Alongside the wine list, more and more restaurants are offering a good selection of pre- and post-prandial drinks to aid the diner's digestion and the owner's bottom line. Fiona Sims reports
Chef-proprietor Rowley Leigh knows how to upsell. As well as the usual first courses, mains and an impressive array of vegetable side dishes on the menu of his new restaurant, Le Café Anglais in London's Bayswater, there is his much-talked-about line-up of hors d'oeuvres and a lengthy selection of apéritifs.
The apéritif list fits. Like the rest of the menu it's a hit list of Leigh's favourite things. Mine, too, as I mull over whether to have a Campari Soda, a manzanilla, or a Riesling spätlese from Maximin Grunhauser.
And the customers are lapping it up, even the spätlese and the sherries. Maybe it's because of the grand deco-style dining room, which would bring out the martini mood in anybody, or maybe it's Leigh's rather eccentric suggestions - where else can you see a Gin Fizz sitting alongside an amontillado and a Virgin Mary? Anyway, it's working.
"I think people are having a bit of a retro moment when they come here, yes," says Leigh when I ask him about the reasons for the list's success, although he can't really explain the huge sales of German spätlese. Riesling is a tough sell at the best of times, and spätlese an even tougher category. But he is offering a good one, and there's nothing that gets the gastric juices flowing quite like well-made Riesling.
"I wanted to introduce people to things like sherry and German wine as an apéritif. It's slightly more grown-up and rather better than ordering a vodka and tonic, don't you think?" he says.
I do think. So why aren't more operators making the most out of apéritifs - and digestifs, for that matter?
Champagne always sells, sure. And a Cognac after dinner? Certainly. Summer Lodge in Evershot, Dorset, has got those sales down to a T. But the bar manager is a brandy buff, and you can't help but get caught up with his passion. And anyway, country house hotels never have too much of a problem shifting apéritifs and digestifs, as people have more time to relax. But what about the rest of the industry?
House cocktails are one way to go. Most diners at London's Pearl restaurant order its signature cocktail, Pink Pearl (Rémy Martin, elderflower and spiced berry cordials and brown sugar, topped with pink Champagne) while Soho hot spot Arbutus and its sister restaurant Wild Honey are doing a roaring trade with their Bellini made with Prosecco.
Meanwhile, Tim Oakley, group beverage manager for Rising Star Leisure, has high hopes for his gins and genevers. For the company's latest opening, the Establishment, in Parson's Green, south-west London, Oakley wanted to offer something a bit different in the way of apéritifs and digestifs, and being located in an area that is rather partial to gin and tonic, he thought he would offer a comprehensive range of gins - including genevers, the mother of all gins and Holland's national drink.
The Establishment is also resting its reputation on its resolutely British cuisine, so gin fits right in. "Gin is coming out of its shell a bit more - there are now so many to choose from on the market," declares Oakley, who settled on 17 gins for his list, plus five genevers, at £5.50 to £9 a shot.
The gin is mostly ordered as an apéritif and mostly with tonic, of which the Establishment offers a choice of Schweppes and the more upmarket Fever Tree (at the moment Fever Tree is winning out, sold as "the ultimate gin and tonic").
There are some big names on the gin list, from Beefeater to Bombay Sapphire, but there are also some lesser-known gins, such as Juniper Green Organic and Whitley Neill. In fact, Whitley Neill is currently Oakley's best seller (at £6 a shot). "I love it. It's got fruit from a baobab tree in there, and South African cape gooseberries," he enthuses.
The higher-strength gins, such as Plymouth Navy Strength, are also selling well. "I wanted to include these to show how the botanicals work at higher alcohol levels," he explains.
There is a description of each gin on the menu, but most of the selling is done by Oakley's bar staff, who are newly fired up about the subject and use different garnishes to bring out the flavours. Tanqueray Ten, for example, gets a squeeze and a twist of grapefruit while Blackwoods, which lists mint as one of its botanicals, gets a few fresh mint leaves muddled in. A Gin of the Month also helps to push sales further, says Oakley.
After dinner, Oakley and his team swing into action again by offering genever. A gin that contains a combination of malt wine and other grain spirits, plus various aromatics, it pushes down a meal a treat. Most popular is the Roggenaer, "matured in wood with subtle citrus flavours" (£6).
"Gin is an easy upsell," reveals Oakley, largely because, unlike vodka, customers can actually taste the difference between gins. "Plus, the public are much more educated about drinks these days. They don't just stick to things they know they're willing to try new things," he says.
Yes, but that's London, I hear you saying. What about further afield? Do customers really like to try new things? Well, is Kingussie, Inverness-shire, far enough away for you? The Cross restaurant with rooms, opened by David and Katie Young in 2003, is doing a roaring trade in apéritifs and digestifs - sherries and single malts, mainly. The former are currently wowing diners before dinner, while the latter take care of after dinner.
A dozen sherries
David lists a dozen sherries, from bone-dry manzanilla and fino to sticky, nutty oloroso and amontillado. "And I haven't just offered the usual suspects. Instead of Tio Pepe, for example, I offer Hidalgo's La Gitana," he says.
The drier styles are selling best before dinner - "they sharpen the appetite beautifully" - but he increasingly sells the sweeter, older styles of oloroso with cheese. "Actually, the sherry sales have mostly been generated by the customers themselves," says David. "They come in asking for a sherry and we show them what we've got."
And the Youngs don't appear to have a problem with customers watching their intake, as whisky sales are buoyant. But they are near Speyside, and the area undoubtedly helps.
"This is one subject where people expect a bit of guidance," says David, who lists 50 different whiskies, cherry-picking his favourites and making it his business to know everything about each distiller, right down to their inside leg measurement.
Champagne cocktail bar
Of course, you could just get customers to mix their own apéritifs and digestifs. The newly opened Levin hotel in London's Knightsbridge, owned by the same people as the Capital next door, offers a Champagne cocktail bar in every one of its 12 rooms.
In each minibar are seven half-bottles of bubbly, from Gosset and Ruinart to Henriot and Laurent-Perrier - there's even a bottle of Krug. And stashed in the door are the rest of the ingredients for making Champagne cocktails: mini-bottles of Merlet fruit liqueurs Martell Cognac, Grand Marnier and Snow Queen vodka a silver atomiser filled with Angostura bitters and sugar cubes to saturate said bitters (which you need for making a classic Champagne cocktail). Plus, there are silver stirrers, glasses and various juices.
What madness is this? Surely that means customers will stay in their rooms for their apéritif or digestif rather than use the hotel's bar? "Well, the Levin only has a small bar in Le Metro downstairs, and some still come to me anyway," laughs bar manager Cesar da Silva, who created the nine cocktail recipes that are available in each room.
Since the hotel opened in August, the Champagne minibar sales have exceeded expectation - and at an average of £15 for a Champagne cocktail, as opposed to the £12 that da Silva charges in his bar, that's not bad going. Incidentally, he justifies the higher price by saying that the mini bottles of nectar and liqueurs are more expensive to buy in and are better for the customer, as each one is opened fresh.
"I'm actually surprised by how adventurous our guests are. And no, I don't mind if they don't come to my bar, they're still spending their money here," he grins.