Where We’ve Been Drinking, Suburban Edition
While we’re now committed city dwellers, both of us were raised in the suburbs. Though our hometowns are in entirely different regions of the country (one outside of LA and the other outside of Chicago), their stories are remarkably similar. Until just a handful of years before our families moved there, our towns were sleepy farming communities full of orange groves, in the one case, and cornfields, in the other. Newly constructed freeways suddenly put them within reach of young families like ours looking for a house of their own, and maybe a little yard. A few subdivisions along the highway quickly became a mad rush of development, with new roads, strip malls, and more subdivisions springing up in every direction. Both of them were bustling, mid-sized towns before anyone even noticed that they lacked town centers. And both towns addressed that absence with the exact same strategy (so similar, in fact, that we suspect it’s the work of the same developer): they built outdoor malls with ‘historic downtown’ themes–a few blocks of shops and restaurants on a grid along small, pedestrian-friendly streets. While they don’t exactly feel organic, they do the job of creating a place for people to gather, and a way to wander around a little without driving a car from point to point.
On our visit home for Christmas, we decided to take full advantage of the retro-fit town center for some suburban culture studies. We already knew that the craft beer revolution is alive and well in the suburbs; beers and burgers have completely transformed in the past few years. We didn’t know, though, if the cocktail renaissance had followed craft beers from Brooklyn to Bolingbrook. We recruited my family on a little bar crawl of the Promenade to find out.
It turned out to be quite the pleasant evening. All told, as a family, we sampled a little more than a dozen cocktails. There were a few duds, to be sure, but also a couple of stars, and an overall majority of quite respectable drinks. We did notice a few differences in taste between the urban lounges we usually haunt and the restaurants along the Promenade.
We’ll review each of our stops over the course of the week. But here are some overarching observations.
Notes on Suburban Drinking
Cocktails are Definitely a Thing
We were wondering whether we’d be able to find many cocktails at all. We could well imagine that the drink menus would feature beer and wine, with perhaps some straight whiskeys or tequilas on offer, depending on the theme of the place. As it turns out, all of the places we visited had specialty cocktail menus, often quite prominent and extensive ones. There was also always a specialty cocktail of the night–or week, maybe, we don’t know how often they changed. Suburban restaurants certainly have in mind that people might be looking for cocktails.
Choice is Important
As we mentioned, some of the menus offered a very large number of options. It was an interesting kind of option, though, to our eyes. Rather than serving completely different types of mixed drinks, or varying the flavor profile of their drinks very much, each restaurant seemed to choose a style, largely stick to it, and offer seemingly endless small variations on the theme, by substituting single ingredients, like a fruit juice, for instance. Many choices, but within a narrow spectrum, seem to be the order of the day.
Juice is a Basic Ingredient
Juice played a far more prominent role in the Promenade’s cocktails than we’re used to. It was the rare cocktail that didn’t include some sort of fruit juice, and often the juice was the drink’s primary flavor. A switch of juice seemed as common or more common a way to change a drink as a switch of spirits. This made us think that people are still getting used to cocktails, and prefer things less spirited than we tend to be served or to make ourselves in the city. Stepping away for a moment from description to recommendation, we’d really like the suburbs to know that there are better ways to take the edge off your cocktail than adding juice.
It’s About the Martini Glass
While we might have a soft spot for the Nick and Nora, we know that nothing evokes ‘cocktail’ in the popular imagination like the iconic, long-stemmed, conical martini glass. We’ve all been trained by many years of James Bond films, Sex and the City, and liquor advertisements to equate the martini glass with sophistication. And an aura of sophistication is probably no small part of what the drinkers of the Promenade want out of their cocktails. Thus, the restaurants of the Promenade use martini glasses almost as much as they possibly can. Pretty much any drink served straight up came in a martini glass (a reasonable choice), and pretty much anything served in a martini glass was called a ‘martini’ (a more suspect choice).
Big Brands are More Prominent
Something that caught our eye as we scanned the Promenade menus was that the spirit was listed by brand without fail. Some of the urban cocktail lounges we frequent do the same, but with a difference. When an urban cocktail lounge mentions a spirit’s brand, it’s usually an unfamiliar one, a craft brand or an obscure spirit from some unexpected corner of the globe; the Promenade brands were all the most familiar mass market brands. The urban cocktail lounge is boasting that it has something exotic; the Promenade restaurant is reassuring you that they’re using something you’ve heard of. Or maybe it’s just that the brands are actually sponsoring the cocktails.
Some Trends are the Same
We noticed a few of the trendy ingredients of the last several years in the drinks of the Promenade. It seems that in the suburbs as in the city they received the memo that there needs to be at least one St. Germain drink on every menu, for instance; and mezcal was markedly prominent. Other recent trends were absent, though. There wasn’t any amaro, or sherry. Rye was rare. We were curious whether these fashions just hadn’t made it to the suburbs yet, or if they’d made an appearance and been rejected.
Our Tips for the City Cocktailer Drinking In the Suburbs
If you, like us, are a serious cocktail drinker whose tastes have developed in urban lounges heavily influenced by the cocktail renaissance, and you find yourself in the suburbs, based on our bar crawl experience, we have a few recommendations.
Don’t Force It
You probably know this already, because it’s the case in the city as well as the suburbs. If you’re at a place with interesting beers or an extensive wine selection, where the cocktail menu is relegated to a back page, you should probably go with the flow, rather than trying to force a cocktail out of them. Appreciate that beer they’ve put some of their soul into brewing or selecting, instead of being disappointed by the cocktail they mixed only because you asked them to.
Look for the Drinks in Old Fashioned Glasses
We found that we jived best with the drinks served in old fashioned glasses. Apparently, at the Promenade at least, the old fashioned glass is the signal for a ‘serious’ cocktail. The rocks drinks tended to be more spirit forward and less fussy than the ones in martini glasses or, especially, highballs. Interestingly, as a rule, Manhattans were served on the rocks on the Promenade; and, in general, we were pleased with the Manhattans we were served.
Hew Close to the Classics
We were in general more pleased with the classics or near-classics than we were with more innovative recipes. This was mostly a matter of expectations: the classics tasted more like we thought they were going to than the more creative drinks did.
Cover photo: New Statesman