This year’s group of fantastic operators has an amazing lineup of cutting-edge drinks programs. They come from diverse regions of the country and represent the dynamic, new face of single-location and small-chain bars and restaurants. To be eligible for entry into the Benchmark Awards program, bars and restaurants must have less than five locations of a specific concept in the U.S.
Cure in New Orleans has taken classic and innovative drinking to a new level. The cavernous indoor and outdoor space is both huge and welcoming. The cocktails are traditional and inventive. This great addition to the New Orleans’ drink scene is well-deserving of the Benchmark award.
Alewife in Queens, New York has an amazing beer list. New York City is a solid beer town, so it is not always easy to make an impressive showing. However, Alewife has an extensive selection of carefully chosen beers ready to satisfy even hard-core beer aficionados.
Max’s Wine Dive is a low-key restaurant with a handful of locations in Texas. It serves comfort food executed in an elegant style and satisfying style. It also has an amazing selection of wines, by both the glass and bottle, from around the world.
All three are well-deserving of this year’s Benchmark Awards.
Best Cocktail Program: Cure, New Orleans, LA
This beautiful space in the heart of one of America’s most historic, and cocktail-centric cities, has a contemporary atmosphere that speaks to the style of drinks made behind the bar. The knowledgeable staff is also passionate about serving perfectly executed drinks. All of these qualifications make Cure the well-deserved recipient of the Cheers’ Benchmark Award for the Best Cocktail Program.
In 2006, owner and founder Neal Bodenheimer returned to his New Orleans roots after a stint in New York and launched Cure in 2009 with business partners Matthew Kohnke and Kirk Estopinal. “It definitely feels like a modern bar, meant to evoke our modern interpretation of classic cocktails.” Exposed brick walls, leather booths and hanging light bulb add a sense of warmth.
New Orleans’ temperate climate means that guests can often sip while sitting at one of the 32 outside seats, Cure has 102 seats in all, and the mild year-round temperatures also affect the style of cocktails on the menu.
The drinks menu changes four times per year. Current offerings include the Expense Account ($12), with Plymouth Gin, lime, honey and orange blossom water; and the Fire Within ($10), with High West Double Rye, Chinaco Blanco Tequila and Carpano Antica. The latter is bottled before serving to control the amount of dilution; a technique that demonstrates Cure’s fastidious attention to detail.
A section of the menu entitled “Reserve Classics” highlights drinks crafted with higher-end, rare or small batch spirits, like the V.E.P. Last Word ($17), which uses Chartreuse V.E.P. (Vieillissement Exceptionnellement Prolongé), a version of the French liqueur that is aged extra long in oak casks.
“Drinks are always changing; nothing is sacred,” admits Bodenheimer. Though no cocktails remain when a new list is rolled out, staff will accommodate requests for previous favorites. During the daily happy hour from 5 to 7 pm, guests can order traditional drinks including the Sazerac, Pimm’s Cup and La Paloma for $5 and an ever-changing and appealing punch is offered each day for $6.
When hiring staff to work behind the stick, management seeks people who genuinely have a natural interest in cocktails. There isn’t a fully furnished kitchen onsite, but chef Brock Miller employs a panini press and convection oven for inspired lighter fare like a Louisiana Crab Salad Sandwich ($13) served on sourdough with house made kimchi and bar nibbles, priced at $4, include goat cheese dates stuffed with bacon and Sazerac-roasted almonds.
As one of Cure’s House Rules states, “Traditional cocktail bars have been bastions of civility and sophistication.” And at a Cure, a well-made drink is sip, savored and revered.
By Kelly A. Magyarics
Best Wine Program: Max’s Wine Dive, Houston, TX
Fried chicken and Champagne? Kobe burgers and a big fat cab? Why not? That’s how they feel at Max’s Wine Dive’s three locations in Texas. While the concept, part of Houston-based Lasco Enterprises, bills itself as an unpretentious wine bar, there’s a certain sophistication that goes with offering upscale comfort food with wine.
“Max’s is a part of a revolution,” says Tucker Walton, sommelier for the San Antonio location. “The majority of wine drinkers in the world are not like me. We are tapping into a huge market of people that the majority of wine bars are ignoring.” It all starts with the staff. Each location has a wine expert on hand. But instead of bringing in a bunch of wine-savvy servers to guide the less wine-savvy clientele, Max’s lets the servers go on the wine journey with the guests.
“What makes this special is that we have guests come in and they don’t know much about wine either,” he says. “It offers them a unique experience. As the servers learn about wine, they then teach the guests.”
The entire dining experience at Max’s allows customers to explore a variety of wines in a laid back atmosphere. There are some 50 to 60 wines available by the glass ($8 to $18 on average, with dessert wines up to $30). But, Walton notes, “We will open any bottle [among the 150 available] if you are going to have two glasses.”
