Behind the Bar

Level Up the Customer Experience with Tableside Cocktails

A cocktail cart with a painter's palette and paint brushes and a pineapple shaker.
At Daniel in New York City, elaborate cocktails are prepared tableside, like The Monolo Valdés Punch, which incorporates a painter's palette with three brightly colored purees and several dustings of seasonings.

Cocktail carts and tableside cocktail preparations are continuing to grow in popularity. Just don't call it a trend.

"It's not a trend, but rather an elevation of a classic service," says Alexander Pfaffenbach, Eleven Madison Park's dining room manager. "Tableside service in fine dining restaurants is neither a new concept nor a trend... it is here to stay in establishments that value a high level of service and guest interaction."

Eleven Madison Park just nabbed a number three ranking from the World's 50 Best Restaurants, and tableside cocktails are a natural extension of their exceptional customer service and attention to detail. Tableside, they offer a menu of Manhattan riffs, from a classic Manhattan with rye, Carpano Antica and Angostura bitters, to the decidedly different but highly popular Madison Square Park, with bourbon, Dolin De Chambery, Nardini Amaro, Amaro Cio Ciaro and cucumber.

"Direct interaction between a guest and a bartender allows the guest to receive a cocktail crafted for their tastes without a middle man," says Pfaffenbach. "Bringing the Manhattan cart and a bartender to the table allows the guest to have this direct interaction from the comfort of their seat. The end result is simply a better finished product that is customized by an expert bartender for that particular guest's tastes."

Even with half a dozen listed choices, incorporating either bourbon or rye and nearly a dozen vermouths and liqueurs, every possible requested ingredient isn't at the bartender's disposal. "The added challenge is that you are confined by what is on the cart," says Pfaffenbach. "If someone wants something that isn't set up on the cart, it is a challenge to have the ingredient brought to you on the fly."

While tableside service may not be a new concept, it’s new to classic bars like the dueling duo of London martini trolleys found at Dukes Bar and the Connaught Bar and fine dining restaurants in the U.S. like Eleven Madison Park.

A man standing behind a bar cart. Throughout the world, cocktail service is making its way tableside, where bartenders can provide an even more meaningful guest experience. Pictured above, the Monkey Business as prepared at Bourbon & Steak in Washington, D.C.

Elsewhere in New York, DANIEL offers a seasonal tableside cocktail which is a collaboration between service director Karim Guedouar and the bartending team. That tandem highlights a middle ground between service, experience and execution on the one hand, and actual imbibing pleasure on the other.

The most recent incarnation was spring's The M.V.P., or Monolo Valdés Punch, so named for the artist whose work can be found hanging in the dining room. The elaborate presentation incorporates a painter's palette with three brightly colored purees and several dustings of seasonings. Paint brushes and palette knives are used to combine the ingredients and get them to a gold pineapple shaker, where they're mixed with white rum, mulled port and lemon.

In Las Vegas, where everything is meant to be an entertaining, glamorous show, it's no surprise that elaborate cocktail carts have popped up at least half a dozen spots in town. From the flaming-absinthe preparation at Sage, to a stacked Sunday morning Bloody Mary cart with dozens of ingredients at Fleur by Hubert Keller, there's something for every occasion.

In Washington, D.C., Bourbon Steak's head bartender Torrence Swain always emphasizes the customer experience, which lends itself to tableside cocktails. "Everything we do here is hospitality," he says. "Our first step is making sure guests are taken care of."

Swain previously served up the Monkey Business, with Monkey Shoulder scotch and Drambuie. The drink was carefully prepared with tableside with brûléed bananas, a smoked glass and freshly grated nutmeg. "It was a show," says Swain.

His newest concoction, dubbed the Bird's Eye View, was actually inspired by the copper glassware he saw from Absolut Elyx at Tales of the Cocktail last year. "I was able to finagle that copper owl, because no account has it ... we're at least the only account on the east coast with it," says Swain.

"We got that copper owl, and we're going to do a tableside liquid nitrogen cocktail," explains Swain. "The cocktail will be pre-batched, and we'll pour it into a copper bowl, and then add the liquid nitrogen and freeze it right there in front of the guests ... and then it's going to go into the owl mug."

A man serving a cocktail from behind a bar cart. By working from behind a cocktail cart and next to a table, as they do at Bourbon Steak, guests can become even more engaged with the service provided to them.

Swain believes such tableside presentations offer several bonuses to the guest. "I think doing a tableside cocktail adds to the service component, and also the experience," he says. "Whenever we're presenting something tableside, we're talking to the guests, and we're explaining to the guests what's happening."

It may also captivate the entire room. "I feel like when you do tableside cocktails it gets the attention of other people in the room," says Swain. "And it encourages them to have that experience for themselves, they ask questions about it."

One challenge that Swain and his team at Bourbon Steak have to overcome is that a member of the crew has essentially been taken away from normal duties for a longer, more time-consuming guest experience. "Then it makes us work harder as a team," he explains. "Because that's one person that's kind of taken out of the shift to facilitate this cocktail, so everybody's got to get even quicker, faster, more efficient. It's something we pride ourselves on, to be able to execute these types of things for our guests and still maintain the same level of service and hospitality."

The elevated customer experience, along with those added challenges, in turn, provides a greater benefit of the doubt from the guest too. "A lot of times though guests are really forgiving," says Swain. "For instance, with the Monkey Business, we would brûlée those bananas but sometimes the torch wouldn't click on the first time. You don't really lose any points, because everybody's engaged. Everybody's invested in this cocktail being a success in that moment. The guests are, the staff is, everybody wants it to happen."

Jake Emen is a spirits, travel, and food writer who's been published in USA Today, GQ, Vice Munchies, Roads & Kingdoms, and elsewhere. Follow him on the socials at @ManTalkFood.

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