Eating & Drinking

What’s in that drink? Behind the bar at Town

We’ve all heard stories about how tough it is to run a financially viable restaurant; the last time Statistics Canada surveyed the scene, in 2017, the average profit margin for restaurants across the country was under four percent. That doesn’t leave a lot of wiggle room for restaurant owners, especially those running independent shops who don’t have safety net that comes with being part of a chain. Between operating expenses and the cost of advertising and/or community involvement, not to mention unexpected disruptions like natural disasters, the list of expenses can seem to totally outweigh the money coming in.

All of these expenses are baked into the menu price, of course — guests are not only paying for the food, but every aspect of the plate’s journey before it is set down at the table. 

While the net profit on dishes is typically small, restaurants often get by with higher profit margins on boozy beverages. That doesn’t mean that drinks are a thoughtless add-on — in many restaurants you’ll find the creations behind the bar getting the same amount of attention as those coming out of the kitchen. 

In this series, we step behind the bar to get a close look at the ingredients — and inspiration — that goes into those fancy drinks.

What’s in Town’s “I heard it through the grapevine”

Elana Levitan, who leads the bar program at Town, acknowledges that the mark-up on cocktails is mostly to compensate for food costs and  overhead. Not to mention the cost of cocktail development — the experimentation that goes into crafting the perfect drink. 

Balance is the name of the game for Town’s small but mighty cocktail list, which features four cocktails at a time (though the bartenders are happy to make classics upon request). Between those four drinks, there’s something to suit all tastes. The list changes seasonally, but never all at once — some drinks may last two seasons if they are very popular, while others may last only a few weeks if their featured ingredients are limited. 

“For the most part I try to stick with my gut and my goal,” says Levitan of her creative process. She finds inspiration everywhere, from something she to what other bartenders are up to. “There’s a pretty great cocktail community in Ottawa right now.” Along with her colleague Sheri Busby, Levitan estimates that they come up with about twenty cocktails a year to match the changing menu and seasons.

Photos by Katie Shapiro

For her drink “Heard it Through the Grapevine”, Levitan’s started with a rhubarb and hibiscus gin from Collective Arts, an Ontario brewery that recently expanded into distilling. The gin is bright and tart, and the florality from the hibiscus plays well with the zesty crème de pamplemousse (pink grapefruit liqueur), as well as the white port.

Related: Ottawa’s Top Ten Best New Restaurants

The non-alcoholic components include fresh lemon juice, a dash of green strawberry bitters, muddled grapes, and basil (Levitan’s favourite companion for grapefruit). The result is a delightful sipper in a frosty coupe without any added sugar or sweetener; Levitan describes it as “crushable and approachable”. 

Photos by Katie Shapiro