As part of the dedication to make wine more accessible, Max’s has a series of “discovery wines” that are meant to allow people to discover new varietals from different regions. As part of the series, the staff is somehow involved in the choosing or making of the overall wine. “It’s a fun experience for the staff to pass along to guests.”
Max’s selects and buys all of one type of wine or the staff actually goes there and takes part in making the blend. The top discovery wines across the chain are Amici Chardonnay ($49 a bottle), Vanishing Pinot Grigio ($37), Guard Shack Red ($49) and McDaniel Pinot Noir ($59). “At least once a month, we are adding a new Discovery Wine,” Walton notes. “They sell incredibly well. Our servers can say, ‘try this blend, we kind of made it and you won’t find it anywhere else’.”
In fact, more than 40 percent of sales at the chain are from wine. They do offer a small, yet expanding beer collection, but do not serve any spirits or cocktails.
Though much of wine lists are similar across the three locations, the individual sommeliers are given leeway to cater to the local tastes. Each Max’s also has a retail store attached to the restaurant that allows clients to take home a bottle of something new they just discovered. “It a unique part of dining experience. You can come in, enjoy a new wine and then buy some to enjoy at home.”
As for the food, you can get that Fried Chicken—a chain favorite—with some bubbly, but Walton might suggest the Urban ‘Circle U’ Riesling ($9.75). “What makes most people hapy is having a huge plate of French fries and hot dogs,” says Walton.
And let’s not forget a wine that pairs surprising well.
By Michelle Paolillo Lockett
Best Beer Program: Alewife Queens, Long Island City, NY
“We are dedicated to offering the best brews we can get our hands on and serving food that is as high quality as our beer,” says Jennifer Dillon, manager of Alewife Queens. Named for an archaic English word for a tavern brewer, Alewife opened last October in Long Island City, Queens, a neighborhood that is rapidly gentrifying thanks to its proximity to Manhattan and a thriving art community. Dillon adds that, “there was a void for a nicer place for food and drinks.”
Brew-centric Alewife Queens ably fills that void with 28 taps featuring a continually rotating selection of hard-to-find kegs from all over the world. Draft is served in 12-, 16- or 20-ounce pours, with prices varying from $5 to as much as $15 for rarities. Recently on tap, for example, were American crafts like Southampton Biere de Mars and Boulder Beer Mojo and Mahrs Ungespundet from Germany.
Alewife’s bottle list varies from 50 to 75 selections, says Dillon, depending upon what is available. Bottles skew towards European and foreign selections. Prices run the gamut from $8 up to as much as $52. At any time, the ever-changing collection might include brews from American craft producers Dogfish Head or Jolly Pumpkin to Norway’s famed Nogne, Schlenkerla from Germany or Belgians like Abbaye de Saint Bon-Chien.
The beer list is printed out nearly daily, as the selection changes; noted at the bottom are upcoming casks to be tapped, to whet customers’ interest. Staff training on the wide-ranging offerings is extensive, and servers are encouraged to taste unfamiliar beers.
Another educational tool is flights. Alewife offers a number of samplers, depending upon what’s on tap. Regulars can also join the 300-member Mug Club, with the aim of drinking their way through 60 drafts and 100 bottles. The prize is a 24-ounce mug engraved with the member’s name. Of course, Alewife Queens is not just about beer. A dozen well-crafted cocktails (priced $8 to $12) are offered, including the Alewife 75 and Tamarind Whiskey Sour. “We’re a place where a beer geek can take a date who isn’t necessarily into beer,” quips Dillon. Rounding out the drink offerings are a dozen or so wines ($7 to $14 per glass; around $40 to $50 a bottle), with a pinotage from South Africa and a mencia from Bierzo, Spain. “You can’t serve fabulous food and not offer wine,” points out Dillon.
Alewife Queens offers a full menu, including entrees such as Berkshire Pork Shank ($27) and Magret Duck ($22) as well as bar plates like a cheese platter ($18) and the popular Jalapeño Mac & Cheese ($13). Guests can also buy into flights of appetizers paired with beers. Beer dinners are planned for the future.
The restaurant is a roomy two-floor industrial chic space. Downstairs is a zinc-topped bar, fronted by corrugated metal sheeting; six-tops and larger communal tables are made from railroad ties. Upstairs is a lounge with comfy couches as well as a dining room. Weather permitting there is also back patio.
Alewife Queens is part of the beer bar empire—Alewife Baltimore and Lord Hobo in Cambridge, Mass.—both opened in the last two years and owned by Daniel Lanigan, which all follow a similar format of eclectic beer selections balanced by cocktails, wines and bistro-type food.
As for the newest sibling, Alewife Queens aims to educate locals in the world of beer. “We want to convert more people into beer geeks,” enthuses Dillon, “or at least pique their interest if we can’t get them all the way to geekdom.”
By Thomas Henry Strenk