It is with great pleasure that Cheers recognizes three independent restaurant and bar owners for their beverage innovations and their commitment to the highest standards of excellence in service.
San Francisco cocktail den Rickhouse uses only the freshest, best ingredients behind the bar to create classic and contemporary libations in a city known for its cocktail history. Washington, D.C.’s Belga Café’s passion for Belgian brews and cuisine is matched only by its superior service and welcoming neighborhood atmosphere. And BOKA Kitchen and Bar in Seattle is a vibrant blend of wine bar, lounge and restaurant, with a proud emphasis on Pacific Northwest wines.
Now in its fourth year, the Cheers Benchmark Awards, Beverage Excellence Awards for non-chain hospitality venues, were created to honor those independent establishments that are true drink destinations. Benchmark Awards are presented in three categories: Best Cocktail Lounge, Best Beer Bar and Best Wine Bar. To qualify, entrants must be independent operators, defined as concepts operating in no more than five locations and independently owned or part of a hotel or multi-concept restaurant company.
This year’s winners are indeed raising the bar, reaching standards that other operators may strive to attain. Congratulations to the 2010 Cheers Benchmark Award winners! Operators
Best Cocktail Lounge
Erick Castro, general manager
Just as the best cocktails are conceived to strike a perfect balance between eclectic ingredients, Rickhouse opened in June 2009 with the same intention; it strikes an equilibrium between general manager Erick Castro’s vision of authenticity and his pursuit of innovation. The bar is part of the San Francisco-based Future Bars group which also owns Bourbon & Branch.
Castro’s master plan for Rickhouse is analogous to that of an ideal cocktail in which little or nothing has been left to chance in the making. The concept itself was inspired by history, more specifically, two of the beverage industry’s seminal cocktail books-Professor Jerry Thomas’ The Bartender’s Guide and The Savoy Cocktail Book and the countless hours of research that provided Castro with his philosophy and an authentic cocktail menu.
While Castro and his staff of 30 make it look effortless from across the bar, what elevates the spirits program at Rickhouse is largely what goes on behind the scenes. Castro learned his trade in the corporate hotel world which he credits for the organizational and housekeeping skills that form the basis of his operation, but the finesse comes from bringing together a carefully researched list of best practices in a single operation. “Most bar programs are built around the vision of an individual bartender or consultant, once they leave the payroll, the program falls apart,” he says. His solution: a surprisingly low-technology collection of systems that facilitates communication, prevent bottlenecks and empowers his staff. It keeps everyone up to speed on inventory levels, the status of out-of-stock items and revised recipes when a new product is introduced. With a system in place to capture best practices, Castro spends less time worrying about day-to-day operations and can devote more time to training his staff, managing customer expectations and developing recipes.
If there is anything missing at Rickhouse, it would be the conventional. While the bar has house recipes for the classics, you won’t find a Manhattan or a Martini on the list. Castro’s desire was to create a bar where people can experience “new” cocktails so the menu features Daisies, Swizzles and Cobblers most of which originated in the 1860s and 1870s and has resulted in a house style that is based on the absence of modern influences. “Almost every cocktail on our menu could have been made 100 years ago,” explains Castro.
Despite all evidence to the contrary, contemporary influences have played a role in elevating Rickhouse. “It’s really those operations that have set their standards sky high-Death & Co. and Please Don’t Tell (PDT) in New York and people like Erik Adkins at Slanted Door here in San Francisco-that inspire us to excel.” With a carefully edited soundtrack of Southern Blues setting the tone in the bar, Rickhouse excels at capturing what is best described by Castro as the “ethos of San Francisco,” the distinctive character, spirit and attitudes of the place that we call home.
Best Wine Bar
BOKA Kitchen and Bar
Jason Harris, director of food and beverage
Being independent is key to the success of BOKA Kitchen and Bar in Seattle. As a single-unit operation, BOKA menus the wines it thinks fit its location and clientele perfectly.
“For us, it starts with being able to get the wines we want to get,” says director of food and beverage, Jason Harris.
Harris’ goal has been to build a list that entices new wine drinkers while delivering to the oenophiles. He’s done this with a mix of wines that guests can only find at BOKA.
His inspiration “comes from many years of trying different wines and always remembering that as consumers’ tastes and spending habits change, the wine list must change as well,” he explains.
