Calling Out Top Restaurants on Beer Selection

No, I’m not going to waste your time or mine whinging about the lack of decent beer selection at fine dining restaurants. That situation is improving by the day, at least in major North American cities, and besides, it deserves noting that for every good wine place that lacks a decent beer list, there are probably two or three beer places serving crap wine.

No, my bitch today is about restaurants that decide to dip their proverbial toe into the good beer waters and do so in a way that would, if done in a similar fashion with wine, would earn the place naught but ridicule. Exhibit 1 being the new Seafood Fest menu at Toronto’s Nota Bene, a downtown resto with impeccable food credentials.

Seriously, this place has been awarded accolades like they’re going out of style, as anyone can clearly see on their website: Talk of the Town Award of Excellence; Best New Restaurant; Independent Restaurateurs of the Year; etc. Its wine list features 170 selections, and its back bar is certainly decent enough. And the beer selections for its August long seafood promotion?

  • Stella Artois
  • Hoegaarden
  • Alexander Keith’s India Pale Ale
  • Goose Island Sophie

If you noted a theme to these picks, you’re right: They all come from the stable of Anheuser-Busch InBev, by several degrees the largest brewing company in the world. So it’s a fair guess that some money was involved in the crafting of this promotion.

While I give fair dues to AB InBev for putting together a beer deal with such a respected restaurant, I can only shake my head at the lack of judgement at Nota Bene. You don’t have to be a beer expert to understand that, with the lone exception of Sophie, these are all astoundingly ordinary beers. (For non-Canadian readers, Keith’s is not an IPA by any reasonable definition of the term, tasting as it does more like a mainstream lager.) And in my admittedly not-so-humble opinion, even Sophie isn’t quite what it used to be back when Goose Island was still independent.

Ten years ago, this might have worked at an upscale Toronto restaurant; people then weren’t terrifically beer-savvy and imported brands still carried a bit of cachet. But today? When the LCBO down the road from Nota Bene is selling Saison Dupont and Renaissance MPA and Founders Centennial IPA and locally-brewed King Vienna Lager? I think not.

To find a parallel, I try to imagine Nota Bene piecing together a month of wine and food pairings featuring Fat Bastard, Little Penguin, Yellow Tail and Fuzion, but somehow that seems rather unlikely. So why, I wonder, do they think they should get a free pass doing the equivalent sort of promo with beer?

Maybe I’m wrong. Perhaps esteemed chef David Lee tasted his way through dozens of beers before deciding that the ideal match for mussels and frites is Stella and the perfect accompaniment for Maritime lobster is Keith’s, in which case I completely withdraw my criticisms and invite Chef Lee around for a beer tasting sometime, so that I might introduce him to some more diverse and interesting flavours. But if not, then Nota Bene has done itself a serious disservice.

11 Replies to “Calling Out Top Restaurants on Beer Selection”

  1. Ignoring for the moment your distain for big breweries (because they’re big) let me suggest there may be other factors involved in the restaurant’s decision. Perhaps lighter flavour mainstream beers are on the menu because that is precisely what the vast majority of the public want and are willing to pay for. Not everyone appreciates the so called “diverse and interesting flavours” and let’s face it, many of them are neither palatable nor of high quality.

    1. I don’t disdain the big breweries because they’re big, Jack. I disdain them because some of their brands are boring. (I quite like Worthington White Shield, brewed by MolsonCoors, for example.) The “vast majority of the public” might prefer the lighter flavours of mainstream beers, but the “vast majority of the public” also don’t eat at restaurants like Nota Bene. People pay large amounts of money to eat at such places so that they can get the best dining experience possible, and however you might choose to frame it, that’s not Keith’s and lobster!

      1. Stephen, It seems rather odd to suggest there is a connection between craft beer and those that can afford to eat at expensive restaurants. This has not been my experience at all.

  2. I may have mentioned large amounts of money, Jack — because that’s the reality of the situation — but my point was that patrons of such restos want the best, not the most popular. Popularity among the majority of the public is not necessarily indicative of quality.

  3. Stephen, you surprise me by making the most common faux pas amongst beer aficionados; confusing increased flavour with quality. This is something I expect to hear from the uninformed beer geek but not a professional like yourself.

    1. C’mon, Jack, I think it’s very obvious that I was using quality in this context as it relates to character and complexity.

  4. I agree with a lot of what Jack wrote. When I go out to eat, I’ll usually have a beer while studying the menu. Fortunately for me, most cafés here have at least Westmalle and Duvel. With my meal, I usually drink water. It goes well with everything I eat and the food is usually of good enough quality that it doesn’t need anything to enhance it.

    Frankly, I keep away from geek beers at all times. I’d rather not have my taste buds scoured by some intensely flavoured liquid, especially while I’m eating something tasty.

  5. I completely agree with this article and am a bit bewildered by these comments. I see this sort of thing all the time at high end restaurants and it greatly alters my impression of the place. I enjoy, but am rather in ignorant in wine, and this situation makes me then second guess their wine list and then even their food ingredient selection. I don’t think Beaumont’s point was to say that because these were all brewed by ABInbev they were crap, rather that no thought was put into the list beyond letting the local Bud distributor select it for them.

  6. Better restaurants still miss the point of beer being a vehicle for additional flavor in a meal. It is assumed that wine enhances a good meal, while beer is seen as purely a unsophisticated beverage for those that are not able to navigate a wine list. The BA and Cicerone need to do a traveling road show for restaurants to help show what beer can do for their businesses. Between the additional revenue for a ‘craft beer’ and the more enjoyment from the pairing of the beer to the meal, everyone wins.
    I have a local James Beard award winning $200 a plate (special event) restaurant that has a shit beer list, and they don’t know if the beer is right or not (murky ESB). This is the unfortunate reality of most restaurants here in the Midwest. I assume it will take an additional generation before beer becomes a close second to wine in fine dining.

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