A Vintage Revival

Retro-inspired recipes make their way onto bar food menus — and patrons’ plates — around the country.

Just as mixologists are resurrecting pre-Prohibition cocktails and putting a contemporary spin on them, there’s nothing old-fashioned about the latest wave of vintage food dishes that work so well at the bar. Across the country, barkeeps are dishing up retro bar food along with classic cocktails: Granny’s Deviled Eggs with pickled ramps and hog jowl bacon from the Oak Bar at the Hermitage Hotel in Nashville, pig trotter meat made into panko-breaded cakes with whole grain mustard sauce at Colt & Gray in Denver, a silky rendition of the bacon-egg-oyster Hangtown Fry at Hatfield’s in Los Angeles, or Kentucky Bourbon Barrel Ale Beer Cheese or a Hot Brown with a brew at Jonathan at Gratz Park in Lexington, Ky.

Oldies but goodies like these dishes offer a comforting spirit of old while simultaneously giving patrons a fresh take on bar food. It makes sense, as a lot of what’s best in foodservice today — artisanal hand-crafting, local sourcing, seasonality and a whole-animal approach to cooking — harkens back to centuries-old traditions. What keeps it fresh in 2010 is its execution: contemporary plating, lighter, healthier adaptations and new ingredients with a twist.

That, coupled with the fact that the best practitioners of this classic bar food revival are not only historic independents and hotel restaurants but also hip, newer operations all across the country.

Throwback Foods and Cocktails

A vintage cocktail list is a hot feature at Colt & Gray, a Denver restaurant that debuted last August. To accompany the libations, small plates such as Roasted Marrow Bones ($15), Ingrid’s Potted Peeky Toe Crab ($12) and the best-selling Long Farm Crispy Pig Trotters ($5) are favorites. Bar manager Parker Ramey has seen the benefit of this retro style. “I have to admit that at first, we were hesitant to put some of these things on the menu, but people loved them,” he says.  Within a short time of opening, Ramey said guests were making special trips to the bar just to get those dishes. Also telling: While customers were originally unfamiliar with cocktails on Colt & Gray’s vintage list, within months, two of the drinks — the Aviation ($9) and the Diamondback ($10) — were requested so frequently that they didn’t need to be listed on the vintage menu any longer. ”It’s a learning process,” Ramey says.

Jamie Dunn, manager and owner of The Gilt Club in Portland, Ore., says he’s also seen steadily increasing interest in serious bar snacks that run the gamut from pork terrine and chicken liver mousse to wild boar nuggets with pickled cranberries, whole grain mustard and bitter orange marmalade. Additionally, there has been an influx of intrigue surrounding the restaurant’s vintage cocktail list, which includes drinks such as Blood and Sand ($9.50), Hanky Panky (Ransom Old Tom Gin, sweet vermouth and Fernet Branca; $14) and Scofflaw (rye, dry vermouth, lemon juice and house grenadine; $9.50). Gilt juxtaposes these classic beverages with a truly modern-day marketing technique — Twitter — to alert patrons to daily specials drawn from Dunn’s extensive collection of old cocktail books. Adding some spirited fun to the retro theme? Gilt featured a special “Ghosts of Menus Past, Present & Future” Christmas Eve menu last year. The majority of the guests attending the $35-a-person event chose the Christmas Past menu, which included a Prawn and Crabmeat Cocktail, Steak Diane and President Roosevelt’s Birthday Cake, and about half opted in on the $20 cocktail pairing, which featured cocktails like house-made Egg Nog with rye and brandy or a Blueberry Silver Fizz with house blueberry gin, egg white and lemon.

Retro Re-creations

Other operators have been re-creating classic bar foods for a while, such as Linton Hopkins at Holeman & Finch Public House in Atlanta, Will Gilson at Garden at the Cellar in Cambridge, Mass., Tom Condron at The Liberty Gastropub in Charlotte, N.C., Tyler Brown of the Capitol Grille and Oak Bar at the Hermitage Hotel in Nashville and Julie Petrakis of The Ravenous Pig in Winter Park, Fla. These revivalists say the latest evolution in their menus has been to create lighter, more healthful translations of old classics and give fresh, seasonal vegetables and pickles more play. Several also say they’re raising the bar on “typical” charcuterie.

Petrakis’ rabbit terrine, now included with The Ravenous Pig’s $17 Charcuterie and Artisan Cheese plate, for example, is classically made, but spring fava beans, house-pickled heirloom carrots and herbs freshen it up. Garden at the Cellar’s Gilson says he pickles everything from shallots and chanterelles to the naturally fermented rutabaga sauerkraut, which he says adds a “sweet, nutty flavor” to his bar’s Reuben Sandwich ($9). The Reuben pairs well with German or Belgian beers like Leffe or Hoegaarden. At Holeman & Finch, Hopkins is putting more foraged local ingredients — Georgia wild ginger, “maypops” (local, wild passion flower fruits) and Georgia morels — onto plates with charcuterie. And Brown’s innovative take on Brunswick Stew ($9) at Capitol Grille is a pulled pork and chicken rendition that goes well with whiskey.