“With many new varietals becoming known and different regions gaining popularity, the wine ‘game’ stays very fresh.” BOKA’s wine list features many hard-to-find wines from smaller vineyards and unusual varietals. Having a diverse wine list suits BOKA and is an anomaly in Seattle where Keen walking shoes and North Face jackets are de rigueur; BOKA has the hipness you’d expect to find in Miami, New York or Las Vegas. Panels of changing colors of glass adorn the back of the restaurant; while modern furniture is set under wood beams, leaving BOKA hovering between the new and the old.
It’s not just the restaurant’s style that makes BOKA stand out in Seattle; its wine list does, too. BOKA’s 125-bottle wine list, priced from $40 to $80, has strong leanings toward the west—Washington, Oregon and California—but there are plenty of Old World wines and nods towards countries like New Zealand and Chile.
However, it’s important to not just focus on Northwest wines, explains Harris. “We don’t want to alienate people and it’s important to match up the wines you have with your cuisine.”
Harris does this by offering a progressive list organized from lighter to fuller bodied and being open to any tastes. “Someone that loves a dry chardonnay, can-and should-enjoy that with whatever they are eating,” he points out. “When choosing a wine, I believe that you should be looking to fill a taste profile; all foods taste different to someone’s palate-wine is the same way.”
It’s also essential that the wine list change regularly, he says, and for that he often turns to his customers. “We use our guests with great wine knowledge to our advantage; they in some ways help guide us to what they want to see on the list.”
To make it easy for wine novices, the serving staff has a good base knowledge and is trained to make the wine list user-friendly. The progressive list allows them to really use the wine list as a tool to help diners determine what they want. “Having the crew understand the philosophy of a progressive list is the biggest part of training them, which then directly affects sales.”
Independent, unusual and unintimidating are three standout features of a wine list that doesn’t leave anyone wondering why diners return to BOKA for a fantastic wine experience.
Best Beer Bar
Bart Vandaele, owner
“I am a Belgian showcasing Belgian beer.” Succinctly but accurately is how chef and owner Bart Vandaele explains the concept for his Washington, D.C.-based Belga Café, which stemmed from his desire to educate guests about the beer culture in which he was raised in his native Belgium.
His Capitol Hill hotspot opened five years ago and was one of the only Belgian establishments in D.C. Since its inception, everyone from Capitol Hill staffers and lawmakers to beer aficionados flocks to Belga Café for authentic brews and cuisine in a convivial atmosphere. The Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington has given it three nominations for Neighborhood Gathering Place of the Year. The District’s Belgian residents also consider it a must-see destination.
Vandaele opened it after stints as a cook, sous chef and executive chef. He grew up in his father’s restaurant in Belgium prior to coming to the United States, where he served as the chef for both the Dutch and the European Union embassies.
Belga Café’s warm feel attracts a diverse clientele, but it’s the beer selection that keeps them returning. The list features 150 Belgian beers categorized into styles including saisons, Trappist ales, abbey beers and lambics, priced from $4.95 for a pint of Belga Pils, to a three liter bottle of Chimay Grand Reserve Blue for $180. Draft staples include Stella Artois, Hoegaarden and Leffe. Vandaele also actually serves as a national brand ambassador for the three producers.”
“We keep the core of our menu pretty consistent because we want to ensure the best quality beers,” he says. Vandaele’s close connections to Belgian importers assures that Belga is often the first place in the city—or even the country—to carry hard-to-find beers like Duchesse de Bourgogne, Straffe Hendricks and DeuS “Brut des Flandres.” Stemware is unique to each beer’s producer and style.
Belga takes beer to a new level with about 15 beer-inspired cocktails, including the fruity namesake cocktail ($11), which combines St. Louis Pêche Beer with Hangar One Lime Vodka, Crème de Pêche and lime juice, and appeals to guests who typically don’t gravitate towards tap and keg. “I use the beer to balance and enhance the cocktail and complement the alcohol,” explains Vandaele.
He recommends pairing the cocktails with either starters or desserts. The smoothness of The Belga works with rich and spicy appetizer Kip and Krab Sigaar, chicken and crab cigars with assorted sauces; while fruity Belgians Royal Cherry Cocktail ($10.95) is a great match with Bart’s Chocoladetaart, a dense chocolate tart. Dark and robust Rodenbach, a brew which he likens to red Burgundy, matches the complexity of flavors in a Flemish Beef Stew with Frites and Red Cabbage.
Three-course monthly beer dinners feature a range of beers. A friendly gathering place that boasts the real deal both in the glass and on the plate, Belga simply knows great beer, and how to serve it. “In Belgium you are trained in hospitality-not just one aspect,” notes Vandaele. “We are good at what we do and we have the best product available. People like and respect that.”