10 Reasons To Avoid Cocktail Menus At Chain Restaurants

If you enjoy drinking alcoholic beverages, it can be tempting to order a cocktail at a chain restaurant. Cocktail menus can vary between establishments. A typical Mexican restaurant may serve margaritas, while Italian restaurants could have Aperol spritzes on offer. The cocktail menu is an entirely different ballgame for the chain restaurants, which usually aim for continuity and variety in menu offerings across numerous different locations.  

Most chain restaurants have extensive cocktail menus that list frozen cocktails, unlikely combinations, and overly-sweet ingredients that can make any seasoned drinker wary of placing an order. This is why many booze aficionados, regardless of where they're eating, opt for a classic cocktail to test the bartender's skills and end up with a familiar taste. 

There are numerous different reasons you should avoid the cocktail menu at a chain restaurant. While every chain restaurant has its own cocktail menu, many of these drinks tend to have similar issues. Often, these drinks try to do too much at the expense of providing a well-balanced flavor. There are numerous issues you could face with cocktails at chain restaurants. Hopefully, being aware of these mistakes will help you avoid overpaying for a drink that you end up leaving behind on the table with the check. 

1. They're usually lacking in alcohol

A common complaint about cocktails from chain restaurants is that they're almost always lacking in booze, particularly in comparison to drinks served at a craft cocktail bar. Two people visited Applebee's during a $1 special for Long Island Iced Teas and drank 20 each. After five hours of drinking, the pair weren't even a little bit drunk. A typical Long Island includes vodka, gin, rum, tequila, triple sec, and lemon juice, so the recipe is packed with booze. The customers who tasted Applebee's version remarked that it resembled Gatorade in terms of both appearance and flavor, with very little alcohol flavor.

It might be a draw for some people dining at a chain restaurant to have a casual drink with their meal without feeling a buzz after just one glass. Some customers might also prefer alcoholic drinks that taste more like soda or juice than a high-ABV cocktail. However, those looking to feel the effects of one drink should probably stick with a stiff classic drink or ask for a shot of booze on the side to pour into a cocktail off the menu.

2. You may not get to watch the bartender make your drink

Unlike some independent restaurants with large bars, many chain restaurants may not have a visible bar, only tables and booths for seating. This means you cannot order drinks directly from the bar unless you're in a sports bar-style chain restaurant. When you're ordering an elaborate cocktail from the menu while sitting in a booth, it's oftentimes being made on the other side of the restaurant, so you don't get to see which ingredients are added, the techniques employed by the bartender, or whether the contents in your drink are poured from a pre-mixed batch of drinks. 

Bar seating also provides a natural banter that enables the bartender to make recommendations or add any preference-based tweaks to your drink right in front of you. For many people dining at a chain restaurant, this personalized cocktail experience isn't an option, especially if they're tucked away in a booth. 

3. The cocktails can be overly sweet

Another complaint about chain restaurant cocktail menus is that most of the options are overly sweet or have a syrupy consistency. The sweetness can usually be attributed to chains using pre-made mixers to accompany the usually small amount of booze in every glass. Many people who have tasted the house cocktails at chains like Outback and Olive Garden remark that most of them are way too sweet. 

The best chain restaurant drinks, according to alcohol enthusiasts, are typically the ones that have a balance of flavor in addition to a massive hit of sugar. One way to hack a chain's cocktail menu is to order a side of club soda to dilute your drink so it isn't so concentrated with sugar. If it's one of those cocktails that is lacking alcohol, you'll probably want to order that extra shot on the side as well. 

4. Chains don't always employ seasoned bartenders

Chain restaurants aren't always the most sought-after jobs for seasoned bartenders. Oftentimes, working at a chain is a great way for folks in the food service industry to get their foot in the door. Unfortunately for the customer, that can sometimes mean a bartender is mixing up drinks that aren't properly mixed or well-balanced. That's why it's a good idea to order a classic drink, like a daiquiri or a negroni, to test a bartender's skills. 

Additionally, chain restaurants are busy places. So, if a designated bartender isn't working during a particular shift, servers or other untrained staff could be responsible for making drink orders. Many chain restaurants ensure their cocktail recipes are easy so restaurant workers can replicate drinks when needed. Unfortunately, this also means that the offerings on the menu might not be the best in terms of flavor and quality. 

5. They're usually made with bottom-shelf liquor

Many of the house cocktails at chain restaurants may not contain enough alcohol. Additionally, most of the chain restaurants that serve alcohol don't always use the best quality liquor. Many mixed drinks aren't usually made with top-shelf liquor, and the other ingredients are designed to help to mask the harshness. However, a low-quality bottle of whiskey or vodka will make its presence known in any drink, regardless of how many mixers you add to try to hide it. Indeed, using bottom-shelf liquor can go hand in hand with chain restaurants often offering cocktails that are way too sweet. 

