Most of us know all too well the power of beer goggles — how a few drinks can make a stranger or an ex seem far dreamier than in the cold light of sobriety. But what about food? Sure, that braised pork might be enhanced by pairing it with a petite sirah, but after the second bottle, you're just smashed. Likewise our favorite bar foods. Were those fries you had last weekend really manna from heaven, or was that Chef Jack Daniel's doing? Only one way to find out: science.
The public has the right to know, so we at the Journal subjected ourselves to the rigors of experimentation. A brave handful of test subjects agreed to hit the bars and chow down on the good, the bad and the deep fried with this reporter as the non-drinking control. Do our favorite bar foods still hold up when we're not three sheets to the wind? What follows are our findings. Ratings are out of five.
First stop is the Siren's Song Tavern. We feel like swells in the hip, velvet-draped space, where everything looks reclaimed from something else. The beer menu is dizzying, but my companions settle on Brutal Bitter and Old Rasputin. Half a pint down, people are unwinding, but unimpaired. The food menu lists fancy olives, homemade soup and cheese plates, but we go for the intriguing Kraut Plate ($6). The plate is a pinwheel of focaccia slices and haystacks of Lemon Leek and Old World sauerkraut, and it comes with tiny, fancy forks. The Lemon Leek has a light citrus flavor favored by the Brutal Bitter drinker, while the Old World, which is flecked with carrot and darker cabbage, is tarter and a better match for the Old Rasputin. Even sans brew, they are both lovely with the oily spears of bread. I hog as best I can with my dollhouse fork while the others sip.
Kraut Plate results
Preparing for décor whiplash, we push open the dented door of the Shanty, but before we claim our stools, we notice the light on the hot dog warmer is dark. They're out. I look at my companions — is that disappointment or relief? Either way, we become possibly the first people in history to leave the Shanty for lack of hot dogs.
Shanty Dog results: inconclusive
At Gallagher's, that palace of oak finishes and Celtic swag, the drinkers switch up to shots of Bushmill's and pints as we scan the menu. We agree that the fish and chips are an established winner (the cod, the salmon, all of it) and elect to branch out to something you'd only order when your judgment is a little wobbly. Sausage Sampler it is ($10.95). It's busy, so by the time the food comes, the whiskey has done its work on my merry company. It's a generous pile of grilled sausage chunks (we're told they are Polish and hot links, but I have my doubts since one has what looks like artichoke in it) on a bed of sauerkraut. Is kraut having a moment? Maybe. It's cooked with enough beer to get you carded and served with a trio of mustards. One team member can't stop tasting the red mystery condiment. Fat, salt, vinegar and spicy heat are the four pillars of bar food, so it's no surprise the links vanish, but it didn't hold my interest without a beer, and I gazed longingly at passing plates of fish and chips.
Sausage Sampler results
When we roll up to Bar-Fly, which is bright and clean for a place with a fly for a mascot, the joint is jumping and DJ Marv is setting up for karaoke. At the bar, a tall blonde woman shrugs and pushes a few bills toward the bartender, saying, "Sorry about my drunk ass last night." The group is onto Maker's Mark and IPAs now. Are we drunk yet? One of us points to the guy in the polo shirt on the mic and says, "This guy is fucking Mick Jagger to me right now." So, yes. We go for the fish taco and the fabled deep-fried Oreos ($4.50, $3). While the Oreos are a dessert and not traditional bar food, ordering them takes the kind of lowered inhibitions that alcohol can provide. The taco is a little unwieldy and the tortilla could be softer, but the fish is tender and flaky, solving my fried fish craving. As good as the taco is, the Oreos steal the show, earning groans of appreciation and rolled-back eyes. Even those who aren't that into sweets are in love. Inside the crisp-edged fried dough, the salty cookies miraculously turn to cake and the filling goes all gooey. We dip shamelessly in the whipped cream. Dreamy.
