The Service Bar

Has The Negroni Lost Its Way?

I don’t need my Negronis to be fancy. You can keep your boutique small batch bitters from Brooklyn that uses organic cochineal from Peru. Campari is just fine for me. After years of being inundated with countless Negroni variations — coconut fat-washed Negronis, cold brew coffee Negronis, Cosmogronis, Negronis named after every city in the world, white Negronis, black Negronis, green Negronis, and Negroni foam — it’s safe to say we’ve reached peak Negroni. I actually stumbled upon one Negroni recipe recently that calls for the batched cocktail to be steeped in Cocoa Puffs for 24 hours.

I had an epiphany earlier this year when I attended a swanky Campari event with various cocktail stations manned by a Who’s Who of celebrity bartenders including Dale DeGroff, Don Lee, and Julie Reiner. After sampling various different Negroni expressions — a chocolate Negroni, a vintage Negroni, a mezcal Negroni Jell-O shot, and Negroni cotton candy — I retreated to the station that was serving the plain old classic Negroni. It felt like stopping at a Gatorade station on a marathon course. I hate to sound like such a purist, but the classic Negroni was just perfect the way it was. It was by far the best cocktail I had that night, a simple recipe made from three equal parts (Campari, gin, and sweet vermouth) that play well together and don’t need to be micromanaged.

All of this had me wondering if our fixation with the Negroni has gone too far, resulting in bartenders tinkering with the template too much. The White Negroni, which has become a modern classic, is a nice drink, but without Campari it’s technically not a Negroni. Bon Appetit recently lauded the frozen Negroni as “a better Negroni.” Aside from the fact that it’s a blended drink, the recipe calls for orange juice, a heretical twist that corrupts the spirit-forward profile that has long been the Negroni’s calling card. There’s nothing wrong with creating riffs on classics. But is there a point where the experimentation gets out of control, and the DNA of the original drink is lost?

The cocktail writer and bitters expert Brad Thomas Parsons asked the very same question last year in an article for VinePair. “Are we at a place when a Negroni, in name, strays too far from the original template to risk diluting the spirit of the original drink and all it embodies?” Parsons asks. “What is the tipping point when a Negroni is no longer a Negroni?” Not every bartender he interviewed was as dogmatic about showing respect for the original Negroni recipe as I am, but almost all of them believed that it made sense to lay down some guardrails (like using Campari or a Campari-like proxy, for example).

I can distinctly remember the first time I took an order for a Negroni as a young waiter in the late ‘90s. I’d never heard of the drink before. Neither had the bartender. We didn’t have touchscreen phones in our pockets with access to every cocktail recipe known to man on the Internet at the time, so of course he needed to consult the tattered Mr. Boston book behind the bar. After finding the recipe, he dusted off the sticky Campari bottle that probably hadn’t been opened in years and pulled the oxidized vermouth from the back of the lowboy. I marveled at how the drink looked like a high school chemistry experiment made with phenol red or a glass of cherry flavored Kool-Aid. The old head who ordered it was pleased. No one used large square ice cubes back then, so there wasn’t much he could complain about.

How the Negroni became hipsterized in the ensuing decades is a more complicated story. The drink on its own doesn’t have much populist appeal. Perhaps, the public had grown tired of drinking syrupy sweet Cosmos and Lemon Drops. By the early 2000s, the craft cocktail movement was influencing mainstream drinking habits, and the public was embracing more bitter flavors. The Negroni had also become a secret handshake among restaurant industry types, who had already adopted the cocktail as the anti-Cosmo before it went mainstream. The availability of higher quality vermouths like Carpano Antica, Dolin, and Noilly Prat made Negronis more complex and drinkable.

Meanwhile today, craft gins, small batch vermouths, and Campari clones have flooded the market with boutique ingredients that, when combined, often make inferior Negronis. Many of these gin recipes have exotic botanicals and regional flavorings which are too busy to work in the traditional Negroni template that favors a London Dry. Nonetheless, we now have an entire week dedicated to Negronis. While “Negroni Week” has noble philanthropic underpinnings (it raises money for Slow Food International), the whole affair still feels like a giant PR gambit by Campari. The gambit’s paid off, Campari sales have risen by almost two million cases since 2009, almost doubling its sales to 4.5 million cases in 2022. The product’s astronomical growth in recent years would not have been possible without the rising popularity of the Negroni.

