They love vodka in Atlanta. Lo-o-o-o-ve vodka. Sure, they’re fans of fine wine, too, and enjoy trying brews from all over the world. The Martini has ascended to the throne and remain king here, though, with every restaurant working on finding a way to distinguish its own array of them.
Some restaurants keep to authentic, classic Martinis served in stylish glasses, and even begging customers to state specifically when they want vodka, not Martini’s true base, gin. Others color-coordinate frosted Martini glasses to the flavor of the vodka used, or serve oversized versions with iced sidecars holding extra beverage. And customers here like to order their Martinis by brand name, happy to pay a premium for Absolut, Skyy, Grey Goose, Ketel One or another high-end name. Whatever the method of delivery, Atlanta’s restaurants are boosting check averages by way of beautiful-looking beverage-alcohol cocktails.
“In terms of liquor, vodka rules,” says Richard Marmulstein, co-owner of the contemporary American menued Dick and Harry’s. “We sell more vodka than anything else, and the drinks we sell, vodka-wise, are Martinis.”
“You can go to a ‘Martini Night’ every night of the week,” adds Holly Beach, general manager of Lo Spuntino, a wine bar and retail store in Buckhead. “You can go to Blue Point on Tuesdays, Brio on Wednesday, and so on.”
ALL AROUND THE TOWN
The current Martini trend (really an Alternatini wave: the classic gin and vermouth pairing is way down on the list of popular drinks here, and even plain vodka Martinis rank low compared to Cosmos, Lemon Drops and Apple Martinis these days) applies to customers across many market segments. Affluent customers in their 30s, 40s and 50s are beginning meals with them in fine dining restaurants in Buckhead. The younger crowd drinks them in clubs to the sounds of techno-music downtown and midtown. “Buckhead has gotten so unhot and midtown has been getting really, really hot,” notes Holly Beach, who leaves the Buckhead area to go clubbing. “The money spenders, the people who really go out, who do the scene, who wait in line, they’re drinking Martinis and high-end wines away from Buckhead. The city people are running away from the suburb people.”
While Beach does her own partying in those hot places, she happily makes her living running a sophisticated wine bar for a 40ish crowd. Lo Spuntino’s marble bar has 50 chairs and plenty of room for standing. It stocks 50 wines by the one-ounce taste and more than 200 by the bottle. Beach is eager to serve obscure wines, such as Viansa from a Sonoma Winery that “you can’t get anywhere else in the U.S.,” she says.
To complement the wines, Lo Spuntino offers Italian-influenced tapas like bruschetta, hot smoked salmon and tiramisu, priced at $4.99 to $8.99.
Of course, just to cover its beverage bases, Lo Spuntino offers its own version of the Martini. The Lo Spotini is saké that has been infused with fruit for a week, poured off over Champagne, shaken and served in a Martini glass.
Grappa, too, is a high-end establishment heavy on wine but with a signature Martini. The casually elegant, 60-seat restaurant, which serves creative fare, is heavy on boutique wineries among its 45 selections. “We put a lot of effort into having customers drink wines that don’t pop up everywhere,” explains owner Daniel Cosenzi. “Instead of a pinot noir, we’ll have them drinking a gamay noir.” Recent selections included Delaporte Sancerre for $39 a bottle and Cancelli Sangiovese for $7 a glass, $28 a bottle. Servers here are well trained to make recommendations and the restaurant does suggest wine and food pairings.
While most tables order a bottle of wine with dinner, about 10 percent begin their meal with the Grappalini. “It’s just an altered version of the Italian Bellini,” Cosenzi explains. “Ours has a Napa Valley white peach puree with a splash of passion fruit from Napa Valley. Then, instead of lemon juice, we use a splash, like half a shot, of Ketel One Citron, which gives it more of a kick. Then we add the Champagne. It’s really refreshing.”
While diners at Grappa enjoy their Martinis and wines with the likes of grilled rosemary balsamic poussin with portabello red onion pepper “hash,” other Atlantans have theirs with steak and sushi at such places as Prime. There, nearly 20 percent of the restaurant’s sales are for wine, says manager Steffen Gaebler. Prime offers 300 wines, 60 of those by the glass, with white zinfandel a top seller on weekends, and high-end red wines selling strongly to a business crowd on midweek.
