Sometimes you don't want to walk into a bar and say, "I'll have what he's having." When the mood strikes, you want something different and unique. If you trust the bartender, give him or her some artistic freedom to fire up your palate and warm your belly. Here are six creative examples of what can happen when you let your 'tender go off the menu.
When you're someone of somewhat finnicky taste, finding the perfect cocktail can be tough. Luckily craft cocktail bartenders are booze magicians that can create a drink for picky taste buds.
Michelle Willard tends bar at University Heights' Park & Rec (4612 Park Blvd.). While their menu caters to most boozehounds, finding an off-the-menu gem just takes a teeny bit of Sherlocking.
"Usually a customer gets excited about the prospect of having a cocktail specifically catered to their flavor profile. I ask some questions to try and provide them something delicious they may be craving," says Willard. "Any good craft cocktail bartender just wants to make you happy."
Like a much cooler, more attractive troll under the bridge, Willard asked these three questions: What spirit do you like? Are you looking for something more direct (i.e. boozy like an old fashioned) or citrusy? If you want citrus, do you want something light and refreshing or fruity?
My answers: Gin, vodka or rye, citrus and no fruitiness. I was rewarded with a Presbyterian, a bright, slightly spicy concoction made with rye, fresh lime juice, fresh ginger and soda. You can ask for it at the bar or have Willard play matchmaker with your taste buds.
In my head, the loyal regulars at George's at the Cove (1250 Prospect St.) in La Jolla unabashedly wear white pants after Labor Day and boat shoes without socks year-round. That doesn't really sound like someone I'd want to have a drink with, but it's those dedicated devotees' zest for a good refreshing cocktail that's made First Truth available to folks like me, who hit up the swanky restaurant and bar on special occasions. A mix of bourbon, angostura bitters, ginger, mint, soda and handmade strawberry shrub syrup, the off-the-menu drink is deliciously light and likeable—a crowd-pleaser that almost anyone with properly functioning taste buds will dig. "First Truth" is the brainchild of head mixologist Stephen Kurpinsky, who always makes sure the cocktails on and off the menu at George's are as creative and exciting as the innovative food coming out of the kitchen.
It's dangerous to ask a bartender about off-the-menu drinks. You're basically giving them permission to divert from the menu and indulge unhindered. They get excited, and when bartenders get excited, you get drunk.
Take Ryan Koontz, a bartender at El Dorado (1030 Broadway), for example. The East Village bar's rotating menu is already unique and thorough to the point of intimidation, but that doesn't stop the skilled cocktail slinger from adding personal twists and variations to classic recipes. When asked about off-the-menu drinks, Koontz offered up his own variation on the whiskey sour, which included hand-made falernum, and fresh mint.
My favorite, however, was the variation on the archangel—a drink that's beautiful in its simplicity. Normally consisting of gin, Aperol and cucumber, Koontz's variation replaced the gin with mezcal. It's the prettiest, most dignified way to burn a hole in your throat and put hair on your chest.
This perfectly crafted take on the classic Bloody Mary isn't exactly off-the-menu. North Park's Bluefoot Bar & Lounge (3404 30th St.) doesn't have a menu aside from a chalkboard above the bar, listing the day's specials. Still, I'd like to think The Gunslinger was one of the reasons that Bluefoot was recently recognized in an FA Cup Championships soccer program as one of the best U.S. bars to watch international soccer games (most of those games start before 9 a.m., the perfect time for a good Bloody Mary). It's also the reason I'm there every Sunday to watch NFL games. Bartender Dana Chavarria makes his own "salsa" mixer using jalapeños, serranos, onions and a smorgasbord of other ingredients. He doesn't top it with bacon or salad bar fixings to mask the weak taste (a couple olives will do), nor does he have to. The Gunslinger is a meal unto itself and one thatíll wake you up faster than your mama getting you ready for school.
— Seth Combs
The Bee's Knees
Left to my own unimaginative devices at a bar, I'll order a gin on the rocks, garnished with an olive. During a recent visit to Bankers Hill Bar & Restaurant (2202 Fourth Ave.), however, I was being regaled by bartender Keaton Matz about a gin drink that was both sweet and fiery. So I went for the off-menu Bee's Knees. It has an Ancho Reyes Chili liqueur back to it, and a little bit of honey and lemon. The gin they use is from Barr Hill, and it also has a hint of honey in it. It's served over thinly-crushed ice. Just a couple weeks ago, a cast member from Motown The Musical was in the bar after finishing that night's gig at The Civic Theatre (which is roughly six blocks away). She had a couple glasses of wine, and was looking for a cocktail for dessert. She raved, I'm told, over the Bee's Knees. I took a sip of one, channeled Berry Gordy, and pronounced it a hit.
The Casbah Margarita
Go to The Casbah (2501 Kettner Blvd.) in Midtown on a Saturday night, at a sold out show, and you'll witness a sophisticated ballet of beer flowing from taps, cash slapping down on the bartop and people on either side of the transaction shouting "Whaaaaat?!!" There's a system to it—you pay cash, you order something simple, and you get back to the music as fast as you can. You wouldn't think to order a Margarita—that would throw a hefty wrench into this well-oiled machine, right? Well, the person behind you might have to wait a little bit longer, but bartender and part-owner Ben Johnson actually makes a damn good one if you've got a few extra seconds to spare. Made with Cazadores tequila, Triple Sec, lime juice, dashes of sweet and sour and orange juice, salt and lime on the rocks, it's a no-nonsense 'rita. The orange juice is the secret—it adds that extra splash of flavor and je ne sais quoi in this tasty, lime-forward cocktail.