I do believe there’s still room for experimentation and creativity with the Negroni template. One of my favorite examples is the Sour Cherry Negroni at Hawksmoor in New York City. The recipe, by maintaining the core trio of ingredients, hews tightly enough to the classic version that it honors the drink rather than reinterpreting it. But the addition of acid-adjusted cherry juice accentuates the natural tart red fruit of Campari, and a wisp of Tempus Fugit’s Crème de Noyaux (liquer made from apricot and cherry pit kernels) rounds out the flavors with a base note of nutty marzipan. The cherry element is subtle and surprising, but you still feel like you’re drinking a Negroni.

In recent years, we’ve driven the Negroni off a cliff with an obsessive need to create yassified versions. The biggest names in the bar world have weighed in with their own interpretations like the Negroni Tredici (Tony Maloney), the Jitney Negroni (Leo Robitschek), the Sweet Milk Tablet Negroni (Ian Griffith), and, even a Negroni that goes into the microwave, the Nuked Negroni (Ryan Chetiyawardana). Perhaps it would be less unnerving if bartenders would simply stop naming their Negroni riffs after the Negroni, especially when many of these recipes hardly resemble the original. There’s a reason that some of these classic cocktails like the Negroni have stood the test of time. Reinventing the wheel doesn’t necessarily make the car go farther or faster. The constant need to reinvent the Negroni often makes this car feel like it’s going in reverse.

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Restaurant Life

The Enduring Beauty Of Family Restaurants

Returning from a beach vacation in the Outer Banks of North Carolina, my family’s convoy stopped at an unassuming local spot just across the Roanoke Sound called T.L.’s Family Restaurant. Our weary group couldn’t stomach another gut-busting combo meal from Bojangles, so we settled on good old-fashioned American comfort food with sit-down service. From the parking lot, the restaurant looked like a community center or a pre-school, with a boxy roof and wide eaves that looked on the verge of collapsing. As we walked through the glass door at the entrance, I noticed the word restaurant misspelled (resteraunt). I’m guessing it’s been that way for decades. But the moment the scent of sizzling bacon hit my nostrils, I stopped proofreading.

The interior is well worn—more like a favorite t-shirt than a banged-up car—with nautical paraphernalia hanging on the walls and a giant stuffed swordfish over the kitchen window. Hungry locals come and go without urgency, mixed in with beach tourists and interlopers like us. The staff of mostly older women floats between tables with pots of piping hot coffee to keep everyone’s cups warm, greeting every new face cheerfully. I live in New York City, so these moments of southern hospitality are like taking a bath in lavender salts to a jaded urbanite like me.

“You ready to order, honey?” our waitress asks, referring to our party collectively as “honey.” She slips a small white pad out of her apron and sets it down on the ledge next to our table. Her movements are pure muscle memory, so routine that her body performs them automatically. Even though she doesn’t seem to be paying careful attention as we go around the table declaring our menu preferences, I feel confident she won’t make any mistakes. Experienced servers are unflappable—the great ones have been around long enough to be prepared for every possible scenario that could possibly happen in a restaurant. They don’t get flustered.

The menu at T.L.’s is comprehensive—omelets, sandwiches, salads, local fish, and entrees. Breakfast is an all-day affair, a proper feature of any beloved neighborhood eatery. I cavalierly order something called “Breakfast in a Bowl” for $10.95, which is served more literally than I expected—a mound of crumbled sausage, bacon, eggs, grits, and cheddar cheese formed over a gargantuan biscuit smothered in gravy. The food takes a while, but I remembered the caveat on the bottom of the menu: “This is not fast food, all our meals are cooked to order,” it read, “Please be patient or you can come in the kitchen and help.”