Selections there include a California Bandiera Chardonnay for $6.25 a glass, $24 a bottle; a Rhone Guigal Gigondas for $9.75 a glass, $38 a bottle; and Murphy Goode Reserve Fume Blanc Alexander Valley for $45 a bottle. Those wines pair with soy-marinated sea bass “steak” with shitake miso broth, shrimp dumplings and saikon sprouts, and Kansas City steak.
Before sitting at a prime Prime table and ordering that wine, though, Prime’s customers also are opting for Alternatinis. Cosmopolitans are the #1 seller, Gaebler reports. Also selling strongly are infused Finlandia vodkas. Prime’s bar has three flavors at one time, each having macerated for up to five days. Flavors include pineapple with strawberries, and citrus with orange, lemon and cranberry. They’re served straight up, on the rocks, and shaken and served in Martini glasses.
At Dish, a 90-seat global American food restaurant, 70 percent of diners begin the evening with cocktails, and vodka Martinis are what they ask for…by name. “Most of the time they call a brand name, like Absolut, Absolut Citron, Mandrin, Stolichnaya, Belvedere, Grey Goose and Skyy,” says owner Bryan Wilson.
At Dick and Harry’s, a neighborhood place serving the 30- to 50-crowd a bistro-type menu from crabcakes to kangaroo, martinis are big business. The restaurant’s Martini menu is small, but the cocktails themselves are large. Dick and Harry’s serves its Martinis with three ounces of vodka or gin, which becomes a five-ounce drink when shaken with vermouth. Bartenders pour some of the Martini in a glass and the rest into a sidecar on ice, to keep the cocktail well chilled. Classic Martinis sell best, though some customers request an apple variation or a Cosmopolitan.
Servers are trained to upsell customers. When a customer orders a Martini, therefore, servers know to ask what brand of vodka they’d like. “Very few will say, ‘Whatever your well brand is,'” Marmulstein reports. In the past, he adds, nearly everyone ordered Absolut but today he’s “noticed that Grey Goose has picked up quite a bit.”
Those who sit at restaurant tables rather than the bar tend to order wine with their meals. Along with spicy chili-rubbed tuna steak with green chili cilantro grits and marinated tomatoes and ancho vinaigrette, or pan-seared emu with Yukon Gold mashed potatoes, creamy woodland mushrooms and Burgundy poached pears in red wine sauce, diners can opt for any of 200 wines, 20 available by the glass. Popular are a Napa Cakebread chardonnay ($70), a Trefethen “Estate” merlot ($46) and a La Crema Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir ($38).
HERE COMES THE SUN
Martinis are big business at the Sun Dial Restaurant, Bar & View, a revolving restaurant 72 floors above Atlanta. While tourists comprise 70 percent of the restaurant and bar’s four million annual visitors, locals make up the rest. Many come for special occasions; on average, eight lovestruck men propose marriage in the restaurant to their every Friday and Saturday night.
And what do they drink? You guessed it. Martinis. The menu offers seven varieties, one for each day of the week. To be fair, the Sun Dial sells several other beverages, too. Frozen specialty drinks such as the Atlanta Hurricane are huge: The Atlanta Hurricane is a combination of a Pina Colada and a Strawberry Daiquiri served in a souvenir glass. The Southern Sunset Cooler, also served in a souvenir glass, is a blend of amaretto, bourbon and rum topped with pineapple juice.
Seasonal wine promotions boost check averages at dinner. Servers carrying baskets of wine bottles will pitch half-ounce tastings of four wines for $8.95. Tastes might be of refreshing pinto grigio, chardonnay, sauvignon blanc and riesling in summer, billed as “Summer Breeze” and served on a silver platter. Reds are marketed similarly in winter. The wines accompany a mostly traditional steakhouse menu.
On Sunday mornings, a Bloody Mary buffet is a big seller. Customers can help themselves to any of six Bloody Mary juices, six vodkas, six garnishes, bleu cheese-stuffed olives, popcorn shrimp, pickled green beans, pickled carrots, and a Bloody Mary seasoning mix.
Martinis are also hot at Fandangle’s, which bills itself as a Martini bar and dinner restaurant. Located within the Sheraton Atlanta Hotel and opened in 1999, Fandangle’s has colorful glasses carefully matched to each martini on its menu. The biggest seller, the Georgia Beach, is served in a peach-color frosted pastel martini glass with a Z stem. It is made with Absolut vodka, peach schnapps and peach juice. Other flavors include the Julep, made with Absolut, Crown Royal and dark cr