The selection of house-made sodas at Green Zebra changes to reflect seasonal… (Lenny Gilmore/RedEye )
Guests at cocktail-centric hot spots used to have just a few, bland options if they didn't want to order alcohol with a meal—basically, water, iced tea or ginger ale. The tide is changing, though, as restaurants apply the same attention to detail once reserved for cocktails to non-alcoholic drinks. Unconventional and exotic ingredients such as sweet potatoes and pickled plums are finding their way into house-made sodas and syrups, while fresh juices and herbs replace canned or pre-mixed ingredients. The creativity of this new breed of mocktail is even converting some wine and cocktail drinkers—as is the promise of a hangover-free morning.
Months before they even sit down to eat, diners with reservations to Grant Achatz's revered Next restaurant in the West Loop have shelled out hundreds of dollars and navigated an advanced online ticketing system.
After all that fuss, wouldn't they need a glass of wine? Apparently not.
"Sometimes, we have half the dining room doing non-alcoholic pairings," said Bobby Murphy, a server at Next who oversees the non-alcoholic drink options, which can be paired with the multi-course meal (currently $58 for pairings) just like wines or beer ($78 for pairings) are. "It's increasing with every menu."
Next's menu and theme, be it the cuisine of Japan or turn-of-the-century Paris, changes entirely every few months, as do the complex non-alcoholic pairings.
Murphy, who works closely with executive chef Dave Beran and the rest of the kitchen, has concocted out-of-the-box creations such as a sparkling coconut water with saffron, and a sweet potato, tea and melon drink. Next's upcoming menu, which begins in May and will be completely vegan, gives Murphy the most freedom yet.
"It's going to be the menu that catches people by surprise. I think the drinks have to match that," he said. "I have some fresh ideas that are probably a little crazy. People are going to remember these."
At Green Zebra, a sophisticated vegetarian restaurant in West Town, beverage director Kristin Rekucki also creates house-made, seasonal sodas, teas and lemonades that can be paired with the five-course tasting menu ($10 for pairings).
"It's nice for people in cultures who don't drink, people who can't drink, or people who are just like 'Wow those look interesting,' " said Lis David, Green Zebra's general manager. "A lot of couples who do the tasting menu, one will choose the wine pairings and the other does non-alcoholic so they can try both."
While the cliche of a three-martini lunch might still be the norm in certain industries, GT Fish & Oyster's general manager Chris Haisma estimates that the majority of lemonades on the River North restaurant's lunch and brunch menus are ordered virgin ($5), even though all can be made with booze ($10).
"I'd say 80 percent of people order them non-spiked," Haisma said. "They fly off the bar. Of course, more people get them spiked on Fridays than on Tuesdays."
For diners who need to return to the office or finish downtown errands, the four seasonal virgin lemonades in flavors such as the Stoney Island (apricot, lemon, mango and iced tea) or the Peach Cider (white peach, lemon, ginger-apple syrup and cider) offer options beyond just water or coffee.
"When most people go out to lunch, they have water, iced tea, an Arnold Palmer, or lemonade," Haisma said. "We thought 'Why not do something cool with it?' and be able to say to people, 'Have you seen our lemonade list?' "
Maybe you've been experimenting with your Sodastream at home, but you likely haven't created flavors as exotic as the non-alcoholic sodas at Green Zebra or Little Market Brasserie in the Gold Coast.
In addition to rotating seasonal flavors, two signature sodas ($5 each) are permanent fixtures on Green Zebra's menu—the pink peppercorn-thyme soda and the umeboshi (a Japanese pickled plum)-shiso (an aromatic Japanese herb from the mint and basil family) soda. Both begin with a house-made flavored simple syrup, then are topped with lemon juice or soda water and hand shaken instead of being carbonated by a machine.
At Little Market Brasserie, New York-based cocktail consultants The Tippling Bros. designed the restaurant's sodas to be coupled with spirits ($10-$12), but many guests order the fizzy stuff by itself ($5).
"They needed to work well with the food, to be simple but intriguing," said Tad Carducci, one half of The Tippling Bros. "They're already very popular as stand-alone beverages and have been replacing a cocktail for some people."
Riffing on some of the restaurant's vintage American brasserie decor, the sodas are served from retro chargers, the shiny canisters that were staples of old-fashioned soda fountains.
While there's no non-alcoholic cocktail list at RPM Italian, the swank River North spot with cocktail whiz Paul McGee behind its drinks, there are plenty of ingredients at the staff's disposal when a guest requests a mocktail.