What: Bar Louie • When: 1991 • Where: Chicago
Why: The fast-growing chain has found a formula for bringing good cocktails, beer and wines to the masses in a trendy bar format. Launched by Chicago restaurateur Roger Greenfield, Bar Louie describes itself as an eclectic urban bar. Long before craft caught on, the concept became known for its beverage program—namely, its handcrafted signature Martinis, along with Mojitos and Margaritas made from premium liquors, fresh fruit and hand-squeezed juices. Bar Louie also has a serious draft beer and wine-by-the-glass selection, and offers casual fare such as flatbreads, salads, burgers and sandwiches. Now headquartered in Addison, TX, Bar Louie has been part of investment firm Sun Capital since 2005 and currently boasts more than 90 locations in the U.S.
What: Yard House • When: 1996
Where: Long Beach, CA
Why: The beer-centric operator rode the craft wave early on and developed a brand based on its vast selection of brews, eclectic cuisine and carefully curated classic-rock-music playlists. When Steele Platt, a former Denver restaurateur, opened the first Yard House along the Long Beach waterfront, he wanted 400 beers on draft tap handles. But space was limited so he settled on 250. Although interest in microbeers waned for a few years in the late 1990s, the Yard House thrived, growing and expanding steadily, inspiring scores of other beer-driven concepts. The chain, which now has more than 50 locations and sales of about $400 million, caught the eye of Darden Restaurants, which bought Yard House in 2012 for $585 million—one of the highest purchase prices ever paid for a private restaurant chain.
What: Fleming’s Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar
When: 1998 • Where: Newport Beach, CA
Why: The chain of 66 locations nationwide, founded by restaurant industry veterans Paul Fleming and Bill Allen, has made serious strides in wine education and innovation. For one, the Fleming’s 100 is the restaurant’s award-winning collection of 100 wines by the glass. The program was developed by Marian Jansen op de Haar, who served as the chain’s corporate wine director from 2000 to 2011 (she is now principal of wine consultancy Vines 57). In 2007, she began creating private-label wines for Fleming’s under the 46 Diamonds label, partnering with premium wineries and winemakers from around the world. Fleming’s also launched a Winepad custom iPad app in 2013, which helps guests navigate the massive wine list to find the right wine to match a mood or a meal. The app provides such information as ratings tasting notes and recommendations by national director of wine Maeve Pesquera.
What: Milk & Honey • When: 2000 • Where: New York
Why: The initial space on the Lower East Side was the bar that launched the speakeasy/craft/classic cocktail lounge movement in the U.S. The 20-seat concept, opened by Sasha Petraske, had no sign, no phone and no menu, and you needed a reservation to get in. And if you got in, there was a list of house rules you had to abide by. But the drinks were killer and the attention to detail and service was impressive; a London branch of Milk & Honey opened in 2002. Petraske, who is also behind New York bars White Star, Little Branch and Dutch Kills, moved the original Milk & Honey (now the home of Attaboy) uptown to a larger space in 2013. That location had just closed at press time due to lease issues and was said to be reopening in another spot in New York this winter.
WHAT: Tilted Kilt Pub & Eatery
When: 2003 • Where: Las Vegas
Why: Maybe Hooters was first in 1983, but nonetheless Tilted Kilt is a key player in the “breastaurant” (or “attentive service”) sector. With the tagline “a cold beer never looked so good,” the original concept of a Celtic-themed sportsbar with scantily clad (in tartan plaid bras and miniskirts) female servers opened in the Rio Hotel in Las Vegas. Tilted Kilt founders Mark DiMartino, Shannon Reilly and John Reynaud later brought on franchise developer Ron Lynch and moved the headquarters to Tempe, AZ, and started expanding. The chain, which operates 96 locations in the U.S. and Canada with 20 in development, did $196 million in sales last year, and paved the way for like-minded chains such as Twin Peaks, Bone Daddy’s House of Smoke, Mugs ‘N Jugs and Bikinis.
WHAT: The Violet Hour
When: 2007 • Where: Chicago
Why: A pioneering force in the Chicago craft cocktail craze, The Violet Hour was spearheaded by “Head Intoxicologist” Toby Maloney of New York’s Milk & Honey, with help from Chicago restaurateur Terry Alexander and Jason Cott’s Alchemy Consulting. With velvet curtains, a marble bar and crystal chandeliers, The Violet Hour is as sophisticated as it is swanky. The seasonal menu highlights bespoke gin, rum and whiskey cocktails, along with a heavy dose of Maloney’s signature bitters; vodka cocktails are downplayed in an attempt to steer patrons away from their old standbys. In addition to being among the early craft cocktail bars in the Windy City, Violet Hour’s legacy includes the many new spots recently launched by its alums, including Sable (Mike Ryan), Big Star (Michael Rubel), Barrelhouse Flat (Stephen Cole) and Analogue (Robby Haynes and Henry Prendergast).
