Tasting menu-only restaurants and their commitment to sustainable and seasonal produce are an immovable part of today’s dining landscape. At Pidgin, a tiny, 28-seat restaurant in London’s Hackney neighbourhood, the beverage programme changes with the food menu, that is, it changes every single week, bringing with it new wines by the glass and a new house cocktail. Even while more and more restaurants move towards a focus on seasonal menus and changing the offerings daily to reflect that, beverage programmes have yet to take on the same mentality. At Pidgin, James Ramsden and Margot Tyson are using inspiration from the kitchen and creating a beverage programme that changes just as often as the food menu. Below, they talk to us about why they made this decision, the challenges that have come along with it, and advice they have for those who have to manage a beverage programme of any size.
Reflect a changing menu
“The broader ethos of the restaurant is that the menu changes every week,” says James Ramsden general manager and owner of the restaurant. “It seemed a bit jarring to us to not change the bar programme frequently,” he continues. He and his beverage manager made the decision to have a house cocktail that changed to match the menu, while including a classic gin and tonic and a barrel-aged cocktail as the only constants. “We have such limited space in the restaurant so we try to have fun and play around with it.”
The wine programme gets the same treatment. Margot Tyson, wine manager for Pidgin, echoes the same sentiment when it comes to changing the wine list. “We didn’t want to have the same wines all the time,” she says. “We wanted to reflect the changing menu and go for wines that people aren’t used to.” She tries to pick “quirkier” wines for her by the glass and carafe pours that act as pairings for the tasting menu.
Striking a balance between diner palates and physical space
Obviously, the choice to change the beverages so often has come with some challenges. Margot has to pick wines for the week very carefully, while trying to accommodate her guests’ palates. “I’m always trying to find a balance,” she says. “It’s such a small list so you don’t want to alienate anyone.” Physically space also means being very careful about the number of bottles of a specific wine.
“Ordering is a minefield,” she laughs. Luckily, suppliers understand her predicament and will work with her on leftover stock. Leftovers can be a bit trickier for James on the cocktail side. When the team began making signature cocktails to accompany the ever-changing menu, they focused on all sorts of garnishes and infusions to use in special drinks. The only problem was the infusions would go bad and have to be dumped if they weren’t used within the week. The costs added up and became too expensive.
“One thing we learned is you can be creative in ways that aren’t wasteful,” James says. He recommends bartenders and beverage managers learn to be innovative on the “fringes” of a cocktail. “We have an applejack Manhattan on the menu with a smoked cherry garnish. The base is a classic Manhattan and those base ingredients can be saved and reused,” he says. Keeping it simple has allowed James and his team to be more creative with their stock.
Be creative, be resourceful
At Pidgin, utilising the remnants of cocktail garnishes and cases of wine also require a bit of creativity. Every six months or so, the restaurant will have a “dust-stock” Sunday where guests can order cocktails made with bottle remains, and carafes of unopened bottles of wine, at a steep discount. “We made a whole bunch of cocktails to use up the strange bits of what we had left,” James remembers. The idea came about when the team needed to make room for new products. He says that while beverage managers may not have the same tight space as as Pidgin, they should always be looking for opportunities to create new experiences for guests.
“Be creative and be resourceful,” he advises. On the wine side, Margot says that while larger wine lists are sometimes unavoidable since wine can age well and guests have different palates, it’s still possible to make your staff comfortable with your list. If you have a big list, don’t be afraid to open products and taste your staff on it. It will make them more familiar with your product. “If you have a larger, static list I would open a bottle every week,” she says. “Just have fun with it. A big list can be intimidating and just letting your staff know what’s going on can be helpful.”
Keep your staff updated on changes
One of the biggest payoffs for changing the menu so frequently is that the staff has an intimate knowledge of the beverages, Margot says. “We don’t list grape varietals on the menu so it invites the customers to ask the staff about their recommendations.” Before changing the wines, Margot is sure to do tastings with her servers so they know what is going on the menu and pairings for the food menu.
“I used to work somewhere where the wine list is a bible and it was a stab in the dark to try and describe the wine,” she says. That’s not the case at Pidgin. “Everyone here is familiar with each beverage.” Making the staff comfortable allows them to provide better service to guests, which Margo says is the point of a beverage programme in a restaurant of any size. “It’s really just about getting information to the staff and then they give it to the customer,” she says. That exchange is part of what makes Pidgin such a special experience for their customers.
Photos courtesy of Pidgin