Living (Zero) Proof Restaurants Pivot Toward Alcohol-Free Drinks

Steve McAllister is aa white man wearing a dress shirt and mask pouring spirits at the bar.
Steven McAllister is the beverage director for CookNSolo. | Photos by Colby Kingston

Gone are the days of ordering a virgin Jack and Coke or mimosa at a summer pool party or brunch for those who don’t imbibe alcohol, leaving them with a simple soda or glass of orange juice in a sea of fancy cocktails.

Slowly but surely, the tides are turning for sober bar and restaurant goers, with more and more restaurants offering zero-proof counterparts to their extensive menu of spirit-heavy drinks.

Jewish-owned and kosher restaurants in Philadelphia are no exception, and chefs, restaurant owners and bartenders note the emergence of these drinks as a sign of changing times for restaurants.

“There’s a lot of different social reasons why this is becoming a little bit more popular,” said Steven McAllister, beverage director of CookNSolo, Steve Cook and Michael Solomonov’s restaurant group.

McAllister guesses that personal health is the primary reason many are turning to nonalcoholic drinks. 

“A lot of people realize that alcohol doesn’t necessarily agree with them,” he said.

For others who are traveling or jet-lagged, mocktails can provide a distinguished restaurant experience that doesn’t take as much of a physical toll.

In the past five to seven years, monthly challenges like Dry January and NAvember (non-alcohol November) have created low-risk, easy entry points for those dipping their toe into an alcohol-free lifestyle.

From a consumer perspective, no-alcohol or low-
alcohol-by-volume drinks allow simply for more drinking.

“It’s really important to offer lower ABV cocktails for people who want to enjoy more drinks and flavors without the hangover or getting smashed or whatever,” kosher restaurant Charlie was a sinner. owner Nicole
Marquis said.

Thoughtful zero-proof drinks also help to maintain the atmosphere restaurants work hard to create.

“I love going to a really nice bar or really nice lounge and just enjoying that experience, but I don’t want to drink when I’m there, necessarily,” Marquis said. “So I want people who don’t drink as well to feel like they can still enjoy a really sexy vibe.”

But the emergence of mocktails serves just as much a purpose for the back of house, for both the restaurant and chefs behind the scenes.

Many chefs have come forward with their experiences struggling with substance abuse, said Ginevra Rieff, the Jewish bartender at Rich Landau and Kate Jacoby’s Vedge in Center City. 

“A lot of restaurant industry people have always had battles with it,” she said. “This young generation, treating the industry differently, really values different things.”

Following a generation of chefs whose experience in the kitchen was defined by verbal abuse, long hours and unhealthy lifestyles, younger chefs are looking to maintain a better balance between their work and family and look after their bodies, tired after a 12-hour shift.

“The hospitality industry is hitting its stride in becoming a lot more professional,” McAllister said. “We can get benefits; you can make a livable wage, whether you’re in front of house or back house; and there’s a lot of these forward-thinking restaurateurs that are putting these concepts into place.” 

Solomonov has been outspoken about being sober on social media, and zero-proof drinks have become a way for McAllister to give back to the chef.

On a cherry-decorated table cloth, four fruity drinks sit in various glasses.
CookNSolo restaurant Laser Wolf’s cocktail lineup | Photo by Michael Persico

“I put a lot of effort into creating cocktails. And I get to taste the food that Michael makes and that the restaurants make, and it’s like, almost like something I wasn’t able to give back to him,” McAllister said. “So it made me want to put more effort — just as much, if not even more — into these zero-proof drinks, so that I could give something for him to enjoy, something for him to be excited about and showcase my talent.”

But unlike bars that offer cranberry juice or ginger ale as their only nonalcoholic offerings, restaurants are putting just as much, if not more effort into their booze-free beverages.

“It just aligned with our food menu, that has seasonal vegetables and very vegetable-forward dishes, so I thought that was important for the concept,” Marquis said.

Charlie was a sinner. has had mocktails on its menu since its 2014 opening, and Marquis developed a zero-proof gin for the restaurant, using glycerin to mimic the rich mouthfeel of drinking alcohol and botanicals such as juniper to recreate the spirit’s herbal quality.

At Vedge, the bar team considers what makes a good drink without booze as its base.

“As you’re creating drinks, you’re also considering how they could be used without the alcohol as its structure,” Rieff said.

Rieff recently developed a carrot-ginger shrub to be used in both a cocktail and mocktail for the restaurant. The shrub has a vinegar base infused with fresh produce. It’s one of several ingredients that goes into one drink.

Vedge also has a drink with a pineapple syrup containing more than 15 components, which takes hours to make. But it’s the effort that sets these drinks apart.

“It’s not that you can’t do it at home. It’s that you also need an open grill, and you also need high heat, and you also need access to all the spices and to know that those need to be toasted,” Rieff said. “And so a lot of times people are like, ‘Wow, these drinks are amazing,’ and it’s because of the time and effort that’s put into them.”

For both a restaurant’s efficiency and philosophy around quality ingredients, bar programs aren’t cutting corners to create mocktails. While cocktails are still the most popular drink items on the menu, mocktails have become far from an afterthought.

“I look at zero-proof and my cocktails through the same lens,” McAllister said. “I’m putting in the same amount of effort.”

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