Restaurants, especially those of the fine dining persuasion, have typically been the domain of wine (and, to a lesser extent, spirits). Beer is usually an afterthought, if offered at all. The exceptions to this rule are normally places that focus almost singularly on beer like beerbistro – you know going into the restaurant that beer is the focus, so it draws in people looking for an evening out that combines beer and food. As much as craft beer has grown in popularity in recent years, many restaurants are still not giving any respect to their beer selections.
Part of the problem is cultural. Having wine with your meal has become so ingrained in our dining experience that it is hard for people to unlearn a lifetime of bad habits. A lot of people don’t question whether or not wine is the best beverage to match with their food because they haven’t been told that there are other options. The mystique surrounding fine dining and wine has such a stranglehold on the consumers consciousness that it has been hard for beer to find a way into many restaurants. (For the record, I’m not anti-wine. I just think that beer is more versatile, due to the wider range of styles that can match a greater number of foods. Plus, the carbonation in beer helps clean the palate, useful when you’re eating fatty foods or cheese.)
Restaurants are happy with wine dominating the dinner landscape. With the markup on alcohol being the source of many restaurant profits, it makes sense that they are happy to sell a $20 bottle of wine for twice as much. Compared with a beer that may be sold for $6-10, one can easily see where the money can be made. Wines are almost always stronger than beers, meaning they have a longer shelf life. No one wants to be stuck with a number of IPAs once they’ve lost their hoppiness or kegs that don’t move fast enough. These people have businesses to run, which must be considered.
For beer in a restaurant, selection is more important than quantity. Four or five well selected beers can go far in pairing with a range of dishes and suited to the menu of the restaurant. I’ve always thought that part of the problem in Ontario has long been that enough styles weren’t available in the province to truly meet the needs of a restaurant. Pale ales and Pilsner-esque lagers will only go so far in terms of pairing with food, but now there is a greater selection of beers from a greater number of local breweries. Muskoka, Great Lakes and Bellwoods, to give three examples, are now making a wide enough range of beers in large enough quantities to supply restaurants with interesting beers that would not be out of place beside a well prepared meal.
I don’t mean to sound like all restaurants are slacking in the beers they serve. Grand Electric was the first place I had Bellwoods and their neighbours Chantecler have a rotating Great Lakes cask. The Black Hoof has always had a nice selection. The Momofuku empire brought Sixpoint into Ontario when it opened four spots in the Shangri-La Hotel, then rounded out the beer menu with mostly local picks. The recently opened Bar Isabel has had Volo help create their beer menu. Most of these restaurants have opened in the past two years, which means things are clearly changing.
It is nice to go to these restaurants and not feel like your server is judging you for ordering a beer. Nothing irks me more than getting the impression that the beer section is the ghetto part of the beer menu. (We’ve all been there, finding the beers listed in small print on the bottom of the back page of the drinks menu. It’s like Where’s Waldo? for your liver.) All I want are a couple of nice beer options when I go out to eat, ones that make sense alongside the wines and cocktails on offer.