It’s certainly no surprise that Shanna and I visit our fair share of bars. However, Pittsburgh being a college town (in parts) and a blue-collar town (in other parts), it’s sometimes difficult to find a bartender who’s accustomed to preparing drinks more complicated than 1) open beer 2) hand to customer. Shanna’s Note: Our friends Emily and Hawkeye would also suggest only “AND” drinks for these bars as well, i.e. rum and coke. UPDATE: The bar scene in Pittsburgh has improved dramatically since original publishing. For more info, see here.
But when we do come across a joint that fancies itself somewhat of a cocktail lounge, we have a bit of a preliminary test that we use to judge the bartender and the establishment. This test has (just now for the purposes of this article) been dubbed The Method.
The first step of The Method is to consult the menu. It’s not uncommon, even in the most reputable of establishments, to find a “Martini List” rather than a “Cocktail List.” There is only one Martini (gin and vermouth) with very few acceptable variations, more on this next. Everything else is a cocktail. However, since this is such a widespread error, it’s considered a minor infringement.
The next step is ordering, and the waiter/waitress/bartender’s reaction is what’s being watched. I order a Martini, my drink of choice and the gold standard for judging any bar. This order will invariably be followed by one or more of the following questions which I have categorized as acceptable or unacceptable. (Read more about what makes a Martini a Martini at our creatively titled article On Martinis.)
1) What brand of gin/vermouth?
2) Up or on the rocks?
3) Would you like olive, twist, or both (known as greedy)?
1) What kind of Martini? (Usually accompanied by a puzzled look, this generally means they think you’ve just walked in and said “Give me a cocktail.”)
2) Vodka or gin?
3) Occasionally a server will start to describe the items on their cocktail list. This again means they’ve confused the term “Martini” with “cocktail.”
Shanna, on the other hand, generally orders her drink of choice, The Sidecar. More often than not, a request for this classic cocktail is met with a pause followed by the question, “What’s in that?” The Sidecar is one of the great standby cocktails for the discerning boozehound and any bartender worth their tips should know how to make one. Extra points if they make it with Cointreau, and if the bartender uses fresh squeezed lemon juice, that alone is worth double tip and a pat on the back.
Once you’ve ordered, it’s time to go back to that cocktail list and begin the real scrutiny. For every classic cocktail present (French 75, Firefly, Peg O’ My Heart, etc.) the bar earns one point. For every cocktail that’s based on some variety of commercial flavored vodka (Cranberry-Sour-Apple-Why-Doesn’t-Daddy-Love-Me-tini) deduct one point. Points can be awarded at your discretion for tasty concoctions of the bartender’s own invention, assuming they don’t fall into the previous category. (The Harris Grill in Shadyside, while a bit pricey, is particularly noteworthy in this category with drinks that include homemade bacon-infused vodka. The distinction between over-sweetened commercial flavored vodkas and homemade infused spirits cannot be stressed enough.)
From here, the usual considerations can be applied such as price, quality of service, food, etc. Everyone has their own little pet peeves that should be taken into account. One of mine is that most bartenders will shake a drink, regardless of how it’s supposed to be prepared. It looks cooler and puts on a show, but for any drink without fruit juice or dairy it’s just diluting the spirits.
But by far the most egregious violation I have ever witnessed by an alcohol-serving establishment was at Tusca, a tapas restaurant at the Southside Works. Upon reviewing the “Martini List” I was slightly miffed at the absence of an actual Martini, though this is sadly not uncommon. And then I saw it. Bombay Sapphire Gin with Martini & Rossi Dry Vermouth and three stuffed olives, listed in the menu as a “Stuffed Up.” Someone had decided that to put a Martini on their “Martini List” would run the risk of confusing their customers, and had therefore taken it upon themselves to rename the most classic and iconic of all alcoholic beverages. I was dumbfounded. I wanted to order it, but I didn’t know how. Eventually, when the waitress returned, I held the menu up to her, pointed to the offending cocktail and said, “I want a Martini.” She looked confused. I repeated, “I want a Martini. Dry.” If I ever return to that establishment, it will be to make a toast to their “going out of business” sign. Update: After being shut down in mid-2011 for a disturbingly extensive rodent infestation, Tusca briefly re-opened before the owners filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy and shut down permanently. I’ll drink to that.
So there you have it, the official boozehound’s guide to judging a bar. Use it in good health (make sure to eat your veggies, many of them come in the form of garnishes), good spirits (top-shelf preferred), and good company. It may just inspire you to drink at home more often.