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I Love Restaurants but Avoid Alcohol. Why Don’t More Places Offer Festive Booze-Free Drinks?

A food writer on the challenges of dining out while sober

Restaurants like Vedge provide ambiance and options without alcohol.
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Dear Philly Bars and Restaurants,

In recent months, something strange has happened to me that has affected our relationship. I seem to have stopped drinking alcohol.

At first, I intended this to be a month-long break — a New Year’s resolution. During similar past breaks from booze, I abstained from dining out as well. Being in a bustling restaurant where wine flowed (but not into my glass) made me feel deprived and left out, so I stayed away for the duration of these short stints of sobriety.

But that single dry month has turned into all of 2017 to date. To my own amazement, it seems like I don’t intend to drink anymore. I keep not wanting to.

There is this other thing I want to do, though, a pastime I’ve always loved: going out to restaurants and bars. And so I have been going. It turns out there is lots to enjoy — interesting food, a well-designed room, and skilled hospitality — beyond the pleasures of great wine and well-crafted cocktails.

In fact, I love dining out more than before. Without alcohol, I can pay much closer attention to the whole experience and the people I’m with. I’m more present and engaged. And, of course, I feel totally free to order dessert without the calorie burden of alcohol on my mind. Thank you for everything you do to make the restaurant scene in Philadelphia one of the best things about living here.

I do have a note for the suggestion box, though.

Can we talk about beverage options for those who don’t drink, can’t drink, are pregnant, or maybe just don’t want a wine pairing tonight?

Some of you have this basically covered. I’m looking at you, Vernick, with your house- made sodas, and Vedge and V Street with that thoughtful “refreshments” section of your drinks menu. Zahav, you have this under control. Ditto, Charlie Was a Sinner. Well done! Thank you very much. And I know these restaurants are not alone.

I have heard there are other spots that have appealing alcohol-free beverage options, too, though you wouldn’t know it from reading the drinks menus available online. I reached out to my favorite Philadelphia barkeep to request the creation of a few nonalcoholic drinks to be added to the menu, and he replied that his place makes terrific mocktails upon request — a thing I already knew from visiting with teetotalers in the past.

I think he (and perhaps you) don’t realize that listing a few zero-proof options alongside the other drinks drains the awkwardness out of not drinking alcohol at a bar or restaurant. If your nonalcoholic cocktails are listed proudly on your menu, right beside their boozy counterparts, it sends a signal that nondrinkers are welcome, too, and that you want us to have something special to sip. It shows you thought about us and used your good palate and drink-mixing experience to come up with something to add to the pleasure of our meal. And please remember: If you offer this, I will happily pay $10, even $12, for that pleasure. I will not bat an eyelash. If you don’t, I will order seltzer. Do the math. We both stand to benefit here.

On a recent trip to Louisville, I sought out restaurants with drink lists that had something good for me. At Rye on Market, I had a vibrant prickly pear shrub; Decca restaurant made an exceptionally good grapefruit fizz with fresh juice, cilantro, Fever Tree tonic, and bitters. I chose these places specifically because I knew I’d want to toast my friends with an alcohol-free drink.

Recently I had a mild pang of longing for the Negroni, my favorite classic cocktail. I shared this yearning with a cocktail-savvy friend who informed me that Gramercy Tavern makes the “N/A-Groni,” a booze-free take on my favorite, with the same perfectly bitter profile and none of the ethanol. The promise of this makes me want to eat dinner in New York.

While in Louisville, a friend told me, “For you, it’s about the ritual.” And she’s right. I love to review a menu with a drink in hand, to raise a glass, to sip and appreciate something with a bit of complexity. This is part of the larger restaurant ritual for me, and some places make it very easy to choose something other than alcohol. I still like meeting friends or my husband in a candlelit bar to talk in a better-decorated and different place than my home.

Inspired Brews komubucha
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Recently, I went to dinner at one of my absolute favorite restaurants in town. Because of the fact that I’ve become interested in local kombucha maker Inspired Brews, and have read every word on its website, I knew that this restaurant stocked Inspired Brews kombucha. (It’s true that kombucha contains trace amounts of alcohol, up to 0.5 percent. That’s the legal limit for nonalcoholic drinks; you’ll find 0.5 percent alcohol in nonalcoholic beers, too.) Yet when I scanned the menu, I could not find the kombucha. In fact, I didn’t see anything nonalcoholic at all.

I felt self-conscious as I asked the server, “What do you have in terms of nonalcoholic drinks?” She rattled off a short and kombucha-less list.

“What about kombucha? I read you guys have Inspired Brews.”

“Oh, yeah,” she said. “Three kinds.”

I was happy to get it, and it added roughly $10 to my bill, but I wish it would have been listed openly on the menu. Instead I needed to make a special request, something that makes me feel fussy, different, and high-maintenance. Don’t make me feel that way. Sometimes water is preferable to that.

So please, if you aren’t already taking food-obsessed non-drinkers seriously by using your skills to craft and serve drinks for us, now you know you should. I might not drink anymore, but I’m still a food snob. And I want to see a mustachioed dude siphoning a micro-sip out of my glass with a little straw to make sure it tastes just right, too.

Love,

Joy

Joy Manning is a writer and the editor of Edible Philly. She co-hosts the home cooking podcast, Local Mouthful.

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