Don’t let the title mislead you. This is not a column to teach you how to win a drinking contest. Rather, I thought I would offer a few tips on how to stock your bar at home for entertaining. Hopefully, it will complement your amazing new cooking skills.
First off, you don’t need a bar. I mean, how many people actually have a bar in their house? You really need a cabinet, a fridge and some ice. The key is having the right stuff. I’ll break it down into categories — beer, wine and spirits. And since it seems we always know someone who is pregnant, nursing or on the wagon for one reason or another there is a fourth category — other.
A friend once apologized to me when I was at his house that he didn’t have any beer to offer. He was ashamed and said a man should always have beer on hand to offer another man. It was endearing, if perhaps dated, and I was just as happy with a glass of wine.
That said, beer is popular, cheap and easy to store. It’s the foundation for a good home bar. I love beer, and I really love craft beers. I have a vintage kegerator, and it always has something interesting tapped that walks the edge between mainstream crafty and esoteric (think Lagunitas IPA or a Bell’s Seasonal), but I like to make my guests happy, so I always have crowd pleasers on hand. Usually it’s Miller Lite or something similar. In the summer, Corona.
I find guests gravitate towards whatever the kegerator is pouring even if they aren’t into the fancy stuff. Then, if they’re not wild about it, they can find their comfort beer. Nobody likes a beer snob, and I want my guests to be happy, not suffer through a hop-bomb that pleases only me. Pick two beers and always keep plenty around.
What I Love Now: Founder’s All Day IPA leads the pack of “sessionable IPAs.” These beers have the best part of what makes IPAs great–bold, bright hops, intense aromas and flavors, but the alcohol is dialed down to less than 5%, so you can have a few without keeling over, and your guests who might not be accustomed to the style can enjoy them as well.
Every house should have a decent red and white around. Plenty of each. You never know when you’ll need it. The options are dizzying, so stick with what you like first off and think about what you usually cook. That way, you’re paired up all the time. Having multiple varietals on hand is ridiculous unless you are really into wine yourself. Most people will be happy drinking whatever you have as long as it tastes good, and if they aren’t, then they are wine snobs and they shouldn’t be at your house.
I find oaky Chardonnays and big Cabs to be isolating. A lot of people like them, and would drink them happily all night, but they are hard matches for food, and if you like lighter wines, you’re stuck. I prefer crisper whites and balanced reds. If the flavors are good, they’ll line up with almost anything you cook, and your hard core Chard/Cab friends might be pleasantly surprised. I love Sauvignon Blancs or dry Rieslings and Rhone Reds or earthy Pinot Noirs (especially from the Willamette Valley in Oregon). These wines have layers to them that make them fun to enjoy with or without food. And you can find good ones without breaking your bank.
What better way to start 2014 than with another controversial topic? Kids, food trucks, tipping; you name it, and I will take it on. Well, probably not tipping ever again. That was brutal. Point is, it’s fun to explore some of the more talked about areas of what we do. So what’s first on the list for 2014? Food allergies.
Food allergies can present the most significant challenges to successful service in a restaurant. In some cases, we are told that the literal life of a guest is being placed in our hands for the duration of the meal. No pressure, Chef. It’s hard enough for us to cook a steak medium rare some nights. It’s hard for the guest as well. To constantly have to interrogate the staff about ingredients, to always need to alter the menu and to live in constant anxiety that the kitchen got it right must be terribly stressful.
Working with customers with mild to severe to fatal allergies is something that we do on a nightly basis. In fact, it was this past New Year’s Eve in the dining room at Eventide that the idea for this column came about. Faced with a limited choice tasting menu, a guest was unsure if she would even be able to stay and eat. She informed us that she had a fatal dairy allergy and was carrying an EpiPen in her purse in case she went into anaphylactic shock. She also had a gluten allergy that while not fatal was serious.
Her dining companion’s New Year’s Eve wish was to not have to stab her friend Pulp Fiction-style as the clock struck midnight.
My answer? Let’s look at the menu and figure out how to make it work. That was not easy. We use more than our fair share of butter and there is flour in many more dishes than one might imagine. Step by step we went through the menu, consulted with Chef and tried to figure out a way to make it work on the fly.
That was an example of the most challenging situation — the menu is in front of the guest, they are stuck, and we are learning of a severe allergy as they are trying to find something to eat. It is unavoidable at times to be sure, but it can make things really tough.
On an average weekend night, we have four to five tables in the dining room that have some type of allergy. Is that on the rise? I don’t know. It seems like it, but many allergies — gluten being the primary example — have been historically undiagnosed. Regardless, it is something we deal with on a regular basis, and a conversation with some helpful tips might be a good idea. Allergy sufferers usually know exactly what they need and what they want, and they are usually very good at presenting their needs early and explicitly. However, they are not always the ones making the reservations or booking the events, so this information could be helpful for non-sufferers making the plans as well.
