Behind the Bar The Business of the Bar

Mastering the Art of Tableside Cocktail Service

There’s just something extra special about a cocktail served tableside. It’s a brilliant selling tool, a means of providing a one-on-one guest experience while turning guests’ heads in the process. At its core, tableside cocktail presentation is a performance art that requires showmanship, confidence, skill, finesse and, above all, speed.

“It takes the bottle out from behind the bar and creates a personal experience with guests,” says Lacy Hawkins, a national brand ambassador for Monkey 47 gin, whose cart makes the rounds at The Modern in New York City. “It’s fun to watch everyone’s face light up when the bar cart rolls up to their table.”

The team behind Dukes Bar, home to one of the most revered Martini carts in the world, knows exactly what it takes to execute your tableside presentation successfully. “Your team is key,” says Mariantonietta Varamo, the bar and restaurant manager at Great British Restaurant at Dukes London hotel. “You must find the right bartenders who have the skills of a maître d’ and the ability to move a trolley with grace.” Of course, you’d have to have the trolley before getting to that point. These are eight bartender-approved tips to putting your best cart forward.

Martini cart at Dukes Bar.

1. Be Prepared

“Make sure that you look at all [possible] scenarios,” says Constantin Alexander, the beverage director for Hakkasan Group. “What will you do if four tables order the cart at once? Who will man the cart? What are your restocking procedures? It’s not an easy feat to pull off.” Alexander, who is based in Las Vegas, oversees the high-volume program at the restaurant’s outpost inside the MGM Grand, which is known for its Smoky Negroni, served tableside.

So how does Alexander’s team pull off a smoked drink while being pulled in multiple different directions with the club in full swing? “We think ahead of time about situations like this,” says Alexander. “We have multiple setups for the presentation, as well as backup systems like extra smokers. We can execute this drink for larger parties if necessary, as it tends to be a cocktail that gets ordered in large quantities. We’ve had nights when we’ve sold hundreds of these.”

Martini cart at The Modern.

2. Keep It Simple (and Fast)

Patrick Smith, the bar manager at The Modern, stresses the importance of uncomplicated recipes. “One thing that’s unique about our Monkey 47 Gibson is its simplicity,” he says. “Many of the cocktails on our menu have six or more ingredients. It’s magical to be able to mix so many things and have it become a cohesive and uniquely delicious drink, but it’s a different type of magic to take just a few ingredients and do the same thing. The constraints can breed creativity and artistry in a more minimalist way.” The Modern’s Gibson involves Monkey 47, two different vermouths and special cocktail onions made exclusively for the brand by Filthy.

“Only sell what your team has time to make and deliver,” says Matt Ray, the beverage director at Ace Hotel New Orleans. “A Ramos Gin Fizz is a great conversation, but maybe your mid-to-high-volume bar can’t handle a cocktail that takes six to eight minutes a pop.” Alexander agrees: “Don’t overcomplicate it. There’s nothing worse than making someone wait 20 minutes for a cocktail.”

Smoky Negroni at Hakkasan.

3. Be an Expert (and Educator)

Knowing the history behind the drink you’re serving can go a long way. Guests love to not only have their bartender’s undivided attention for a moment, they also enjoy learning a fun fact or two during their service. And confident delivery, of course, is a must. At Dukes, “you enter a ‘Martini bubble’ once the trolley is beside your table, with a skilled bartender guiding you through the varied choices, carefully listening to your preferences, much like a tailor measuring you for a suit or dress,” says Varamo. “Our charming bartenders are able to engage in conversation much easier, often involving the origins of the cocktails and the special ingredients used to prepare the ideal drinks.”

At the same time, it’s best to know when to reel it in. “Do not make it a lesson unless the guest encourages it,” says Leo Robitschek, the beverage director for Make It Nice restaurant group (The NoMad, Eleven Madison Park). “Just because a guest ordered an experience​ ​doesn’t mean they want a class. Read the guest, and make sure they’re looking for this kind of experience before you take over their dining/bar experience.”

Martini service at Maison Premiere.

4. Have All Hands on Deck

Maison Premiere is home to one of the most well-known tableside drink services in New York City. Currently, its tableside offerings include the Old King Cole (Angostura orange bitters, La Quintinye extra dry vermouth and Old Raj gin with three skewered Castelvetrano olives, a manicured lemon twist and seaweed atop sidecar ice) and three Sazerac variations. All are a team effort.

“After a guest orders the tableside cocktail, the construction of the tray is built by a back waiter, and they pull everything that is needed––liquors, garnishes and barware,” says floor manager Nicholas Wasicek. “After the tray is built out, the manager is notified, and that’s when they bring it to the table together. [Then] two members of the Maison Premiere team come to the table with an antique sterling silver tray, filled with ingredients, accoutrements and garnishes that have been carefully developed to set this drink apart from any other Martini at Maison Premiere.”

Martini cart at Dukes Bar.

5. Express Your Brand

Think of your tableside offering as an extension of your bar or restaurant’s identity. “Find [something that] is best suited to the space and ambiance,” says Varamo. This sentiment is not only a logistical one, it’s also the idea that, beyond tailoring to your physical space, the experience should reflect the ethos of your establishment. For Maison Premiere, it’s in the thoughtful drinks and intricate glassware and tools that have together defined their style. “We use beautifully etched glassware, golden jiggers and a sterling silver tray from the late 1800s,” says Wasicek. “Guests start to realize what they’ve gotten themselves into as you start walking across the room to the their table.”

6. Don’t Forget It’s All About the Drink

At the end of the day, what matters most is the drink itself. The Dukes Martini is legendary for a reason, and it’s definitely not just because of its presentation. “It always has to start with a good drink,” says Ray. “Regardless of the bells and whistles, if the drink is lackluster, it will bring your program down. The show won’t distract from a bad product.”