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Gulp! Just look at that tab

Even as restaurants lower menu prices to match the times, the cost of cocktails is rising. And so is the entertainment value.

May 07, 2003|Valli Herman-Cohen | Times Staff Writer

EIGHTEEN dollars for a martini? Twenty-six bucks for a margarita?

It sounds preposterous. But that's what they're charging at the Peninsula Hotel's Club Bar, and they're not so far out of line.

For years, $10 was as much as most places thought they could get away with charging for a cocktail. You couldn't find a drink that jumped that barricade, just like you couldn't find an entree that cost more than $30.

Well, that cocktail barrier has fallen with a crash that can be heard all over Los Angeles. Trend-setting lounges in this city, without a blush, are selling martinis for $15 and mojitos for $12.

That's a mojito we're talking about -- a splash of rum, a little seltzer, a sprig of mint and a lot of ice. That's not what they fill a glass with at Chateau Lafite Rothschild.

You'd think you have to be drunk or somehow incapacitated to pay that kind of price for a drink. But the fact is, even as chefs scale back their menus and lower entree prices, cocktail tabs are going through the roof.

At the clubby Beverly Hills steakhouse, the bestselling cocktail is the $15 Mastro's martini. The cranberry juice, triple sec and orange-infused vodka bubble to life when the waitress empties the cocktail shaker into a frosty glass full of dry ice. As clouds of cool mist billow, heads all across the room turn in amazement.

"I feel like Vincent Price," said one first-timer, as his drink continued to gurgle throughout the first course.

Of course, having cocktails at some stylish lounge isn't just about having a drink. In some cases, $15 is a relatively cheap price of admission to one of the city's hot scenes, where dinner tabs can be $50 a person or more. And the drinks themselves can offer a fair bit of entertainment and creativity -- at least, more than all the dull "new American comfort food" crowding menus around town.

In fact, cocktails are strutting their stuff like peacocks. At Koi, the hip Asian spot on La Cienega, the most popular one is the Hpnotiq, a beautiful drink that's a strange opalescent blue. Three fat raspberries floating on top make it stand out from the crowd of brightly colored martinis.

But is it really worth 13 bucks?

Snob appeal

Spirits makers say that a big part of the equation is sophistication, and that they are just following in the footsteps of wine marketers who made the $10 glass of wine rather ordinary. The same snob appeal is now working with cocktail sophisticates, who are happily paying extra bucks for premium brands.

"It shows your status to go in and order a Grey Goose, which costs probably 50% more than Absolut," said Larry Margolis, a marketing vice president for Southern Wines and Spirits, the country's largest liquor distributor.

The popularity of martinis (or at least, the martini glass) and other vodka-based drinks has been manna from heaven for cash-strapped restaurants and bars. Unlike wine, which requires careful storage and expertise, hard liquor is easy to buy and sell. Vodka, especially.

"The bar is the biggest profit center -- by leaps and bounds. Exponentially," said David Rosoff, owner of the Beverly Boulevard restaurant Opaline. "The raw ingredients cost you pennies."

Says Sal Marino, the chef and owner of Il Grano Ristorante in West L.A.: "Your average bar is buying a bottle of Absolut for $20. An Absolut martini is $9 or $10. You can get about 20 drinks a bottle, so you get about $200 out of it."

And that's if you're charging $10 a drink. You can't make that kind of profit on a $20 bottle of wine.

Distillers also love vodka because it costs 93 cents to create a gallon, Margolis said. "It's selling for more than something like Johnny Walker Black that you have to age for 12 years," Margolis said. "Vodka, you make it, you fill the bottle and ship it out the door. No aging involved."

And of course, vodka mixes with just about anything. Today's garnish trays are proof of that. The one at Lola's in West Hollywood includes everything from blue-cheese-stuffed olives to star fruit, almonds and fresh flowers. Around town, mixers run the gamut from chocolate syrup to cream, lime juice to espresso.

Rosoff has done the math: "If 150 or 200 people come through a night, it's amazing what 50 cents added to a cocktail that you sell 50 or 60 times a night will add to your bottom line. And a lot of times, your clientele won't even notice [the price increase]. They are still going to drink. You do that a number of times, and you end up with a $12 martini.

"That's why prices have crept up -- because they can," said Rosoff. He charges $9 for cocktails, for fear of stirring resentment among his customers.

Keeping profits afloat

You don't need Alan Greenspan to explain that in the economics of alcohol, price resistance isn't much of an issue.

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