the way a very straightforward cocktail is made.” But something where there is an element of the presentation or the assembly of the drink, and maybe it is something like an egg white cocktail where you’re watching them crack the egg and shake it. That’s to me where the tableside element of it is compelling in the same way that for me, tableside food service where it’s like, you don’t see this very often, but someone is filleting a fish or deboning a duck or something. Because you’re watching someone do something more elaborate than just mixing ingredients together, it is kind of cool. Or the steak tartare example, whatever. And that to me it needs to be a cocktail that is both dramatic in its performance and also I think this is a key part of it, that you’re only probably ever going to order one.
A: What about if someone just shows up at your table with a blender? Let’s go!
Z: That would be amazing.
A: Tableside Piña Coladas, let’s go!
J: So in a recent article that we published, there is a bar cart that goes around. I can’t remember it. Zach, is it at Gunshow in Atlanta? But one of the spots referenced in the piece does have a little like-
J: Yeah. A little Magic Bullet on the bar cart.
A: So, good. I mean, look, with the Martini, the only place I can think of is this Savoy in London where they actually throw the vermouth on the floor. So it’s like, they’re showing you that it kissed the glass and then they make a big show. I mean, the floor’s got to be a mess at the end of the night.
J: Oh, yeah. Sounds awful.
A: But I think those are the times when it can work with some of these classics where they’re doing something to add flare to the classic.
J: Make a smoked drink.
A: And it often can work. It can be very showy if just the crystal’s really beautiful and people like to take pictures of it, the set up is really elaborate. Maybe it’s a huge ice cube that goes in. Those types of things, I think also do work, but I would agree that obviously drinks that also come out looking very dramatic have an appeal to them. Although you could argue that besides the fire, Bananas Foster is pretty basic when it’s done, right?
J: Oh, yeah.
A: It’s just some caramelized bananas.
J: It’s your sautéing bananas. Yeah.
A: Delicious over some vanilla ice cream, but I think you can play with it however you want. And what’s really interesting is having judged cocktail competitions. When bartenders do compete for these cocktail competitions, you basically are creating a tableside version because you’re having this one-on-one interaction with the judges. And usually there are little gifts that you’re giving them or things they’re opening or playing around with while you’re making the drink and telling them a story. And that’s basically all tableside cocktail service is. Right?
A: It’s a story about the drink and there’s maybe a special wow factor, whether it is that box that you open and there’s a chocolate inside of it. And then they tell you to pair with the cocktail or you open a ribbon, read a poem that goes along with the cocktail. Those types of things are, I think, what makes tableside cocktail service so special and feels much more intimate because even when you’re sitting at the bar, watching a bartender make the drinks at a high-quality bar, they’re not interacting with you. They’re very focused on getting those drinks out to all the different customers, whether it’s the tickets coming in to get out to the tables outside of the actual bar or to the people who are sitting at the bar. And I feel like those are the things that are totally different about tableside cocktail service. You get that one-on-one interaction where they really are focusing on you.
J: Yeah. That’s a really good point. I think there is something very compelling about bartenders, just shaking up drinks at the bar that you can stare and watch them forever. For me it is kind of similar to being at a sushi bar and watching that craft. But I do think that individual attention that you’re getting in tableside service makes it extra special.
Z: And I think there’s also a kind of correlation to almost bottle service in a club. You become a little bit at the center of attention for the whole bar when they wheel the cart over like to you or your table or whatever, and people like that. I mean, some people like that, not everyone does, obviously. I also think that there’s a piece of this where it’s like, if you’re the bar, you might be able to frankly charge a premium for a drink that you might not be able to charge for, but it’s tableside and maybe comes with a little something additional or you’re getting a little flight of something or whatever. There are ways that you can sort of get someone okay with paying $24 for what should be a $16 cocktail because it comes with these bells and whistles. And that’s not a bad thing. I think, Adam, you and I talked about, early on in the pandemic about what we might see when places did reopen. And I think we both talked a lot about how we would expect to see bars in particular, really kind of looking to put on more of a show because they had to give people a compelling reason to come in. And now maybe it’s not so much about getting people over the hurdle of being afraid of Covid. Maybe for some people, but I think a lot of people have decided how they feel about that already, but it is still about giving people a compelling reason to come in, sit down, spend a fair amount of money on a drink or two drinks or whatever. If the performative aspect is a big part of that, that makes a ton of sense to me. It’s a way to convince people that they’re getting their money’s worth.
A: Yep. Well, I’d love to hear what everyone here thinks about tableside cocktail service. Have you been somewhere and had a really special experience? What cocktails do you think fit best with tableside service? And are you willing to pay more? Because often I think one of the things we didn’t mention, which probably goes without saying, but just worth being aware of is that often tableside service is much more expensive. The tableside service for the Martinis at Maison Premier are more expensive.
J: They’re also using more premium-
A: Premium ingredients.
J: Yeah. Ingredients.
A: Yeah, totally. So it’s usually top-shelf spirits and things like that, but are you willing to pay for it? Do you find it attractive? If you saw it on a menu, would you be like, “Oh, we should consider the tableside service.”
J: Is it worth it?
A: Exactly. So let us know what you think and shoot us an email at email@example.com. We read all of them. All of them. And with that, I’ll see you both Friday.
J: Have a great week.
Z: Sounds great.
Thanks so much for listening to the “VinePair Podcast.” If you love this show as much as we love making it, please leave us a rating or review on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or wherever it is you get your podcasts. It really helps everyone else discover the show.
Now for the credits. VinePair is produced and recorded in New York City and Seattle, Washington, by myself and Zach Geballe, who does all the editing and loves to get the credit. Also, I would love to give a special shout-out to my VinePair co-founder, Josh Malin, for helping make all of this possible, and also to Keith Beavers, VinePair’s tastings director, who is additionally a producer on the show. I also want to, of course, thank every other member of the VinePair team, who are instrumental in all of the ideas that go into making the show every week. Thanks so much for listening, and we’ll see you again.
Ed. note: This episode has been edited for length and clarity.