It is with great pleasure that Cheers recognizes three independent restaurant and bar owners for their beverage innovation and their commitment to the highest standards of excellence in service.
Five-location cocktail bar Mercadito combines a swank space with an exciting cocktail lineup and a deep list of sipping spirits. Washington, D.C.’s Birch & Barley and ChurchKey concepts offer outstandingly deep and varied beer lists that include fifty beers on draft and five hundred bottle selections. The Summit at the Broadmoor Hotel in Colorado Springs features a lengthy, exciting and esoteric wine list and a huge staff of sommeliers to help guests choose.
Now in its fifth year, the Cheers Benchmark 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 clearly raising the bar, reaching standards that other operators may strive to attain. Congratulations to the 2011 Cheers Benchmark Award winners!
Best Cocktail Lounge
Stepping in to Chicago’s Mercadito on a crowded weekend night, the energy is as palpable as the throb of the dance music that pulses through the space. The design is a pastiche of mirrored seventies spangle and mod-Mex muraled art with rustic Latino touches adding warmth. Black-T-shirt clad servers weave through a diverse crowd: A family with teens sits next to a girls-night-out table of 20-something Muslim women in hijabs and a corporate group does tequila shots. Most sample some of the tacos, guacamoles or ceviches. Most also order cocktails with those noshes.
That what once started as a Mexican tacos and small plate New York City space without a spirit license is now a multi-city concept known for its cocktails, bears witness to the power of teamwork and creative tenacity. Concept creators Alfredo, Patricio and Felipe Sandoval launched Mercadito in 2004, added Mercadito Cantina as a casual NYC eatery in 2008. They then tasked New York-based Tippling Bros. Paul Tanguay and Tad Carducci with creating drinks. Not satisfied with settling simply on sangria, Tanguay and Carducci created wine-based ponches (punch), beer-based miches (beer cocktails) and worked mixology magic with a sake adding a complicated blend of infusions and tinctures to create “Tric-quila” a tequila-like base for Margaritas.
But with the October, 2009 opening of a much-larger Mercadito with a full-liquor license in Chicago, Tanguay and Carducci were given carte blanche to make the bar a much bigger focus. Carducci created big-selling drinks such as the Pepino El Pyu, $11—made with Tres Generaciones Blanco Tequila, cucumber and hoja santa. Yes, the name is meant to sound like Warner Bros. Looney Tunes skunk Pepé Le Pew. It’s a veiled reference to myth that hoja santa (“sacred leaf”), the aromatic herb used in the drink, was once used to add fresh fragrance to infant Jesus’ drying diapers. Other irreverent fun can be found in more Mercadito top-sellers: the Missionary’s [repo]sition, $12 is made with Olmeca Altos Reposado and rioja-pear syrup and, the Big Nose Goes to Mexico, $13, a “Mexican tiki drink” of Herradura Blanco, dark rum and guava, is a flaming sensation named for Admiral Big Nose. There are more than 110 offerings and all tequila shots are served with sangrita; while all mezcal are served with oranges and chile piquin.
“The cornerstone of the whole list is that we built it using only 100 percent blue agave tequila,” says Carducci. The ripple effect of Tippling Bros. Chicago cocktail menu has spread through all of Mercadito’s four-units. The core menu will stay at about 13 cocktails and expect some innovations from Mercadito’s newest sibling, Tavernita (for which Tippling Bros. will also create cocktails) to cross-pollinate: Tavernita will be making its own vermouth and fortified wines, and, says Carducci, expects to offer some “cocktails on draft.”
Best Wine Bar
Summit at the Broadmoor
Colorado Springs, Colorado
Pike’s Peak is a 14,000-foot summit that looms over the 744-room Broadmoor Hotel & Resort in Colorado Springs, Colo. So, it’s only fitting that the Broadmoor, which has 18 food and beverage outlets, would hatch a restaurant called Summit, whose broad and innovative wine program has elevated its reputation to that of a heavenly destination. Summit, which opened in 2006, is the third of three luxury restaurants at the tony Broadmoor, which dates to 1918. The others are Penrose Room and Charles Court.
Tim Baldwin, director of wine at the Broadmoor, envisioned Summit “as being innovative, something different, a place that focused on giving people things they hadn’t seen before.” He wanted an environment “where customers could feel they’d really gotten off the beaten path.”
