This Bar Outdoes Itself on Menus Every Single Time
World-renowned, award-winning bars have been known to take on ambitious menus with serious production quality. And, when a bar is working with a presumably substantial budget, in-house creative resources, and sometimes an agency, that makes sense. But one cocktail bar is showing us that a clever, memorable, one-of-a-kind menu design doesn’t always have to require staggeringly huge budgets, brands or big-city clientele — just a little imagination and a lot of dedication.
The Rogue Gentlemen in Richmond, Virginia is known locally for farm-to-table food and a strong, beloved cocktail program. They’re also known for their exceptionally thoughtful, creative, occasionally absurd and often riotously funny menus, which undergo a complete overhaul four times a year. Over the years, the menus have taken the form of a cheeky Richard Gere centerfold, an issue of National Geographic, a game of Mad Libs, a book of baseball cards, even a nostalgic diner menu that instantly recalls a certain fast-casual breakfast chain, iconic bright-yellow logo and all. Rogue’s most current iteration for fall? A wine-stained field guide and camping journal, complete with sixteen drinks — and sixteen hilariously cynical journal entries from Rogue’s owner himself, John Maher, who admittedly hates camping (but arms himself appropriately with provisions like daiquiri supplies, a travel-sized 375-mL bottle of J. Mourat rose and a koozie).
The menus themselves are masterfully done with an incredible amount of attention paid to each and every facet, from concept to execution. But perhaps the most impressive aspect of Rogue’s menu design? The fact that they’re constantly producing these on a budget of approximately $500 per season. (Admittedly, it helps that a loyal regular at Rogue also happens to be a designer, but still — that’s wildly impressive considering the quality of each production, and the investment of time each menu requires from start to finish.)
We caught up with Maher to ask him why the bar started pursuing these time-intensive projects, what it takes to dream up a menu and see it to completion, and how they manage to up the ante each time:
How long has The Rogue Gentlemen been doing these major menu switch-ups?
We started doing these menus after about 3 months after we opened. I've always wanted to do it, but took some time to find the right person to help us implement it in a design capacity.
How does it work from a budget/resource perspective? Do you use an agency, or have an in-house designer?
We are extremely fortunate to have an in-house designer. His name is Chad Cariano and he was a regular guest since we opened. Chad was part of a small group here in Richmond, called Cabin, that produced several of our early menus. Last spring, that team split up and went separate ways. And Chad is the one that stuck around and still oversees our menu design.
We try to keep the menus under $500 per season, with the exception of our first one which was a hard cover, bound cocktail book. It was our most labor-intensive menu ever and most expensive, but it set the tone for us.
How long does it usually take to come up with a new menu, from brainstorming to final execution?
We have several menu meetings during each season to discuss the next menu. We start to really work on the next menu about a month in to our current menu. We brainstorm, drink a lot of bourbon, and find a concept. Chad will put together a rough preview and we make changes and tweaks over the next month. All in, I'd say it takes about 2 months from initial idea to receiving the final menus.
How many people are involved? Is it pretty collaborative?
Our entire team is part of the process. A fully collaborative restaurant is something I'm very proud of, as an owner. We're a small, tight knit family of very creative people. I like to say that we're a room full of bartenders. When we have questions about using more savory ingredients, we turn to Chef to point us in the right direction. Total, 7 people have creative input into our menus.
What is the customer feedback like? Any menus that have been standout crowd favorites?
Our guests love our menus, some more than others. Our most "polarizing" was also our most photographed and talked about, the Gere menu. We had some guys slam the menu closed and throw it down in a huff. Fragile egos, and all. But people look forward to our menus every season. Launch day is always crazy. We have a very dry, odd sense of humor that we put into our menus. Some people get it and love it. Others are like "huh? I don't understand." Our current menu is definitely a crowd pleaser. So much so that we had to reorder more menus after 3 1/2 weeks because people were taking them. That was a first for us. I'm also extremely proud of this one because I wrote 99% of the copy for it. Everyone loves my crazy story. The baseball cards were a big hit as well.
Finally... why do you make these? Obviously it's fun and memorable but I imagine it also requires a huge investment of both time and cash. I'd love to hear your philosophy on what makes it worthwhile.
When we opened Rogue, I knew I wanted to have really special cocktail menus. Anyone can print off a piece of paper with a bunch of cocktails on it. I've been to some incredible cocktail bars all over the country. Some of the best in the world. And these places give the guest something special and creative. Be it a big leather bound tome like Williams & Graham, or a San Francisco tourist map at Trick Dog, or a dossier at Wilson & Wilson. I wanted to give our guests something special and memorable.
We also use our menus to put our guests at ease when they come in. A lot of times they may be a little nervous their first time. A wall full of esoteric spirits on the wall and cocktails with words they may not know. But when we hand them baseball cards, or a Denny's menu, or a story about me trying to go camping, it makes them laugh and puts them in a fun and inviting mood. We're all very creative people and we like to push the envelope when it comes to what a cocktail bar is in Richmond. We spend so much time and effort on our drinks that they deserve to be featured on something more than just a piece of paper.
We are so lucky to have, I think, the most talented graphic designer in the entire city on our team. Chad takes our crazy ideas and turns them into works of art. Without him, I'm not sure we could do what we do. These menus have become part of our identity. We stand out in a crowd of bars because of them. And we'll continue to make our crazy menus four times a year and one day we'll win the Spirited Award for Best Cocktail Menu. That plate belongs behind our bar.