Let’s take a moment to consider the cocktail cart. Over the past few years, bars and restaurants have been reviving this throwback hospitality flourish to create an experience for customers that makes them feel just a little bit more special than usual. Specifically, let’s consider the scotch cart at Strip House Midtown, an upscale New York City steakhouse that draws tourists and business-account diners alike for its beautifully marbled cuts of meat, barrel-aged cocktails, and the aforementioned tableside after-dinner scotch cart service that features some of the rarest (and most expensive) bottles you’ll likely ever lay eyes on. I’m talking Bora 35, The Macallan 25, Girvan 25, Glenmorangie 25, and other categorically hard to find (and harder to afford) bottles. You finish your dinner and the cart rolls up, bottles and hand-cut tumblers on display. Want some ice? If you’re going to ruin this whiskey with a couple of cubes, might as well do it with some specially cut, triple-boiled, perfectly clear frozen water. I had a chance to ask BR Guest Hospitality beverage director Richard Breitkreutz about the scotch cart, and how the bottles are selected. “Rare and coveted was the criteria,” he told me. “This is really… for those of our guests who want an elevated experience with scotch. This includes newcomers and experienced alike. It is not unlike a cheese cart – not everyone wants it, and that is all right. It is part of the entertainment experience of dining out and making guests feel special.”
He’s right; it’s absolutely entertainment, all for show. There’s no real benefit to watching whiskey being poured from a bottle at your table, but there is something sort of magical about it. Whiskey from all origins has become so fetishized these days, with ever increasing interest in distilleries’ histories, backstories, etc. And for the whiskey-obsessed among us, actually seeing a bottle of Ladyburn 41 (a distillery that was shuttered in 1975) available for close to $500 a pour is pretty fantastic, even if you’re never going to be able to afford it. The proximity to such exalted whiskey is enough to transport you far away from your own reality for just a few moments, in the same way that fine wine, caviar, oysters, or truffles might for some.
This trend isn’t only limited to tableside scotch service, however. There are restaurants that will literally bring the whole bar to you, rolling up alongside your white linen tablecloth to expertly mix a drink as you squeal with delight. At Davanti Enoteca in Chicago, a Bloody Mary cart roams the room during brunch service, stocked with vodka and all the fixings (on and off spears) that you could possibly desire. New York City’s Maloney & Porcelli has a martini cart on the move – gin or vodka, twist or olives, they’ll make it how you want it. If grappa’s your thing, you’re kind of weird, but Boulder’s Frasca Food and Wine has you covered with a mobile grappa station that greets you after you’re finished eating. And, of course, Las Vegas has its fair share of flashy tableside cocktail shows, including the absinthe cart at Sage at Aria where the green fairy arrives directly at your table.
Does a cocktail or whiskey taste any different depending on whether it’s made at the bar or poured at your table? Of course not, but the thrill, minor as it may be, makes it worth your while. It brings to mind a time when going out to eat was truly a special experience that called for a little dash of class, before bread went from being complementary to a course, when every restaurant took reservations, waiters wore uniforms, and it was okay to drink three martinis at lunch. Not that I actually lived through or remember times like these. And I believe that “unfussy and casual” is the way to go nine times out of 10 when you’re eating out. But still, it’s fun to consider, and every once in a while enjoy, a little tableside cocktail service.