When the Drink Doesn’t Fit the Dish

Trendy bars are pushing food to accompany their cocktails, calling it the new “responsible drinking.” I’d call it “irresponsible eating.”

I admit that I drink a lot of wine. I’ll consume a little with my lunch and quite a bit more with my dinner. At my house we always eat dinner in courses, with a salad or some vegetable dish first, then a main course and then some cheese. It’s an invitation to open a few bottles of wine, relax and enjoy the meal in a leisurely manner.

I confess that I also I love spirits. Sitting at a bar late at night, I hungrily eye my favorite single malt scotches with anticipation. Fine, aged Bourbons can be deliriously delicious, and the new boutique gins can pack amazing flavor and finesse. I’m also a sucker for grappa and eau de vie; even Tequila turns me on. But I don’t indulge in hard drinks until after a meal, when my stomach is full and the table is cleared.

Nevertheless, my curiosity was piqued when I saw a headline recently in a San Francisco newspaper that said: “A bar tradition makes a comeback, with a new focus on noshing—and drinking responsibly.”

The article extolled the virtue of serving more food with more alcohol at the so-called “happy hour,” which is apparently undergoing some sort of renaissance nationwide. Indeed, a number of Bay Area restaurants are now featuring two happy hours: The first runs from 5 to 7 p.m. Then a second one begins an hour or so later until the bar closes. The trend is to serve more substantial snacks, such as pizza, small sandwiches, antipasti, tapas, quesadillas or chicken tacos for cheap, or even for free. With serious low-budget munchies in the wings, patrons will have more cash available to spend on drinks—mostly of the distilled nature. And where folks would previously have had an apéritif before dinner, they are now tempted to eat around their cocktails.

According to the newspaper, the happy hour at El Torrito—one of a half dozen featured watering holes—served up chicken tacos for 99 cents and shots of Tequila for $1.99. Other establishments offered equally potent pairings. So for six bucks, I can chug three shots of Cuervo Gold in short order. I once did something like that in my younger days, and my buddies had to carry me home.

To my taste, it’s a sorry day for the best companion to any meal: wine. I’ve got a better name for the new “responsible drinking.” I’m calling it “irresponsible eating.”

Part of the problem in the U.S. stems from an American drinking tradition still steeped in the ways of Prohibition. Liquor stores outnumber wine shops, and cocktails remain standard fare at fine dining establishments throughout the nation.

Sure, if people are going to drink, it’s better to drink on a full stomach than an empty one. But high-proof spirit-based drinks contain the kind of alcohol and flavorings that tend to overpower the tastes and textures of most foods. I’ve watched too many diners get looped on that first martini or margarita. After that, it doesn’t really matter much what is on their plate.

Still, some distillers have seen a marketing opportunity in Americans’ reticence to drink wine with dinner. (At one glass per week, we’re still trailing the French, who average a glass every night.) A number of years ago, I was invited by the Cognac house, Remy Martin, to a restaurant promotion called “Remy on the Rocks.” The idea was to promote Cognac as a mealtime beverage. The media showed up on time, but the bottles of Remy didn’t arrive until the third course, which—as it turned out—was a blessing. Most of us staggered back to the office, despite double espressos all around.

Fortunately there are trends in truly sensible eating and drinking now being embraced in this country. Perhaps the most exciting of all are the tapas bars springing up throughout the nation. Tapas dishes allow diners to consume a copious selection of culinary creations and fine wines, but all in moderate quantities.

In the Spanish tradition, you might whet your palate with an apéritif glass of fino Sherry—fortified, yes, but not quite as potent as a Scotch on the rocks. As your small plates of seafood, poultry, meats and artfully prepared vegetable dishes gradually make their way to your table, you can revel in a diverse and delicious expression of culinary excellence. It’s also a fine opportunity to order numerous styles of wine to fit the drift of the meal. At 12 to 14 percent alcohol, wine (in moderation, of course) is made to fit this and most other dining paradigms. Spirits are not.

Regardless of what’s for dinner, a glass of good wine raises the bar for mealtime pleasure. But don’t be fooled by headlines implying that eating more food with your straight shots or mixed drinks is a license to consume spirits in excess. Too much alcohol is unsafe at any speed.

Published on October 1, 2004