A strong beverage program with culinary-inspired cocktails, often using small batch spirits and seasonal produce, along with properly-tapped craft brews and a thoughtful selection of wines has become just as important as the food.

nellcote-kitchen-cocktailsAt Nellcote in Chicago, Bar Director Tim Williams and team launched a line of "kitchen cocktails" — artfully crafted and presented drinks using artisan, small batch spirits and the same locally grown, seasonal fruits and herbs from the farmer's market used by the chefs. Think farm-to-glass. "We had the idea to create a station on the line in the kitchen for a service bartender who could make these cocktails," Williams says, noting that the space opens up opportunities for chef-mixologist collaborations. "The lines between kitchen and bar are slowly getting more blurred. At the root of all this is flavor and using what's seasonally relevant and creating as much as you can to elevate a cocktail."

From a service standpoint, this means Williams starts his day in the afternoon, not the evening, coming in early to juice fruits, create infusions and make other fresh mix-ins from scratch. From an equipment standpoint, this means he needs a strong, powerful juicer, a bounty of beakers, shakers and other containers and an assortment of spoons, ladles, peelers and glasses in classic, vintage and modern styles. "Not everything is poured in a martini or rocks glass," he says. "It's about putting the cocktails in the right glasses from a historical standpoint."

While they have dominated the dining room in recent years, small, sharable plates now populate bar menus for "snacking" and light (often less expensive) meals. According to research from Technomic, 77 percent of consumers ordered food with their adult beverage purchase on their most recent visit to a bar, restaurant or lounge; of them 44 percent ordered a bar food/appetizer item. In this area, trendy tabletop's now the norm. Think unique plates, mason jars, rustic terra cotta, even pieces of wood or slate as the new presentation for quick, colorful bites.

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