Dining room carts and other tableside service options are as old as bananas Foster and crepes suzette.
But these flashy presentations are gaining new life in the Instagram era as operators look to build buzz with luxury, often customizable menu items served for all to see.
Here’s a look at how some operators are generating new revenue with old-fashioned service.
1. Bloody mary cart
The Henry, a Fox Restaurant Concepts establishment in Phoenix, considered offering a bloody mary bar at brunch. Owners instead decided that offering the breakfast cocktail via roving cart was a better fit for the brand’s “comfortable elegance,” says Beverage Director Mat Snapp. A cart stocked with several house-infused vodkas and basic garnishes such as bacon and pickled vegetables sells 50 to 70 custom bloody marys during each day of the weekend brunch service, says Snapp.
The drinks are so popular—and photographable—that the concept built a separate bloody mary station behind the bar so the bartender can offer the cocktails to guests while they wait for their tables, in a similar customizable fashion but without the bulky cart. Management makes sure to staff the cart with a server who’s especially “bubbly, fun and interactive,” Snapp says. The server starts each interaction by asking, “How do you like to drink your mary?” he says. The Henry plans to expand to Dallas and Los Angeles in the next year, and the bloody mary cart will be a fixture in the new units.
2. Salad cart
Amy Morton—a restaurateur whose father, Arnie, employed many tableside carts at his establishments—carries on the tradition at her newest operation. At The Barn in Evanston, Ill., some 75% of all diners order the Little Gem Salad after it’s wheeled through the dining room, according to Crain’s Chicago Business. The $11.95 appetizer salad is prepped tableside and features chopped egg, pumpkin seeds, Parmigiano-Reggiano and pickled onions.
3. Tableside cocktails
Operators are often looking for ways to speed up cocktail service. Boston’s Oak + Rowan has created built-in efficiencies without skimping on service. Signature cocktails are prebatched for consistency and speed before being finished and served via tableside cart. “The bartenders joke about their manicures being on-point, as they believe they are super hand models in the world of Snapchat and Insta[gram],” a restaurant spokeswoman says. Tableside preparation also allows the bartender to focus solely on the guests at that station.
4. Nitrogen ice cream
Students at the Culinary Institute of America’s main campus are the servers at the school’s Bocuse Restaurant, where science mixes with sweetness to create a social media-friendly dessert. Vanilla bean ice cream base is hand-churned at the table while being quick-frozen with a hefty dose of liquid nitrogen. The resulting “fog” makes for an attention-grabbing presentation at the Hyde Park, N.Y., restaurant, which is open to the public.
5. Tableside meat-and-potato martini
This Chicago branch of Lawry’s The Prime Rib has been serving prime rib and Original Spinning Bowl Salads via rolling carts for more than four decades. But the concept recently added its first tableside beverage, a meat-and-potato martini that features potato vodka and two giant olives stuffed with horseradish and prime rib. The drink, which is shaken and poured at the table, has become the restaurant’s most popular martini.
6. Lobster pot pie
Chef Michael Mina offers a table-prepped lobster pot pie at his eponymous restaurant at the Bellagio Resort & Casino in Las Vegas, and at Stripsteak in Waikiki, Hawaii. At the table, a server fills a prebaked crust with lobster, truffle cream sauce and vegetables. At Stripsteak, the presentation gives the server a chance to explain the local sourcing of the ingredients; the dish is one of the highest-selling items at the restaurant.
7. Caviar cart
The high-end, library-themed Vol. 39 bar on the second floor of Chicago’s Kimpton Gray Hotel has found success selling caviar via a cart that makes its way through the room a couple of time each night. The operation typically moves an ounce of each type of caviar per week, representing about 16% of total food sales, according to Bar Manager Lauren Parton. “When we sell one caviar service, we usually sell another, as it is eye-catching moving through the room,” Parton says.