My neighborhood of Park Slope, Brooklyn is known for a lot of things — many good, and also much to be mocked. Beautiful 19th-century brownstones. A food co-op where you might see a Gyllenhaal bagging organic groceries. Yuppie parents pushing their $1,500 Bugaboo strollers. There are great bagels and solid coffee shops and pretty good pizza. One thing the neighborhood has never been known for, however, is any sort of world-class cocktails.
That’s why I was so stunned when I learned that the new outpost of Pasta Louise, a family-friendly Italian restaurant in a quieter area near Prospect Park, had hired Tim Miner to create its first cocktail menu. A longtime presence on the New York cocktail scene, Miner has worked at such mixology meccas as Death & Co. and Long Island Bar.
“Living in Park Slope, it’s hard to go out with your family and get really good cocktails,” says Allison Arevalo, the owner of Pasta Louise, which first opened as a small pasta shop on sleepy 8th Avenue in the summer of 2020. Serving fresh pastas along with a carefully curated wine and beer list, it quickly became a smash hit with local families. So when Arevalo had the opportunity to take over the 3,000-square-foot space from a nearby pub that had recently closed, she jumped at it. The lease would also come with a liquor license, allowing her to serve cocktails for the first time when the restaurant opened in May of this year.
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“To do it right, though, we would need someone really, really good at this,” says Arevalo. Luckily, she knew Miner from their college days in Boston. “Tim is a Brooklyn guy with a family. He totally understands this concept.”
It’s a concept — great cocktails in a family-friendly setting — that many spots across the nation are finally starting to invest in.
Field Trip to Get Cocktails
In nearby Prospect Heights, the also recently opened Patti Ann’s Family Restaurant has a sign labeled “stroller parking” outside, which might make you groan if it didn’t already have a half-dozen Bugaboos and Uppababies neatly lined up. Inside the instantly popular spot, the bright dining room has colorful seating, including ample high chairs, and a large wooden shelving unit in one corner with children’s books, games, globes and maps, and even an Etch A Sketch. The menu offers chef Greg Baxtrom’s elevated takes on Midwestern, kid-agreeable crowd-pleasers — think chips and dip, duck meatloaf, even a blooming onion — but there’s also a sophisticated cocktail menu.
“The first seating of the night, [the diners] want to get their kids fed, then get them back home and to bed. But we wanted that parent to not feel left out either,” says Andrew Zerrip, Patti Ann’s beverage director, who also does the cocktail service for Olmsted and Maison Yaki, Baxtrom’s nearby higher-end spots. “He or she can have a cocktail and enjoy it like you might on a date night. You just have your kids this time.”
But, as any parent knows, it’s not exactly the same. On a recent Sunday night, my family of four (wife and two kids, ages 5 and 2), snagged a coveted 5 p.m. reservation. As my children settled in, constantly shuffling around to determine the most primo of the four seats, debating whether they needed a high chair or not (ooh, I want that “Where’s Waldo” book over there, and, oh, would you pour me some water, daddy), I didn’t exactly have time to intensely peruse the cocktail list as I might typically do when alone.
Thankfully, Zerrip has accounted for this.
“It’s a restaurant, not a cocktail bar. One thing I’ve always hated is going to a restaurant and there are 10 drinks that list every single ingredient and it takes you 10 minutes to sort through the list,” he says.
So Zerrip’s cocktail menu is pared down both in terms of inscrutability and even how the drinks are listed, the seven cocktails neatly presented in front of you on the paper placemat that acts as everyone’s menu. The drinks are likewise playful, all named after memories of school days, and all easily fit within the scope of “the standards” — though they certainly aren’t lacking in ambition.
Spirit Week is essentially a Margarita, though with mezcal, hibiscus syrup, and The Plum, I Suppose, an oddball distillate from Empirical Spirits out of Copenhagen. Field Trip resides somewhere between a Manhattan and a Blood & Sand. Vice Principal is a Negroni riff with nocino and Zirbenz.
Even if you’re a parent who doesn’t know what Zirbenz is (it’s an Austrian stone pine liqueur) and doesn’t have time to inquire as your kids beg you to give them your iPhone so they can watch “Bluey,” it doesn’t matter — the drinks are complex, balanced, and intriguing.
“You can sit down at the table, the kids might be causing a ruckus, and you just want a drink, so you can latch onto one of these without having a lengthy discussion with the server,” says Zerrip.
Miner takes a similar tact. Pasta Louise offers a slim cocktail menu as well and, being that it’s an Italian restaurant, the drinks are likewise Italian-focused. There’s a Negroni on tap, two different Spritzes (one standard, one more nuanced and challenging), and most of the cocktails utilize Italian ingredients, especially amari Miner thinks are generally underrepresented, like Don Ciccio & Figli Finocchietto, a savory fennel liqueur deployed in their house Gimlet.
