The New York Times today has an article about two of my favorite subjects: beer and food. Specifically, the article explores why it seems so difficult to find places that excel at both, and do it via great service and knowledgeable staff. Though the article is specific to New York, I find it applies anywhere.
Great beer abounds today in New York, and the choices keep getting better. Nowadays, almost every neighborhood bar has at least a few craft beers. The better beer bars offer an expanded selection, scouring the world for unknown brewers and new beers. And the mark of a top-flight spot is one or two cask beers, served unpasteurized and unfiltered with natural carbonation, rather than from a pressurized keg.
Yet an imbalance exists that threatens to undercut the pleasure to be found in a perfectly drawn pint. While aficionados yearn to have beer taken as seriously as wine, too often beer is presented in a context that diminishes the respect it deserves.
Sometimes, the problem involves food, as with Studio Square. At Pony Bar, a new bar in Clinton that specializes in American craft beers, the River Horse ESB, served lightly chilled from a cask, was pure and delicate. The beer selection was excellent. The roast beef sandwich was tough, the burger desiccated.
Other times, it’s simply a clueless staff...
I was recently reading an article on Beer Advocate about the top beer bars in the country. The article was from four years ago, but most of the places on the list still exist. I read the BA reviews for over half of those places, and noticed three consistent trends, all of which apply to one or more of my favorite watering holes here in KC:
- Bad service. Not just mediocre, but bad. Do these places even train their staff?
- Bad food. Why provide something that is guaranteed to disappoint your customers?
- Bad atmosphere. What? I can't hear you over the Ozzy and guys cheering over beer pong.
Now, I'll point out that we are lucky here in KC to have the options we do: Waldo Pizza, Barley's, 75th Street, Flying Saucer, Gordon Biersch, Harry's Country Club, Grinders... and I'm sure I'm forgetting some. However, it seems like no one place has it all nailed. Gordon Biersch comes pretty damn close with great beer and pretty decent food - but the service?
All I ask for is this:
- Make sure it's easy for your patrons to hear others in their party. Barley's has this nailed. Flying Saucer, not so much.
- Educate your staff about beer. I don't care if they all hate beer; if you have it on tap, your staff should know what it is. They should be able to describe a Kölsch and how Schlafly's compares to Reissdorf's. That goes for your wine selection as well. There's no reason I should hear "ummm... let me go ask" when I ask about a new beer on tap and what it is. Sell me your products!!
- Be creative with your menu. Many of your customers eat out frequently and tire of the same old things - burgers, wraps, sandwiches, fries, onion rings, and so on. Gordon Biersch gets it, and Barley's is starting to (they now have seasonal salads). Check out The Brewer's Art in Baltimore or Higgins in Portland. Yes, these are bar menus. You don't have to get ultra-chic, and should provide at least some staples (can you spot the burger on Higgins' menu?). But get adventurous and offer seasonal, different items for those of us who enjoy trying new things.
- Mind your beer. Rotate your taps and bottles frequently, clean your beer lines, and, for the love of all things holy, please don't serve us stale beer.
There's one bartender at Barley's in Shawnee I always look for when I go, because he clearly knows beer. Elliott over at Waldo Pizza is now a Cicerone-certified Beer Server and also loves to talk beer. Both places have good food and beer selections; Waldo Pizza seems to swap out their kegs more frequently than Barley's, but Barley's usually has new stuff in bottles every time I go. They're about as close to great-beer-bar as we have here in KC... and guess where I spend most of my beer money.
title quote attributed to Plato