- Plan ahead. The earlier the information can get to the restaurant the better. You can include it in the notes when you book on OpenTable, or you can mention it when you call in. Be as specific as you are able. Exactly what the allergy is and the severity is important. If the diner has preferred substitutions, that is helpful as well. This applies to dietary choices as well as allergies (vegan, vegetarian).
- Do your homework. Everyone has menus online now. Yes, it is true that restaurants are notorious for not being completely current, but you can at least get an idea what the venue offers and what might work as a substitute in advance.
- We love the cards. Many guests arrive and hand a small card to the server that lists the allergies. They are clear and concise, and they go right to the Chef. That eliminates the potentially dangerous opportunity that something might be lost in translation.
- Be clear about the severity. By all means be overcautious, but also be conscious that there is a very big difference between a fatal shellfish allergy and a mild intolerance to cilantro. Restaurants should take all allergies seriously and honor all requests that they can, but if you overstate the severity, you could limit what you can have. With a fatal allergy, we will often rule out serving you any dish or ingredient that has been in the vicinity or even the same floor as the potential offender. With a mild allergy, we might just have to remove a garnish.
- Be a little patient with the kitchens. If we hear in advance that you are coming, there is a better chance we can come up with something more interesting for you. If we hear about it the moment of, there is only so much the kitchen can do. Also, sometimes in order to cover ourselves, if there is the slightest chance of any contamination, and there is a fatal allergy, we might just say “sorry, we can’t do such and such.” It’s the last thing anyone in the hospitality business wants to do, but sometimes we might not be able to accommodate a request.
I’ve seen this question come up a lot in other online forums, and we also get it in person at the bar from time to time: You like a place, it seems to fit you, and you wonder how you get to be recognized.
The truth is, it’s pretty easy. Each place is different, and some are frankly not interested in you being a regular — they’re too busy or they just don’t care — but most bars and bartenders love their regulars.
To that end, I offer a few easy tips. If they seem like common sense, that’s because they are — there’s no secret password or handshake. Well, maybe at some of the speakeasies in the city, but you’re on your own there.
- Be nice. Yep, that’s it. Be friendly, patient if it is called for, and use basic courteous language. It’s a sad statement about our society that being nice often causes you to stand out, but it does. Customer service is a tough business, and bartenders have to endure a lot of people that forgot all the rules we learned in kindergarten.
- Come often. I know, you don’t feel like you’re learning anything here, right? Again, it’s basic. You have to show up to be recognized. Not every day, but once a week or so is good enough for a good bartender to easily remember what you like to drink and where you like to sit. Also, and this is important, you can’t only come when it’s packed. When there are 400 people in the place, all surging to the bar, the bartender doesn’t have any time to get to know you.
- Tip generously. Feel like you know all this already? Great, you’re perfectly qualified to be a regular, so come sidle up to the bar and get started. Honestly though, bartenders work for tips, so you’ve got to show some love when you pay your tab. I don’t mean 50%, but if you had a good experience, maybe even got a free cocktail, and you leave only 15%, the bartender probably won’t make space at the bar for you the next time you come in. (See “How to Tip,” below, after the jump.)
Five Ways To Never Be A Regular
This part could be even more helpful, and it comes to you by popular request. Popular request from bartenders across Arlington, that is. Remember that for the most part, bartenders love their job and love taking care of you, but as I said earlier, a lot of people forgot what they learned in Kindergarten.
- No touching. Keep your hands to yourself, even if you’re just trying to get their attention.
- No yelling. That also includes whistling, slapping the bar and — the most condescending of all moves — snapping your fingers. The bartenders will get to you, they are not ignoring you. Please be patient.
- No fighting. Crazy that I have to write this, right? Just relax. If someone bumps you or says hello to your girlfriend, take a deep breath and chill out. Fighting is the best way to not be welcome at the bar. In fact, it will get you instantly banned from Spider Kelly’s.
- Put your phone down. When it’s your turn, just put your phone down. The call or the text can wait, but the bartender won’t. It’s just basic courtesy. I see this at coffee shops all the time, and it makes me nuts.
There are certainly some tips you can take home that will improve your cooking, but it is important to note that technique will not replicate that amazing meal you had last week. Nor will the exact recipe, or even the top of the line commercial equipment in your kitchen (though that really helps).
The fact is that your meal was made wonderful by much more than the food. Eating out is as contextual as any experience — it is all about the moment. It was the setting, your mood, your companion and many other things that worked together in concert with the food to make the meal special. That is why we go out, and it can’t be copied at home. Home is for different moments.