Fish taco results
Deep-fried Oreos results
The Alibi is full of happy loud talking and its usual stock characters: Old Guy in Corner, Student with Snarky T-shirt and Pleasantly Wise-ass Bartender. Our crew struggles with the touch-screen jukebox and chooses '80s metal band Dio. On purpose. The test subjects are indeed drunky-drunk-drunk. The Alibi is another joint with legitimate meal cred, so we opt for low-inhibition foods and hit the fryer hard. Fried pickles and hush puppies show up hot in a couple of paper-lined baskets ($6.15, $6.25). Despite warnings, one drinker scalds himself on a hot pickle, but rallies and continues eating. The pickles are on the dark side, but the beer batter has that perfect bite, like a really good onion ring, and the sour little pickle spear keeps some crunch. There is much happy munching. The hush puppies are golf balls of peppery cornbread with little chunks of onion and a crusty exterior. While they are tasty, they are a bit dense, and two is my limit. I am, however, aware that their breadiness could be lifesaving for those who skip dinner to party. Their comforting magic has one drinker holding the last puppy in his fingers and declaring, "Move over Oreos, this is the best thing I've had tonight." When it's gone, he lazily picks at the crumbs in the basket.
Fried pickles results
Hush puppies results
We are still at the Alibi when the kitchen closes and one of our party closes his eyes, puts his head on the bar and asks, "What are we eating next?" Easy. Tacos from La Barca. Out back, behind the building, a small, quiet crowd stands in the light of the truck, undeterred by a guy a few yards away yelling into the night and swinging a 5-gallon bucket. I ask the man ahead of me what I should bring my drunk friends. "Lengua taco," he answers without hesitating, adding that "it's all good." All right then. The tacos ($2.50 each) are piled with dice-sized cubes of tongue, salsa, onion and cilantro. The meat is tender and stewey, and the corn tortillas are soft and steamy. The squeeze of lime and the kick of salsa are just enough to wake up my compadres. Fingers are licked and all of us are nodding to ourselves with full mouths. Revived, the team asks for another round of tacos, but we must press on. Science is a cruel mistress.
Lengua taco results
When we first set out, the popcorn at Sidelines was a red line for most of us. We've heard tales of drunken patrons reaching into the machine bare-handed, and some high-minded talk about freshness. But by the time we put down money for the night's last pitcher, all that is forgotten. In reality, only the bartender reaches into the machine, and she has a scoop. As soon as the little paper baskets are on the bar, hands dive in with gusto. It's just stale, salty popcorn. Not old stale, just popped-for-the-matinee-and-eaten-at-the-late-show stale; too salty for a movie, but salty enough to nudge you into that second pitcher. "I'd eat this all night," raves one drinker. Another responds, "I don't want to eat this, but ... " then smashes another fistful of yellow popcorn mostly in her mouth.
Like so many bar hoppers, we end the night at Don's Donuts. The line is out the door, and the staff is zipping around behind the counter, all cheer and efficiency. As for the clientele, in the hard fluorescent light, we all look like bleary-eyed mug shots. One of our party gets an unsanctioned slice of pizza and is deeply happy. "Look," she beams, "they cut it in half so I could pick it up. And it's warm." Fair enough. But we are here for the doughnuts. I order a filled maple bar, and one team member becomes unreasonably despondent over the presence of custard and refuses to weigh in. The doughnut is soft and fresh, if a bit leaden. Maybe he's right about custard and maple glaze. Still, it finds a fan in the drinker without the sweet tooth: "It's no deep-fried Oreo, but it's very nice," he says, pulling off another piece and listing slightly.
Once the napkins are crumpled, I suggest Toni's for chili cheese fries, but am met with resistance. And pleas for mercy. Is that a tear? The team is too full and exhausted to bully into a booth, much less a plate of food. In conclusion, alcohol does indeed improve one's food enjoyment, but does not render one gastronomically invincible. Still, a surprising number of dishes stand up to sobriety. More research (and possibly bar-tab grant) is required to further explore the subject. Another time, Toni, another time.