Fancy Cocktails Have Now Arrived at Your Favorite Chain Restaurants

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That strip mall Strawberry Daiquiri isn’t what it used to be. (Photo courtesy Islands Restaurant)

Suburban living has a lot to offer. Say what you want, city folks, but it’s true.

Reasonable housing prices, good schools, accessible parking spaces. Great if you are starting a family. This is what led my husband and me to move to the hinterlands north of Los Angeles. For the most part, we are content.

Except where are the cocktails?  The real cocktails.  Not Mudslides and Appletinis, but serious drinks for serious drinking. Let’s face it, the average suburban restaurant isn’t exactly the epicenter of the craft cocktail movement. But recently the trickle-down theory has reared its head and higher-end chain restaurants are starting to catch up, offering old-school cocktails for their customers. Suddenly, the ‘burbs are drinking like they mean it.

The realization began with an innocent lunch foray this past summer. I walked into the California Pizza Kitchen near my house and, rather than having only the choice of a Lemon Drop or a Cosmo, I noticed a Strawberry Rhubarb Martini made with Art in the Age Rhubarb liqueur on the menu. Not exactly your average chain-restaurant cocktail.

On a different day, I learned that Islands, purveyors of the Pipeline burger and Yaki tacos, was infusing its tequila with house-roasted pineapple for its Makaha Maggie margarita. And then, during a road trip through Arizona, I found myself in Applebee’s, which bills itself as a “neighborhood bar and grill.” On the menu: an Old Fashioned and a Brandy Smash. I wondered if Jerry Thomas, the proclaimed 19th century godfather of the cocktail movement, was rolling drunkenly around in his grave.

I wondered what led these restaurants—with business already booming—to plunge into the classical drink world. For Mike Hurt, beverage director at Applebee’s, it was as simple as making a good business better. “Momentum behind the bourbon segment of the category is really strong,” he explains. “Consumers have been trending toward brown spirits for some time. Combining that macro-level consumer trend with the trend toward an appreciation for things that are authentic and have some historic relevance led us in this direction.” Business speak, sure, but if Applebee’s is serving up an Old Fashioned and a Smash, you can could certainly argue that craft cocktails are now reaching the masses, not just the cocktail cognoscenti.

Wisely, Applebee’s focused on familiar, basic cocktails without a lot of shaker bells and infusion whistles. Its Old Fashioned and Brandy Smash have several things in common. As Hurt summarizes, “They are really clean, straightforward drinks. They focus primarily on the flavor of the spirit, they are seasonally appropriate and, from an execution standpoint, they are not complicated to make and can be made pretty quickly.” Crafty thinking in a competitive market.

Islands experiments with grilled pineapple–infused tequila in its house cocktails.

Islands Restaurant has a similar concept. “Pineapple is one of Islands’ key ingredients,” says vice president of food and beverage, Tim Perriera. “We use 14,000 pounds of it every week—and we’ve been grilling it for our signature Hawaiian Burger since the first restaurant opened more than 30 years ago. With the popularity of infused liquors on the rise, we started experimenting with how to incorporate it into our tropical cocktails. We infused tequila with grilled pineapple and used the tequila in our Makaha Maggie margarita.”

Much like today’s craft cocktail bars, Islands has always tried to use fresh ingredients and has rotated its cocktail menu seasonally. Though known for the house Mai Tai, the majority of Islands’ drinks are more prosaic. Then, recently, the chain introduced a hand-shaken Strawberry Daiquiri and a spicy Mango Shandy.

To me, though, California Pizza Kitchen is at the forefront of this strip-mall cocktail boom.  During the summer, that Strawberry Rhubarb Martini I so willingly embraced took artisan spirits brand Art in the Age’s Rhubarb tea liqueur and blended it with fresh strawberries, Monin organic agave nectar and fresh lemon. The result? Pretty damn tasty—even if it isn’t strictly a Martini according to the textbook definition.

CPK’s upcoming menu continues to play on its philosophy of fresh ingredients with a California twist. Like Applebee’s, CPK has created a Smash. The Blueberry Ginger Smash combines Jack Daniels and Domaine de Canton ginger liqueur with agave nectar, blueberries, lime and cranberry juice. In another example, the Svedka vodka–based California Roots plays with fresh avocado and mint, as well as, shockingly, a fennel salt rim.  When a chain restaurant starts rimming its glasses with fennel salt, the cocktail-shaking times are a-changin’.

As craft cocktail bars in big cities chart even more experimental territory, suburbia is starting to catch on—and catch up. Spirits are one of the biggest parts of a restaurant’s business. It pays to play the game. As Mike Hurt of Applebee’s says, “We view the spirits category as a place to be a little experimental.” We in the strip mall jungle thank them.

Lesley Jacobs Solmonson is co-author with David Solmonson of The 12 Bottle Bar (Workman Publishing, 2014), based on their Saveur-nominated 12BottleBar.com, a site dedicated to making classic cocktails accessible to the home bartender. Her book Gin: A Global History was published in 2012 and she is currently writing Liqueur: A Global History. She is the spirits/wine writer for the LA Weekly and on the editorial staff of Chilled magazine, as well as a member of the advisory board for the Museum of the American Cocktail.

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