Okay, having got that out of the way, let me also throw this one out to you: I did not go to culinary school, and thus I am not a trained chef. I have spent plenty of time ‘behind the line’ in professional kitchens, but I am not a pro. I know how to cook, however, and I know what to look for in food. I also ran these ideas by the real pros that I work with for their approval before I submitted them. Given those disclaimers, take this advice for what you think it is worth.
These are some simple tips and strategies that should help your cooking at home. The most important tip I have is that the more you can approach cooking without anxiety or fear, the better your food will taste. Many people see recipes as intimidating and hosting as nerve-racking. I can guarantee you it comes out in your food. The more fun you have and the more relaxed you are, the more sumptuous your meal will be. Many chefs and cooks chose this line of work because it is their passion. It isn’t ridiculous to suggest that their passion as much as their expertise is what makes their food taste so good.
I cannot walk by the range in my kitchen when my wife is cooking without dialing up the burner. Whatever it is set at, it should always be higher. She used to put in the oil and the vegetables in the cold pan and then turn on the burner. Now she heats the pan, adds the oil and waits until it is hot. I hear it sizzle and pop, and I know dinner will be good.
Many home cooks are too tentative with temperature. Life in a restaurant is always hot; 350 is a minimum, 500 is lots of fun. Of course, there is simmering, slow cooking and baking, but most of your food benefited from a red hot skillet, grill or pot. Heat makes flavor — not only do you get that wonderful texture from a charred steak, but the marking also enhances the flavor tremendously.
Smoke in your kitchen is a good thing. Next time you ‘cook’ a chicken breast, try ‘searing’ it first: Turn the burner up and wait for the oil to almost start smoking. Drop in the chicken and listen to that sound. You’ll never go back. Just turn on the fan or open a window.
I enter on all sides of the conversation here: I’m an operator who deals with families all the time, I’m a Dad who loves to eat out with my daughter, and I’m a diner who often likes eating out with just grown-ups. A lot of you fall into the latter two categories, so you can surely appreciate how nuanced the topic is.
Here is the deal: some kids are angels eating out, some kids have a hard time in restaurants, and sometimes it’s the same kid on different days. Some parents are like Baby Whisperers with their kids, some parents struggle more, and sometimes it’s the same parents. Also, we could all probably stand to take a deep breath and relax just a little bit.
It’s just that simple. And it’s just that hard.
As an operator, I love kids. Their parents spend money, after all, and there are a ton of advantages to marketing to families. In Arlington, families represent a very lucrative demographic; I’d be crazy to ignore them. Also, as stated above, today’s family at brunch could turn into next week’s anniversary dinner or next month’s mom’s night out in the bar. We have always prided ourselves in welcoming kids into Eventide and Spider Kelly’s. We have families ourselves.
And let me be very clear to point out that the responsibility for ensuring everyone has a good time is on us. It’s our job to make all our guests happy, and that’s what we try to do.
But we could all use a few ground rules.
When I became a parent, I realized that the restaurant business had actually prepared me well. For work, I had to learn to be ready for anything at anytime. I had to learn to keep calm and trust my preparation. Parenting was the same except infinitely more wild and unpredictable. The best part about kids is you never know what will happen next, but that can make plans and events and dinners maddening. A sense of humor helps a lot, but it won’t always save the meal.
This is a column just begging to get picked apart. I could mention a Peruvian chicken place and start a war between the Super Pollo fanatics and Pollo Rico acolytes. Name a kebab joint and the Ravi rowdies will have at it with the Kabob Palace crazies. I came up with the idea for this column, then thought to myself: Maybe this is a bad idea.
What the hell. Anything that gets us all talking more about the places in the community we value is a good thing. And to beat the commentators to the punch: This is an absolutely biased list. Our bias.
The fact is we in the industry don’t go out to eat much. Between long hours, late nights and tight budgets, most servers, bartenders and cooks don’t have a lot of time or money for dining out. That said, there are a few spots in the county where you are almost guaranteed to run into the server who took care of you the night before. These places tend to be cheap, casual and almost always have a bar. At many the food is terrific; at others, the drinks are the draw.
What follows is a list of our crew’s favorites. Most are close to work, and there are no doubt many great places not mentioned. This is not supposed to be a comprehensive list, nor a list of the best spots; it’s just our list.
El Charrito Caminante Taqueria
First off, it’s closed on Tuesdays. I have no idea why Tuesday, but I guess they have to close sometime. The parking is tough and the service attentive but, um, brief, and there may be no better place that fits the descriptor “no frills,” but the tacos here are the best. It’s cheap, fast and authentic, and since it’s right on my way to work, I often stop to pick up a bag of tacos for the gang. Other than the namesake product, go for the Yucca con Chicharron–salty fried pork cubes with crispy yucca–and an orange soda. Oh, and bring cash.