WHAT: Drink • When: 2008 • Where: Boston
Why: Having already conquered Boston’s culinary scene with No. 9 Park, B&G Oysters and The Butcher Shop, Barbara Lynch set her sights on what she saw as the glaring hole in Boston’s nightlife scene: a world-class cocktail bar. The brainchild of Lynch and her top barman at No. 9 Park, John Gertsen, Drink quickly became exactly that, winning Tales of the Cocktail’s Best American Cocktail Bar in 2011 and World’s Best Cocktail Bar in 2013. Nestled in the lower level of a renovated wool warehouse, Drink has no set menu: Bartenders create custom cocktails and punches for patrons based on their preferences, using house-made syrups, fresh herbs and juices. Cocktails are served in vintage glasses with ice chipped from a 50-lb. block sitting bar-side. In addition to Gertsen, now the Spirits & Hospitality Ambassador for the Barbara Lynch Gruppo, other talented mixologists who have used Drink as a launching pad for success include Misty Kalkofen (2011 Bartender of the Year nominee), Scott Marshall (currently at 22 Square in Savannah, GA), and new Drink general manager Ezra Star.
WHAT: Smuggler’s Cove
When: 2009 • Where: San Francisco
Why: It’s not easy to do Tiki right—three good Tiki bars have opened and closed in New York in recent years. But Tiki enthusiast Martin Cate seems to have found a winning formula with his five-year-old, award-winning concept Smuggler’s Cove. It helps that Cate is passionate about Tiki cocktails, history and culture: “Tiki is about the adaptation of the look and feel of Polynesian culture without any authenticity,” Cate said during a session at Arizona Cocktail Week earlier this year. Smuggler’s Cove builds on the craft/classic cocktail trend of returning to original recipes, fresh fruit, juice and syrups and carefully measuring ingredients. The success of Smuggler’s Cove, which made the 2014 list of the world’s 50 best bars, no doubt helped inspire craft Tiki cocktail spots such as Hale Pele (Portland, OR), Three Dots and a Dash (Chicago), and Latitude 29, just opened in New Orleans by Tiki expert Jeff “Beachbum” Berry.
WHAT: Canon Whiskey and Bitters Emporium
When: 2011 • Where: Seattle
Why: Canon is the Cooperstown of cocktails, the Louvre of libations, the wonderland of whiskeys. Drinking in the surroundings is as much a part of the experience as the drinking itself. Co-owner and manager Jamie Boudreau has amassed a collection of nearly 3,000 bottles of spirits, which are displayed like works of art on floor-to-ceiling shelves. As such, the liquor is treated with reverence and the cocktails are crafted with care. The assortment of spirits is heavy on whiskeys and features hundreds of vintage treasures dating as far back as the 1880s. Canon rose from the ashes of Vessel–Boudreau’s popular first Seattle bar—and quickly gained worldwide acclaim. In fact, it landed at No. 6 on Drink International’s list of the World’s 50 Best Bars 2014, a year after winning the award for World’s Best Drink Selection from Tales of the Cocktail.
WHAT: The Dead Rabbit Grocery & Grog
When: 2013 • Where: New York
Why: The Dead Rabbit is a winning and unusual amalgam of a world-class cocktail lounge, a craft beer bar and neighborhood pub all in one. It’s located in a 200-year-old building in the southern tip of Manhattan, fittingly not far from where legendary American bartender Jerry Thomas opened his first bars.
Named for one of the Irish gangs that roamed the waterfront area in the mid 19th century, The Dead Rabbit includes an old-timey beer and whisky taproom on the first floor, complete with a sawdust-strewn floor, and a more refined cocktail parlor upstairs.
Cofounders Jack McGarry and Sean Muldoon honed their skills at The Merchant Hotel in Belfast (World’s Best Cocktail Bar in 2010 at Tales of the Cocktail). Bar manager McGarry, who had also previously worked at Milk & Honey London, created the Dead Rabbit’s drink program, an extensive selection of historically based beverages that required testing and tweaking thousands of pre-Prohibition recipes.
The result is a massive menu offering more than 70 cocktails, including flips, bishops, cobblers, fixes, daisies, slings, toddies, juleps and smashes. The Dead Rabbit makes a mean Irish coffee as well. Drinks are priced at $14; communal punches are $50.
Entering the competitive New York cocktail bar market, home of such ground-breakers and standard-setters as The Pegu Club, Death & Co. and Employees Only—to name just a few—is not for the faint of heart. But McGarry and Muldoon “have a determination to be the best,” says King Cocktail Dale DeGroff, who did a guest stint with the pair a few years ago at The Merchant Hotel.
And The Dead Rabbit is clearly one of the best, with a pile of awards to show for it. In less than two years it’s been named one of the World’s 50 Best Bars in North America for 2013 and 2014, and Tales of the Cocktail Spirited Awards for World’s Best New Cocktail Bar (2013); World’s Best Cocktail Menu (2013); International Bartender of the Year 2013 (Jack McGarry); Best American Cocktail Bar (2014); and World’s Best Drink Selection (2014).