Dining is more social than ever, with guests looking for unique, shared experiences. To make dining more exciting, beverages big enough for a crowd will pair well with large plate menus. More diners are looking for food-liquor/cocktail pairings, one of the top cocktail trends in the What’s Hot in 2015 report by the National Restaurant Association, so a large plate with beverage pairings is a win-win for operators. While a single shared drink, alcoholic or nonalcoholic, is nothing new, the industry is putting a twist on this age-old tradition with innovative beverage programs meant for a crowd, especially with bottle service and build your own drinks that customers can customize.
Cocktails and Mocktails
Handcrafted cocktails are in the midst of a revival. Use ingredients like vinegar shrubs, fruit, herbs and spices to create brand-specific drinks that complement the flavors of a large plate meal. Or, try showcasing several types of spirits over the course of a large plate meal with a themed cocktail flight. This allows customers to have a unique tasting experience with new trending varieties of bourbon or other custom-distilled liquors, for example. With the diminishing popularity of soda, mock cocktails or “mocktails” are another great way to capitalize on this trend while still reaching consumers who desire a non-alcoholic selection.
Wining and Dining
For patrons who prefer a more traditional pairing of wine, the large plates menu is a good opportunity to showcase lesser-known varieties and expose guests to different kinds they may never have tried. In general, if the same adjectives can be applied to a wine and a dish, the pairing will be harmonious. One of the latest trends, according to Restaurant Hospitality, is wine on tap. These high-quality wines are popular especially among younger consumers who like the idea of keg wine because it doesn’t have the pretension of typical wine bottle service. Wine on tap is advantageous for the operator because restaurants and wine bars are reporting profit margins over 25%. There is also less waste compared to traditional wine by the glass.
Here are some tips for customizing a pairing for a large plates menu.
- Seeing red: Match rich red meats with tannic reds. Steaks and chops complement Cabernet and Bordeaux-style wines. The tannins refresh the palate after each bite. Big and bold Malbecs and Shirazes love heavily spiced barbecued meats. Tannins are an ideal complement to luxurious meats – making bold reds like Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah great matches for duck.
- Down to earth: Platters with earthy flavors – think bison and other similar game – will go well with light bodied wines that are full of depth. Pinot Noir is an obvious choice, but try Dolcetto for something new.
- On the lighter side: Sometimes the main protein isn’t the chief flavor. Pair the wine with the sauce when offering lighter meats such as chicken and pork, which will go nicely with a chardonnay.
One Size Fits All
These days, bottle service is more playful and accessible, and these experiences can be translated to the table, allowing diners to become amateur bartenders who can create their own concoctions. It goes beyond punch bowls: Today’s shared drinks are more creative than ever, with a range in flavors from fresh and light to decadent and rich, and are presented in vessels as diverse as hollowed-out fruit, outrageous giant flasks, or antique pitchers and other creative glassware.
The socially shared experience spurs camaraderie and conversation – and bigger tabs. Especially for the younger set, the price point will be attractive. And it also benefits the restaurant: By doing cocktails in batches, staff labor is cut, especially on high-volume nights. Rather than dedicating staff to taking orders all night, a server can deliver multiple drinks at once with one bottle or other vessel plus a set of glasses. It also makes the experience more enjoyable for guests, who don’t have to try to catch their server’s attention frequently to get a drink. In general, a way to offer this updated version of bottle service is to set out a pitcher or two with the mixers, which can be citrus juices, sodas, and other liquids presented with a few bottles of liquor, simple syrup, bitters, glasses, ice, and garnishes.
The party can mix drinks to their liking: highly potent, no alcohol or somewhere in between. The offerings can reflect a restaurant’s philosophy and sensibility with culinary-driven drinks or go classic with premixed martinis, mojitos, and Manhattans. Nonalcoholic options include lemonades with mix-ins such as fresh fruit and herbs and large batch iced teas.