“At all times when I was writing this menu, I was aware [Park Slope] is not a cocktail haven,” says Miner. “So I’ve built a program that should be pretty user friendly. It’s not trying to be a cocktail-first place. But if it tastes good, it tastes good.”
Miner recalls taking his kids to Prime Meats, Carroll Gardens’ now-closed Italian steakhouse; it wasn’t a kid-friendly restaurant per se, but he still knew he could go early in the evening and while his kids chowed down on burgers and cavatelli, he could get a world-class cocktail from Damon Boelte, one of the city’s best bartenders. He’d love to recreate that feeling.
Obviously, however, at these kid-friendly restaurants, you don’t get some things you might get at vaunted cocktail dens in hipper neighborhoods. Pasta Louise, for one, doesn’t have an “ice program,” the somewhat pretentious term for when a bar offers Kold Draft-produced or even hand-carved ice in multiple shapes and sizes to accommodate each and every drink. But you’re not getting shitty fridge door ice either; Miner’s tap Negroni is served on one big cube.
“This is the last sort of place to consistently find a good drink,” says Miner, referring to the family-friendly restaurant. He notes that nowadays, some two decades into the so-called “cocktail renaissance,” even corner taverns have long been capable of making you a decent Old Fashioned or Manhattan. It’s the family restaurant’s time to step it up.
“It doesn’t need to be life-changing,” Miner says. “But in New York and other similar markets, the clientele is so well-educated it’s fair they have started to expect quality cocktails.”
No More Cartoon Cups
Many cocktail trends may start in New York, but their viability only comes once they’ve expanded across the country. That’s already happening in the case of family-friendly cocktail programs.
In Newport, Ky. there is Pompilios, a nearly 90-year-old Italian standby in the Cincinnati suburb. Aside from the red-sauce staples in the dining room, it’s always had a vibrant drinking scene at its front bar. During the pandemic, however, it upgraded its cocktail program, which now includes an Old Fashioned crafted with a house-made cherry spiced syrup, a Bee’s Knees made with seasonally infused gin, and the Newport Godfather, built with its own New Riff single barrel pick at the centerpiece of it.
“We always want to describe our cocktails to the parent joining us for the first time,” says co-owner Joe Bristow, explaining he’s seeing more and more of them going for the higher-end drinking experience.
Sway, a laidback Thai restaurant in West Lake Hills, Texas, a suburb of Austin, encourages family dining, even offering a sophisticated kid’s menu featuring pad thai and braised pork shoulder sticky rice congee. At the same time, it also has a cocktail menu highlighting unique Thai-inspired ingredients like tamarind in the Lotus Margarita and Phuket Your Troubles that pairs Thai basil with mezcal.
“In general, keeping high standards for your beverage menu is crucial,” says service manager Johannes Smit. He believes the rise in better drinks programs goes hand in hand with the rise in diners understanding food better in general and demanding higher-quality ingredients. “People are definitely opening up to the world of craft cocktails and realizing what they have been missing,” he says.
It’s also occurring at family vacation destinations, long a bastion of casual restaurants with awful drinks. That’s not the case, however, at Lucky Rooster Kitchen + Bar in Hilton Head, S.C. The stylish restaurant offers, say it with me, elevated takes on comfort food (a venison meatloaf in this case) along with bar manager Monica Collins’ lengthy cocktail list.
“Parents want an amazing experience for the whole family,” says David Leffew, owner of the Leffew Restaurant Group, which owns Lucky Rooster, and father to two children. “Not to be forced into standard casual, high-volume, mediocre places with cartoon plastic cups.”
Leffew feels this trend is partially due to the general drinking ethos having changed.
“The activity of drinking cocktails and having children present has gotten extremely more acceptable,” he says, citing bars with little playgrounds, kids games at breweries, and entertainment devices available at certain restaurants. “Our families with kids don’t have to just accept the idea of going to a kid-friendly restaurant anymore.”
Bristow agrees. “Years ago, it seemed a little taboo to order cocktails when dining with your family and children; now it is culturally acceptable,” he notes. “When parents go out with their family, they want to make the evening special and order a craft cocktail as opposed to something more mainstream. I think a lot of family-friendly restaurants are realizing that and are pivoting because of it.”
This pivot is simply good business. You can charge more for cocktails than the quickie beers or by-the-glass reds and whites that have typically been the only options at most family restaurants. Patti Ann’s even has quality cocktails for the kids, offering one of the more high-end Shirley Temples around. It’s essentially an NA cobbler made with cherries roasted with vanilla beans, then macerated in sugar and served on pellet ice. It’s a great way to introduce the little one to mixology, and extract $8 more from their parents’ pockets.
But, like me, these parents probably don’t even mind.
As Miner says, “You can keep the parents at the table a little longer when they’re drinking cocktails.”