No disrespect intended to the burger, but operators across the country keep that old grilled standby on their menus to please everyone from the picky diners who dislike more imaginative fare to college kids looking to get a big bang for their buck to go with that pint of beer.
Of course, burgers aren’t the only grilled dish that earns a place on bar menus. Today, a wide variety of grilled dishes are stars on restaurant, bar and nightclub menus. From grilled pizzas to grilled salads, these vast offerings give operators an opportunity to intrigue guests, to drive traffic to their locale and to set their menus apart from competitor menus filled with standard bar bites and deep-fried snacks.
Grilled pizza appeals to guests not only for its novelty factor but also because the grill gives the pizza crust a smoky char and crisp appeal. There is a process to creating such a great pizza, one that starts with preheating the grill and rolling crusts out to about 1/8- to 1/4-inch thick. You then grill one side of the pie for approximately three minutes and flip it, grilled side up, onto a cutting board before applying the desired toppings. Then, you set the pizza back on the grill to finish the uncooked side of the crust and to cook the toppings to the appropriate doneness.
Just outside the heart of downtown Providence, R.I., grilled pizzas create a niche for Sean and Rebecca Carroll’s 2,000-square foot, speakeasy style Red Room bar. Chef Steve O’Brien’s pizzas include traditional (a vegetarian pie topped with artichoke hearts, grilled peppers, marinara sauce, fresh garlic, caramelized onions and Romano cheese) and more whimsical offerings (the best-selling La Dolce Vita pizza features Parma prosciutto, pineapple, a six cheese blend, basil and a maple syrup drizzle).
O’Brien rotates approximately 50 different recipes through a grill-focused menu that now drives as much traffic into Red Room as do the classic cocktails served at the bar. The pizzas are an opportunity for flexibility and customization on the menu — and an excitement-builder, as customers watch O’Brien prepare their pies to order. “Everyone loves to watch the process,” Sean Carroll says. “People are completely enthralled by the fact that they get to literally hand-pick the ingredients to their own gourmet pizza and then watch it be made in front of their eyes. The actual act of preparing and making the pizzas is a spectacle in and of itself. That is half the attraction for our customers.”
The grilled pizzas — priced at $8 to $12 each — are also moderate in total cost and deliver a 20 percent profit margin.
“We actually have globetrotter customers who travel frequently through Providence who have ordered pizzas to have delivered to their hotel room because they couldn’t make it here in person,” he adds. “It’s a special feeling to know the demand for your product is that high. The demand far exceeds what we expected. This one item has helped turn Red Room into a destination in the Northeast between Boston and New York.”
Grilled pizzas also appear on the menu at Seattle’s venerable 175-seat restaurant and lounge, icon Grill. For the past ten years, executive chef Nick Musser has developed many of the dishes on his sophisticated, comfort food-focused menu around the restaurant’s wood-fired grill.
“I look for any opportunity to throw something on the grill to add that built-in, zippy flavor,” he says.
Currently, six of the lounge menu’s 24 dishes come from the grill, among them a Grilled Pear Salad, $8.95, featuring hardwood-grilled, spice-kissed pears tossed with greens and bleu cheese in a pomegranate vinaigrette, and a Grilled Wild Mushroom Pizza, $12.95, layered with mushroom cream, Fontina cheese, local wild mushrooms and a Romesco sauce. The grill also adds flavor to classics such as a cajun-spiced Avocado Chicken Burger, $11.95, and to seasonal offerings such as a grilled romaine salad.
Last year, grilled dishes accounted for 26 percent of the sales at icon Grill, yielding a profit margin of about 75 percent during regular hours and 55 percent during Happy Hour. The grilled dishes also draw attention to the wood-fire grill that makes the concept unique.
“You walk in the door and can see the grill,” Musser explains. “You can see the flame, hear it and smell it, and it becomes a selling point.”
At Mercat a la Planxa, a hip, modern Catalan tapas restaurant and bar at Chicago’s historic Blackstone Hotel, executive chef Jose Garces and chef de cuisine Michael Fiorello turned to a flat-top grill to create an authentic ambiance and a menu that highlights tapas-style cuisine from Barcelona and Spain’s Catalan region. In addition to dishes such as Boquerones (marinated anchovies) and Whole Roasted Suckling Pig, Garces has created an a la planxa (on the grill) menu of more than 20 dishes such as grilled Bluefin Tuna and Organic Uraguayan Filet Mignon.
The chefs split the grilled dishes into a seafood menu and a meats menu. They dress the simple seafood courses, such as the bestselling diver scallops with a garlic, parsley and olive oil marinade, while giving meat courses such as American Wagyu Flat Iron Steak a flavorful spice rub. From a business standpoint, these grilled dishes are beneficial because of a profit margin that averages about 30 percent; additionally, they attract a steady stream of diners who feel comfortable using these elemental grilled dishes as their introduction to Catalan cuisine.
“[The grilled menu] offers a simplistic approach to cuisine, and it’s not intimidating for someone to order prawns, calamari or squid,” Fiorello says. “And, it’s helped our menu because it’s brought a traditional concept to the table, speaking to Barcelona in addition to the myriad of tapas dishes we have in the restaurant.”
Mercat a la Planxa’s beverage side complements its grilled items and includes sangria, more than 40 Spanish wines available by the glass or bottle, a handful of draft and bottled beers as well as Spanish-styled cocktails such as the Sangriatini and the Caliente (mango rum, mango nectar, orange juice, fresh sour, chili pepper and soda).
To market its grilled selections, the operators highlight the restaurant’s focus on authentic grilled foods by incorporating the a la planxa term into the restaurant’s name. Additionally, they include a range of the grilled dishes on their immensely popular $58, three-course tasting menu so that guests who didn’t order them as an a la carte option can still sample the grilled cuisine.
Creative offerings such as these can establish a venue as a niche destination and drive traffic to operators who know how to present grilled dishes that go beyond the burger. NCB
Ashley Gartland is a freelance food, beverage and lifestyle writer in Portland, Ore. You can read more of her work at www.ashleygartland.com.