Wednesday, June 24, 2009

"Excellent Things are Rare"

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:
  1. Bad service. Not just mediocre, but bad. Do these places even train their staff?
  2. Bad food. Why provide something that is guaranteed to disappoint your customers?
  3. 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:
  1. Make sure it's easy for your patrons to hear others in their party. Barley's has this nailed. Flying Saucer, not so much.
  2. 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!!
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
These seem kind of obvious, but they're clearly harder to pull off than it appears. Many places come close. I will say that it seems restaurants that focus primarily on food tend to have somewhat-decent beer menus, offering at least some Belgian beer and perhaps a couple items from Bells, Schlafly, or Boulevard. So why is it that good restaurants can make a decent attempt at providing good beer, but so many beer bars fail at providing good food?

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


  1. People just don't care any longer and people who work in restaurants and bars as wait staff have, in general, no real pride in their work. I'm sorry, but that's just the way it is. I long for the days when I lived in Italy and serving was a PROFESSION that you took pride in and would do as your career for your whole life. In the USA, waiting tables is a stepping point for some douche's acting career or whatever. I just don't think people take pride in what they do, therefore they put very little effort into it.

  2. The two places that come to mind that have got it right for me happen to be a couple of minor chains :( I know, I know.
    DuClaw (East Coast)
    Granite City
    Both had great knowledge and service each time I've been and their food is great whether a walleye or a unique steak sandwich (seriously it's like filet), the beer at Granite City could branch out a little bit more.

  3. What about McCoy's/The Foundry. They have pretty good food and good beer.

  4. Their food is fine, and I don't find them really hurting in this area. That said, McCoy's has the same old stuff - pizzas, burgers, wraps, sandwiches, etc. Foundry does fun food (as does Grinders) which is good but I often don't want cheese-covered tots or bacon-smothered salad, you know? It's fun once in a while but it sure would be nice to have some fresh food on the menu.

    And they are exactly who I am talking about when I say "mind your beer".

  5. KC - I thought about going to DuClaw in Baltimore; I'll try to go if I'm back there again as i've heard nothing but great things about them.

    Granite City I have yet to check out, but should. I put them in the same category as BJ's (which we don't have here) - decent food, good beer. I know BJ's gives their brewers some liberty over what they have in stock (and frequently win awards at GABF). I should go... maybe I'll have to do some "research" this weekend!

  6. liquiddiets - I think that attitude is pervasive across all industries and has to do more with our culture than the job. Low-wage jobs are undervalued by our culture and treated as a stepping-stone (as you said) or looked down upon. When others see your job as invaluable or menial, you tend to as well.

    However, I think it is up to the restaurant/bar manager to instill in their staff a sense of pride (and pay wages that support that attitude) in the product. If the bar manager doesn't care about the beer lines, why should the servers? My gripe isn't so much the people who work at the facility but the people who run the places. Educate your staff. Invest in your business. Cater to your clientele.

    I just read something recently that I thought was fantastic. It was talking about winning a large share of a small market and used Nike catering to long-distance runners (when it was a startup) as an example: "It’s much easier to win a large share of a carefully targeted but narrow market—think Nike again—than it is to win a small share of a very large market."

  7. oops - didn't complete my thought. I think that quote fits perfectly to the beer-drinking community. Sure, beer nerds are a very small percentage of all beer drinkers (I think craft breweries have about 5% of market share). But if you cater to them, they are loyal as all get-out. And use media such as to spread the word.

  8. If I have my choice of a wider area, I'd go to Free State. It helps that I'm on the west edge of the metro, so it's about the same time to get to downtown KC and to downtown Lawrence. Thanks for the nice blog, it's one of my favs.

  9. Barry - Thanks for the compliment! I appreciate it.

    And, I completely agree about Free State. I think they have everyone else around here beat on all counts - food, beer, and service. Their only downfalls are that the place is loud and they need a much, much larger/longer bar. I'm willing to completely ignore those, though, on the merits of their food, beer, and service. Their staff know beer and can tell you about it, and bartender Dave is highly entertaining. They offer a constantly-changing "specials" menu and feature a handful of seasonal items that change a few times a year. Their dishes are creative, using ingredients such as pumpkin seeds, black beans, seasonal squash, orecchiete, and other items. Their desserts span beyond the typical brownie/tiramisu/cheesecake/creme brulee. And I think I've only had one experience with a beer there that was disappointing. I should have given them props in my post, but I was so focused on KC that I inadvertently forgot about them! We love Free State and go there about once a month, sometimes more frequently. It's a 45 minute drive for us, but definitely worth it.

  10. Up until about September, I traveled extensively for work, usually on my own. This meant I got to choose the restaurant, which meant going to a brewpub whenever possible.

    I've been to at least 50 of them, and I have experienced everything from dreadful to abso-freaking-lutely stellar beer, food, and service. The stars align only rarely: Great Dane in Madison, Fitger's in Duluth, and Blue Cat in Rock Island, IL are the three which have impressed me most.

    The only one that was a big fat FAIL on all three was Carolina in Chapel Hill. Nothing went right there.

  11. I'll remember those JJSKCK - I travel quite a bit for work as well and try to hit up at least 1 beer bar and/or brewpub on each trip.

    I can't believe I forgot Pelican Pub in Pacific City, OR! Quite possibly the best view from a brewpub in the country, a stellar menu that includes house-cured meat, and some fantastic (award-winning) beer to boot.


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