Service with a smile? Don’t count on it. And if you really appreciate the sumptuous decor at Eventide, then drive right by this place. But the pho is incredible, the portions huge and the prices cheap. And if you have a double shift ahead, you can order a Vietnamese coffee which will have your heart surging out of your chest by the time you leave.
Are doughnuts the new cupcake?
I have to confess that writing that line has me shaking my head. If you think restaurant professionals understand every trend, think again. A lot of us have no idea where this stuff comes from (although the nexus for the most avant garde trends seems to be Brooklyn).
While Arlington is rarely the birthplace for the latest and greatest, we certainly seem to have a knack for embracing what is once it gets here.
Temples to the cupcake trend have popped up everywhere in the DC area, with multiple cupcakeries within blocks of each other, celebrity visits (Suri Cruise, no less), and even cupcake-based TV shows. Who saw that coming? Nobody, frankly.
So how long does the trend last? Forever? Another year? I thought cupcakes would come and go a couple years back, but I was clearly wrong. And who’s to say they won’t be here forever? After all, hamburgers were a fad at one point.
But a threat has arrived: America’s breakfast workhorse is on a tear. No longer the exclusive domain of Dunkin’ Donuts and Krispy Kreme, doughnuts have been popping up on menus everywhere—and not just at breakfast. Two places that are set to make waves this year are GBD (Golden, Brown, Delicious) in Dupont and Astro Doughnuts & Fried Chicken near Metro Center. The former is the latest from local trendsetters Neighborhood Restaurant Group (of Tallula and Rustico fame) while the latter is the brainchild of two local boys, one of whom (Jeff Halpern) recently played for the Caps.
Hello ARLnow readers! I have been a fan of this site since its earliest days, and I am now proud to be a contributor. I am amazed at the dining public’s bottomless appetite for content about restaurants and food culture. As an operator, I think this is great, and the attention certainly contributes to every operator’s success. However, there does seem to be an occasional disconnect between the dining public and restaurant professionals. I hope to offer a bridge between the two by providing an insider’s perspective on trends and issues that pertain to our business. And since I am a local, and this is the most local of websites, it will have an Arlington twist.
To kick things off, I’ll take advantage of the New Year theme and start a discussion about one food trend that should be of great interest to many who live and work in Arlington. In the coming weeks, we’ll discuss other trends and give you a chance to get your burning restaurant questions answered in a live Q&A.
Food Trucks: I’ll Skip the Politics, Thanks
Ahhh, the food truck: bringing funky food to the cubicle masses in guerilla form. What an idea, albeit an old one in Arlington. Ever had a pupusa from the trucks that hover around our construction sites? Tasty. The concept has been around forever. Nonetheless, the convoys roaming the county now represent a huge trend, and it’s growing. The Post just ran a piece recalling that during the 2008 inaugural there was one food truck operating in DC. One. This year, there are over 100. Thirty of them will be there to feed the inaugural masses today. For our recent holiday party, in fact, we hired a couple of trucks to camp out in the alley behind Spider Kelly’s for our staff to enjoy, including Big Cheese (I recommend the “Thrilled Cheese”) and District Taco (the carnitas is a favorite).
But for the consumer, the question remains: How many trucks can the market reasonably sustain? Business Darwinism will cull the herd in 2013 for two reasons. First, just because it’s on a truck with a cool paint job doesn’t mean it’s great food. Sometimes it is, sometimes it ain’t. There are only so many spots they can park in, and the service window is short. The ones that don’t truly offer something special will fade out.
Second, sometimes people want to sit down at a table inside to eat, even at lunch. Even if they don’t, most eaters assume that by sacrificing the comfort of a chair and a plate, they’ll receive a commensurate decrease in price. However, price points on these trucks can rival or exceed the restaurants they’re parked in front of. This again raises the bar for the food inside the truck: If it’s not better, cheaper and more convenient, customers will seek a spot that is. Is it worth it to squat on a curb for your meal if what’s inside that foil wrapper is just mediocre?
You, the dining public, will decide their fate with your wallets. Will there be 100 trucks prowling at noon this time next year? I wouldn’t bet on it.
In 2013, will you be visiting food trucks as often, more often or less often than you did in 2012? Let us know in the comment section.
I look forward to hearing from all of you, and if you ever want to come by to share your thoughts with me in person, pull up a barstool at Spider Kelly’s or Eventide and let me have it. But please, buy a drink first.