The quality of a culinary experience is no longer judged merely by the food on one's plate but also by the accompanying libation sipped and savored between bites. As an increasing number of restaurants prioritize mixology, some are realizing not all customers necessarily crave or can have alcohol.
Mocktails — drinks that resemble cocktails in style but lack the booze — grace the menus at a handful of restaurants and bars around the Chicago area. They're becoming more prevalent as restaurateurs, upon noticing an uptick in patrons ordering alcohol-free beverages like juices, teas or fruity sodas, add new menu items in response to their diners' dietary preferences.
We found several places with nonalcoholic drinks on their menus — some meant to complement meals; others best nursed while listening to smooth jazz.
Perennial Virant: Head bartender Wesley Kenney, said he has seen customers order mocktails early in the day (before standard drinking hours) or at the start of an evening out before eventually switching over to alcoholic counterparts. And, of course, it's a welcomed option for pregnant women or members of the under-21 crowd with mature tastes. Perennial Virant consistently features one mocktail on its menu that rotates seasonally. Offered now is a bright and effervescent concoction: an ounce of house-made lemon verbena and chamomile syrup and an ounce of lemon juice mixed with equal parts soda water and Gosling's ginger beer, finished with two dashes of Fee Brothers' nonalcoholic plum bitters and a lemon garnish ($6). The ginger beer enlivens the taste buds, allowing the citrus flavor to pop, with occasional hints of the chamomile. Served on ice in a mason jar, it's ideal for a balmy summer day. 1800 N. Lincoln Ave., 312-981-7070
Prasino: Take your pick. Between the fresh-squeezed blended juices, microbrewed kombucha and refreshing quenchers offered at this suave American restaurant, those who have sworn off alcohol, or are prohibited from drinking it, can certainly find an alternative to excite the palate. We recommend the $5 grapefruit cooler, which is somewhat reminiscent of a Moscow Mule, except, you know, minus the vodka. Composed of grapefruit, lemon juice, mint, agave and soda, it's a fizzy drink with a sharp, tart taste. The grapefruit pulp and muddled mint add a distinct freshness, and, in case you're self-conscious about not drinking, no one will be able to tell it's a mocktail from its looks. Available at the La Grange and Bucktown locations. 93 S. La Grange Road, La Grange, 708-469-7058; 1846 W. Division St., Chicago, 312-878-1212
M Lounge: Just because you're not drinking doesn't mean you can't enjoy yourself. That's at least true at this Near South Side jazz, blues and R&B lounge, which features a relatively extensive mocktail list. Toast with alcohol-free champagne, which can be used to craft a Bellini or mimosa, or try the cheeky I'll Fake Manhattan ($6), a blend of cranberry, lemon and orange juices (a bit liberal on the latter), grenadine and a touch of bitters, garnished with a skewer of cherries. A doppelganger of the classic whiskey cocktail, it maintains an air of sophistication but excludes the burn of the dark liquor. M Lounge also serves Sharp's alcohol-free beer and other juice-focused drinks. 1520 S. Wabash Ave., 312-447-0201
SushiSamba: Listed at the end of the lengthy cocktail menu at this conceptual restaurant in River North are four juice-based drinks with descriptions just as thoughtful and enticing as their alcoholic brethren. One is anchored with coconut milk; another uses muddled blackberries and raspberries. But let's discuss the $8 Watermelon Mojo: a simple blend of watermelon, guava and lime juice. The drink, vigorously shaken, is topped by a light froth. Bits of tasty pulp are contained throughout, only amplifying its organic sweetness. Adam Solomon, general manager of SushiSamba Chicago, said the restaurant serves nonalcoholic mixed drinks so that every customer can relish a well-made beverage and not forgo any element of the dining experience. "Whatever the reasons are (for not drinking), you don't have to feel left out," Solomon said. "You won't lose anything just because you don't drink." 504 N. Wells St., 312-595-2300
Beatrix: Pure, fresh-squeezed juice is healthy for you. Alcohol, however, is not. At Beatrix you can delight in a juice mocktail or transform any juice into a cocktail by adding a shot. The blackberry and lychee lemonade ($4.95) deserves praise for its mellow flavors and fun presentation. The light pink potion, topped with a plump blackberry and speckled with mint leaves, is almost too pretty to drink.
Inside the Aloft Chicago City Center, Beatrix sees sizable cohorts of travelers as well as River North residents. Marc Jacobs, executive vice president and partner with Lettuce Entertain You, said the drink menu was tailored to accommodate both. "We appeal to breakfast, lunch, dinner and late-night diners, and not everyone wants alcohol with every meal," Jacobs said. Yet, he noted that plenty of guests choose to add a shot to the juices for $6 more. When they do, the servers recommend which alcohol will pair best. 519 N. Clark St., 312-284-1377Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun