It might be time to retire the old phrase, “don’t judge a book by its cover.” In 2022 — the age of photo sharing apps and the overuse of the term “aesthetic” — visuals matter more than ever. Hospitality pros know this perhaps better than anyone; “phone eats first” ring light photo shoots are practically standard practice before picking up one’s fork these days.
But such visual innovations go far beyond plating techniques and well-garnished beverages. At some of the world’s best bars, optical intrigue begins the moment you open your menu. From pop star-inspired oyster pairings to listings on maps and blueprints, here are eight of the most unique and creative cocktail menus that make ordering your drink almost as much fun as imbibing.
Grand Army Bar
So, here’s the story from A-Z: In this Boerum Hill, Brooklyn spot, cocktails and raw bar items are doled out to neighborhood regulars and trendy foodies alike. But if towers of littlenecks and oysters aren’t enough to lure you in, its Spice Girls–inspired drinks list — designed by Jess Lundgren and illustrated by tattoo artist Annie Lloyd — is sure to cure your ‘90s nostalgia. Come for the Little Gucci Dress, a mango-infused take on the Negroni, and stay for the Too Much of Something, a frozen tipple complete with a float of Hard Start (the bar’s own handshake shot).
Village Garage Distillery
Bennington, Vt.’s newly opened Village Garage Distillery doles out more than bottled spirits made with locally grown corn and rye; its cocktail list is a thing of beauty. Made with its very own liquors, Village Garage’s cocktails appear to be hand-drawn on its menu in the style of scientific sketches — even featuring a legend for each drawn-to-scale image.
Three Dots and a Dash
At Chicago’s lauded speakeasy-style tropical bar, boredom goes out the door. Here, bright, colorful vessels sit atop a woven straw bartop, and whimsical decor hangs on the ceiling and walls. If it weren’t eye-catching, the menu would be an outlier. Fortunately, with its retro doodles depicting classic and signature tiki drinks and symbols, it is right at home among the bar’s many other eccentricities.
Operated by Simmer Group, a creative agency, Patent Pending’s menu perhaps unsurprisingly puts design at the forefront. Showcasing each beverage in a blueprint-like style — a playful nod to the speakeasy’s name — its deep blue menu exudes luxury. Located behind a secret door at NYC’s Patent Coffee in the NoMad neighborhood, Patent Pending’s intimate space means it often has a line to get in on weekends; its stunningly composed tipples are well worth the wait.
In Stockholm, Röda Huset (“red house” in English) boasts its Swedish roots in every cocktail. The menu, designed by bartender Hampus Thunholm, places each beverage on a map of Sweden and Norway, and each unique tipple includes local Swedish produce like wild raspberries, elderberries, and plums — a true taste of Scandinavia.
Tucked in NYC’s Greenwich Village, Mace’s cocktail menu is a true ode to nature’s bounty. Here, mixologists — led by French bartender Nico de Soto — tinker with unusual ingredients and beautifully showcase fruits, flowers, vegetables, and spices from around the world. Its menu reflects this with painted icons of spices and herbs, each of which is featured in its respective drink.
Mr Fogg’s Gin Parlor
Inspired by Jules Verne’s novel “Around the World in Eighty Days,” Mr Fogg’s Gin Parlor in London’s Covent Garden takes its patrons on a voyage of discovery. Leading drinkers through the very same journey as protagonist Phileas Fogg, the menu explores the flavors of 18 locales across the globe. From London (a drink composed of gin, vodka, Lillet Blanc, and oleo saccharum) to Calcutta (gin, banana liqueur, yogurt, caramel sauce, and overproof rum), there’s plenty to explore on this menu, complete with stamps from each city and newspaper clippings that appear to be taped on.
Designed by Over-Rice, a studio specializing in Asian-inspired visuals, Sama Street’s menu reflects the story behind each cocktail on it. Its left side displays an illustrated cubby, with each cubbyhole donning its own cocktail rendering. These drawings show more than just the ingredients in the drinks — they also showcase the inspiration behind each creation. If you’re less of a visual learner, the right side of the Greenpoint, Brooklyn bar’s menu includes written descriptions of each item, as the background fades from beachside bar into the Tokyo skyline.