Brown’s revamped Granny’s Deviled Eggs ($8) are lighter fare that includes house-pickled ramps, French mustard and Green Goddess dressing rather than the mustard, cider vinegar and relish traditionally used. A sprinkling of house-made hog jowl bacon tops the eggs, replacing granny’s paprika. (Brown says he likes the eggs with whiskey, neat.)

At The Liberty, chef/owner Condron serves different pork dishes throughout the week, ensuring no part of the pig is wasted. Extra bits of pork that don’t go into the entrées are ground into old-English bangers ($7) spiced with sage, thyme, rosemary and ginger and served with pimiento cheese and crackers. Co-owner Matthew Pera pairs the sausages with Maharaja, an IPA from Avery Brewing. Even the pork skin, dehydrated and deep-fried, becomes BBQ-seasoned pork cracklings ($5).

Charcuterie Nobility

At Holeman & Finch, Hopkins focuses on terrines. “To me, those are the nobility of charcuterie,” Hopkins says. “Terrines, galantines and ballotines with beautiful smooth forcemeats and inlays of jewel-like jellies shouldn’t be relegated to ‘something-you-only-do-in-cooking-school’ status.”  One terrine Hopkins hopes will boost appreciation? A galantine of duck forcemeat inlaid with port-orange-jelly, wrapped in duck skin, which he pairs with The King Street Derby (10- to 12-year-old small-batch bourbon, fresh white grapefruit juice, sorghum syrup, Regans’ Orange Bitters and Fernet Branca).

But more familiar, comfortingly rich classics still hold power. At Soby’s in Greenville, S.C., chef Shaun Garcia’s sizzling pork rinds with truffle salt or salt ‘n’ vinegar seasoning ($3.50) and crispy Fried Chicken Livers with Avery Island Ketchup ($5.95) are happy reminders of Garcia’s childhood. “I grew up eating things like this in my grandmother’s restaurant kitchen,” says Garcia, who’s known for his approachable renditions of Carolina and Gullah cuisine.

Need more examples? Guests at Garden at the Cellar favor vintage re-dos like $7 small-plate-of-the-day mini beef Wellingtons, Devils on Horseback (herbed goat cheese-stuffed, bacon-wrapped dates) and house-made choux-paste and tater tots. At the Hermitage Hotel, which celebrates its 100th anniversary this year, Oysters Hermitage ($12) is a rich adaptation of Oysters Rockefeller made with white cheddar and horseradish cream, sautéed spinach, bacon and brioche-breadcrumbs. And at Jonathan at Gratz Park in Lexington, Lundy likes to do Kentucky classics with local connections. His take on bar cheese is made with local Kentucky Bourbon Barrel Ale (aged in whiskey barrels at the Alltech Lexington Brewing and Distilling Co.), and his Sea Scallop Hot Browns (mini open-faced rounds topped with scallops and broiled with country ham, tomato, bacon and sauce, $9) are a tribute to the classic Hot Brown open-faced sandwich first served at Louisville’s Brown Hotel in the early 1900s.

And how about Strip House at Planet Hollywood Resort & Casino in Las Vegas reviving beef jerky? The Strip House version is available at the bar for $8, and involves prime strip loin cut into thin strips, lightly pounded down then marinated for 24 to 36 hours in a specially created mixture, followed by 40 minutes in the oven and, on order, fried in goose fat until crisp. The jerky is then served on buttermilk fried onion strings for a deliciously retro nibble.

Of course, some classic dishes guests enjoy in the retro revival never went away.

Take those pupu platter Cosmo Tidbits ($16) and Tiki drinks at Trader Vic’s, for example. Celebrating the 50th anniversary of its Chicago unit and 75th anniversary company-wide, the Polynesian-themed chain still uses many of its original 1930s and 1940s recipes; the BBQ Pork Spare Ribs, marinated in a barbecue glaze and then cooked in a 6-foot-tall wood-fired Chinese clay oven out back at the original Hinky Dinks in Oakland, Calif., in 1934, are still prepared in the same sauce and type of oven. Cocktails are still made from the original recipes, too, says senior vice president Yavuz Pehlivaniar, from the Mai Tai ($8) that launched in 1944 to the Navy Grog ($8).

But whether freshly minted or tried and true, paying homage to old days and old ways with vintage recipes can be a comforting way to connect with guests, and with the classic cocktail trend. “Everybody’s got a food memory,” Soby’s Garcia explains, “and menus that keep it old school connect to that.” NCB

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