Ten years ago, a new restaurant could open without any attention to a cocktail list. But in 2019? You’d be hard-pressed to find a modern restaurant opening without some form of a cocktail list, whether as modest as a few simple highballs or sophisticated enough to be the equal of any cocktail bar.
That doesn’t mean a bartender is always behind the cocktails. At Prairie, a new loosely modern-Italian restaurant in San Francisco’s Mission District, chef and owner Anthony Strong designed the cocktail list himself. “I’m a cocktail nerd, for sure,” says Strong. “I wanted to give the drinks at Prairie a chef’s attention. And I wanted to geek out on them like I did the kitchen but without being too out there.”
So what happens when the kitchen is behind the bar? In the case of Prairie, it means a chef who approaches the cocktail list from the perspective of pure flavor and not mixology shenanigans. “I love working behind the bar on drinks just as much as I do in the kitchen with food,” says Strong. “Creating a cohesive cocktail is basically just the cold version of composing a unified dish.”
To a large extent, that translates to thoughtful revisions of classics. Some are barely updated at all. “We serve our Aperol Spritz in a Burgundy glass,” he says, because there’s something decadent in the size. “It’s basically a goblet.”
For Prairie’s carbonated Negroni, Strong kept the basic profile—Gordon’s gin, Campari and Casa Martelletti sweet vermouth—but realized the drink was a bit too heavy to take well to carbonation. So he thinned it out with a bit of white wine, a white Salice Salentino from Puglia, “to bring down the viscosity and make it a little unique and special,” he says. “It’s what I always wished a Negroni Sbagliato could be like.”
From the outset, Strong wanted his cocktail list, and even his spirit selection, to be focused and concise. “I didn’t want to have every alcohol; I don’t think we need it,” he says. “With a huge list, there are so many moving parts. I wanted a small curated list, skewing Italian, with a good dose of irreverence”—all very much in line with Prairie’s menu. “Simplicity is definitely a key component to our cocktail program. It fits the aesthetic we’re looking for and allows for consistency and speed,” he says.
Highball with lemon verbena (image: Aubrie Pick)
Several cocktails are explicitly intended for food pairing, including the highballs made with Strong’s beloved Toki highball machine. “Pairing cocktails with food is hard,” says Strong. “But I became infatuated with highballs in Japan. And there, everyone’s guzzling them down.”
Distinctive, aromatic garnishes, such as Buddha’s Hand or lemon verbena, lend the drinks an added burst of character. There’s also a higher-end Hibiki Harmony highball and a Gin Rickey with Amarena cherry syrup.
Strong’s more original cocktails often have stories behind them or build to showcase a single ingredient. The visually striking Becky with the Good Hair, with a base of City of London gin, Cocchi Americano, lime and ginger, gets its hue from orange sea buckthorn berry that’s juicy and pungently tart. “It’s foraged wild in Washington State and then juiced.”
Italian Greyhound (image: Nick Vasilopoulos)
The Italian Greyhound—Hangar 1 vodka, St. George Bruto Americano, Cappelletti and “ultra-fresh” grapefruit—is refreshing and gently bitter, an ideal apéritif, which stars grapefruit that’s juiced to order on a rattling plastic machine right behind the bar. “I worked in Rome when there wasn’t much of a cocktail culture,” says Strong. “I’d hang out at brightly lit bars with futbol on TV and old men hanging out. And the bartender would be with his old cronies, squeezing grapefruit from this old juicer behind the bar and drinking it. There was something I loved about it.”
For some of his cocktail creations, Strong turned to his roots. His Prairie Sour evokes memories from his childhood in Iowa, made with Templeton rye (based in Iowa), egg white (which, he says, “reminds me of eggs for breakfast and fluffy white snow”). Where Strong would meet the bus to go to school, he says, “there was a kid who’d always smell like maple syrup. And the bus driver kind of smelled like whiskey.” He uses Aunt Jemima for a full-on fake maple effect and then, rather than double-shaking, hits the drink on a milkshake blender. It’s old-fashioned Americana in a slightly irreverent sour.
“So many bars do stuff that’s out-there,” says Strong. “I wanted to reference things that I love and make drinks that are simple and satisfying.”