American family restaurants are dying

Family restaurants don’t have their own category in award shows, fancy food festivals, or “Best Of” listicles. I’m talking about places where you have a choice between a cup of soup or a bowl (which is usually cheddar broccoli made with a gallon of heavy cream). By definition, they offer Ranch or Thousand Island dressing with any salad, and not ironically. The hash browns are always crispy, seasoned with the carcinogenic flavor of a grimy griddle. Family restaurants are never chef-driven, vegetable-forward, farm-to-table, or nose-to-tail. Their secret sauce is choice (and to appeal to families, they often don’t serve alcohol). It’s the kind of restaurant where when the staff asks you “How was everything today?” they really mean it.

Obviously, any restaurant can be considered a family restaurant if families eat there, but I’m referring to a uniquely American institution, mostly found in small towns (the kind Jason Aldean sings about, minus the racist innuendo). Perhaps if it existed as its own culinary category, this cuisine could be identified as “Casual Caucasian.” There are, of course, other restaurants across the country, equally cherished, that cater to families—BBQ joints, pizza parlors, hot dog counters, taquerias—in communities of color and ethnic neighborhoods, but those are different. The bland flavor palate and the lived-in spaces of this kind of family restaurant has its own unique persona.

I can’t stand when the word family is co-opted to assign piety, the way the modern conservative movement has co-opted “family values.” No restaurant automatically becomes more sanctimonious simply because the word family is attached to its name. But there is something special about these timeless places that you can’t bottle, a patina that can only be earned by serving the community over a long and unhealthy lifetime. The family restaurant, in its purest form, is the restaurant equivalent of the dive bar. When it exudes the same grizzled charm, it deserves the same reverence.

Somewhere along the line in this country, we lost respect for the staying power of independent restaurants. Today, you can exit any interstate highway in the United States and find the same rotating cast of 8-10 chain restaurants repeated ad nauseam. Many of these corporate franchises, like Denny’s and Cracker Barrel, are designed to emulate the family restaurant esthetic.

Corporate restaurant groups are aggressively investing in small town growth. Last month on their quarterly earnings call, Chipotle executives revealed plans to open 800 new locations in cities with populations of under 40,000 people (or one-fifth of its total new stores) over the next few years. Expansion has become so rampant among chain restaurants in small towns, that corporate brands are beginning to cannibalize each others’ sales. But it hurts family-run restaurants the most. Choking off local competition is one of the oldest, dirtiest tricks in the corporate playbook. Multinational companies that run folksy places like Applebee’s and Ruby Tuesday can afford to lose money in the near term to focus on market share and building consumer habits. It’s the same way that Amazon prices goods below market (sometimes at a loss) and invests heavily in warehouse expansion to ensure we buy everything from them. Small restaurant businesses can’t afford the same near-sightedness.

The family restaurant is an endangered species

The pandemic should have taught us that independent restaurants are the nervous centers of our communities and integral to the health of our local economies. Family-owned restaurants create better jobs and reinvest on the municipal level, while corporate monoliths siphon money out of communities to enrich shareholders. (Not to mention that many large restaurant companies also invest in robotics and artificial intelligence that will ultimately destroy jobs.) Family restaurants sponsor softball leagues, donate services to local charity events, host birthday parties, and support school districts. Corporate restaurants do nothing but create more corporate restaurants.

Over the course of my nourishing meal at T.L.’s (which I learned originally opened in 1999), I thought about the eroding restaurant landscape in the United States. It’s become a gaudy reflection of who we are, and who we aren’t. In our manic quest to chase food trends and score impossible reservations, we’ve lost the appreciation for restaurants that are just as good as they need to be. These days, the restaurants we say we love don’t all deserve our affection. They haven’t earned it. Too often, we mistake love for lust. We ignore struggling independent restaurants that desperately need our support, while at the same time, we wait in line for hours for cookie cutter versions of chain restaurants like Jollibee and In-and-Out.

The pandemic was the nail in the coffin of many independent family restaurants. To make matters worse, our insatiable appetite for corporate convenience food is shoveling dirt over their graves. When these cherished places close, new ones don’t pop up in their place. The American restaurant industry—with its combo meals and lab-tested recipes—is a monoculture of mass-produced mediocrity. Just as heirloom crops don’t thrive in over-farmed land with infertile soil, generational family businesses with strong rootstock can’t survive in a chicken finger economy. As with many man-made disasters like climate change and global warming, if we keep sponsoring the wrong kinds of business, we may not have any nice places to eat left.

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