Baldwin got into the restaurant business through friends of his family. In the early years, he bussed tables and worked in the kitchen before being exposed to the business side. He attended The University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, where he eventually ended up at the Broadmoor.
There, he trained under the hotel’s wine specialist, enhancing a growing passion for wine. “I love the fact that all these wine regions have histories dating back thousands of years,” he says. So, the vision for Summit grew in his head for years. It extended not only to wine but also to a calculated sense of elegance in design.
Adam Tihany, one of the world’s foremost restaurant designers, mapped out Summit’s ultra-chic look and fueled it with a theme of energy and motion. The restaurant’s 60-foot-long glass-enclosed wine room sports a sleek, vertical turret in the center, around which the room is abuzz with activity. The Broadmoor has three staff members hoping to become master sommeliers, of which Baldwin is one.
Summit focuses on “lesser-known product, grapes and regions people haven’t really seen before.” It has 300 selections on its wine list, with 3,500 bottles in its cellar. The Broadmoor as a whole, he says, carries 2,000 selections of wine, with about 28,000 bottles of wine.
Summit’s wines include a Villányi 2006 Pinot Noir from Hungary, that costs $47 for a bottle and $11 for a glass; Fantinel 2008 Ribolla Gialla, Vignetti Sant Helena, that Baldwin sells for $13 a glass and $52 a bottle; and Heidi Schrock 2008 Furmint, from Austria, that goes for $10 a glass and $42 a bottle. When Summit opened five years ago it did well through the economic downturn, he says, having weathered a slow 2009 to come roaring back in 2010 and 2011. As a result, Summit’s wine consumers are far more advanced than they were five years ago, Baldwin says. Interest in wine has increased so much, he says, that it’s now “the No. 1 alcoholic beverage consumed in the United States.” And at Summit, the curve just keeps rising higher, from turret to glass.
Best Beer Bar
Birch & Barley
Some may argue that Washington, D.C. is not a big beer town, but don’t suggest that to Greg Engert. As proof, the passionate beer director at the duo of brew-centric bars in the District’s thriving 14th Street neighborhood will throw down the selection of fifty drafts, five hundred bottles and fifteen rotating cask ales—and cite the line of thirsty hop-heads that routinely snakes around the block on busy evenings.
The venues were opened in October of 2009 by the Neighborhood Restaurant Group and share the same roof and impressive selection of suds. But each has its own space, with individual food menus and ambiance. Upstairs, ChurchKey blends industrial and Victorian elements. Exposed ducts and steel beams co-exist with sumptuous sofas and velvet curtains.
At Birch and Barley downstairs, the vibe is modern and minimal, with warm dark wood and flickering candles. The centerpiece of the room is the so-called “beer organ” that melds both spaces. Pipes are cooled with glycol to a lower temperature than the drafts that travel through them, assuring that they will be served to guests at the perfect degree of coolness—in one of fifteen types of glassware designed to draw out aromas and flavors in much the same way specialized wine glasses do.
Engert tirelessly works the tables of both floors to offer flavor profiles and menu pairings for executive chef Kyle Bailey’s American menu. Current menu faves include selections like Cuvée des Jonquilles, a dry Belgian-style Saison from Northern France. He recommends it with a Salad of White Wine-Braised Escargot—the beer’s earthy and spicy notes both complement the snails’ garlic sauce, and contrast their briny notes, he says.
“My over-arching philosophy is to first consistently source the finest craft brews in the world, with a nod toward uncovering little-known gems,” he explains. Here, it’s all about seeking out sublime flavor; profitability and cost control admittedly take a necessary backseat.
A highly motivated and well-educated staff makes a visit approachable for beer newbies, and challenging and intriguing for even the most seasoned aficionados, by making thoughtful—and oftentimes unexpected—recommendations. Weekly tastings and a 120-page manual written by Engert augment staff training. The list is categorized by easy to understand categories: “Crisp,” “Hop,” “Malt,” “Roast,” “Smoke,” “Fruit” and Spice.” Drafts account for 70 percent of sales, with the remaining evenly split between bottle and cask ales.
Birch and Barley and ChurchKey have undoubtedly become the places to enjoy beer inside the Beltway. “I am most proud of the service we offer, from the high level of beer knowledge that spans all styles, histories, flavors and ingredients, to the knowledge of beer-food pairing and proper serving techniques,” muses Engert. “Many brewers send us the coolest and rarest stuff they have. I like to think that if they only have a little they want to make sure that little bit
shows best outside of the brewery.”