Sugar is the easiest way to mask an abrasive alcohol flavor. As most people who have experienced drinking low-quality alcohol know, it can oftentimes lead to an upset stomach and/or a bad headache, both of which are two surefire ways to ruin the rest of your meal at a chain restaurant. Luckily, the bartenders usually aren't overpouring the booze into each drink, so you might be okay having just one cocktail. 

6. Fresh ingredients aren't always a go-to

A major reason that some of the cocktails at chain restaurants can often taste too sweet is that the bar isn't using any fresh ingredients in its cocktails. The best bartenders tend to use fresh ingredients (such as orange juice, herbs, and muddled fruit) in cocktails. However, even simple ingredients like fresh lemons and limes can have a major impact on a cocktail. 

Bottled mixes for lemon or lime juice are often full of sugar and taste artificial. Fresh citrus plays a highly important role in cocktails, from adding flavor to helping build the body of the drink. When the drink is lacking in fresh ingredients, the substitutions are glaringly obvious, even in mixed drinks like lime margaritas. The lack of fresh ingredients, especially citrus, can also lead to a chain restaurant cocktail tasting more like a non-alcoholic soda than a boozy sipper. 

7. The drinks may not pair well with the cuisine

Some chain restaurants will attempt to make the cocktail menus match the theme of the cuisine. However, chains are also typically trying to appeal to the masses, so some extensive cocktail menus can often seem like they're having an identity crisis. For example, it may seem unusual that P.F. Chang's, an Asian restaurant chain, serves Red Carne Sangria alongside its food. Similarly, the Italian restaurant chain Carrabba's offers a prickly pear margarita alongside pasta carbonara and pizza. 

To be clear, there's no steadfast rule for pairing food and drink, but chain restaurants often don't seem to try. There are outliers to this rule: California Pizza Kitchen often recommend drink pairings with its menu items. If more chain restaurants considered offering drink suggestions with menu items, it would give the cocktail menus a firmer identity whilst also enhancing the overall dining experience. 

8. Chains typically focus on aesthetics over flavor

One underlying issue with the drinks at chain restaurants is that they're more geared towards an aesthetic "wow" factor, often at the expense of flavors. Of course, this tendency isn't just limited to chain restaurants. Many cocktail bars will create gimmicks like smoke infusions or flames to give the cocktails an added flair. Chain restaurants will often opt for the same types of tricks to attract customers. 

Chain restaurants are bound to offer a few drinks that are all about the visual appeal, whether it's fishbowl drinks, blue cocktails, oversized margaritas, or frozen mudslides. There's something fun about having a drink come to your table that makes everyone else in their restaurant turn their heads. But just because a drink is pretty doesn't mean it will have a balanced flavor that acts as a well-paired accompaniment to whatever food you're ordering. While it's fun to order a pretty cocktail, you don't want to end up with an unpleasant-tasting drink. 

9. It can be difficult to find lighter options

Chain restaurant cocktail menus are often lacking in lighter, less sugary options. While decadent cocktails can be enjoyable, sometimes, you may be in the mood for a healthier cocktail. Cocktail menus at chain restaurants tend to offer an abundance of boozy milkshakes and syrupy cocktails that may not be ideal if you'd like to order a simple and light cocktail. 

Even many of the non-alcoholic drinks  offered at chain restaurants are filled with sugar. If you're in the mood for a lighter drink, it can be difficult to find a suitable drink at a chain restaurant besides water. While rich and sugary drinks can be delicious, they can also lead to an upset stomach. The drink you order at a restaurant is supposed to prepare your palate for your meal. However, many of these unhealthy cocktails can actually fill you up so much that you're unable to properly enjoy your appetizers and entrées. 

10. You'll likely end up with a hangover

The combination of low-quality alcohol, too much sugar, and artificial ingredients is the perfect recipe for a hangover, which can be the result of drinking too many cocktails from a chain restaurant. Any cocktail, regardless of where it's made, can give someone a hangover: It all depends on the person and how much they end up drinking. However, drinks with too much sugar and bad-quality alcohol are more likely to leave you with an upset stomach and a hangover than something a little more well-crafted.

The upside to drinking at a chain restaurant is that there are usually endless food options to help soak up the alcohol. Still, it's probably a good idea to limit your intake and drink water in between cocktails to ensure you don't end up ordering a cocktail that you may end up regretting the next morning due to a hangover.