Variety and creativity expressed on a restaurant’s drink menu is important, and for those who don’t (or can’t) drink alcohol, this shouldn’t be limited to just the wine and cocktail lists.
There are actually quite a few Durham restaurants offering fun and delicious non-alcoholic alternatives from mocktails to milkshakes so that non-drinkers don’t have to settle for a boring soda. Below are some of our favorites.
I’m a big fan of classic mixed soda drinks, especially when they are recreated and revived. Jack Tar and The Colonel’s Daughter takes diner drinks to the next level by offering new-and-improved childhood concoctions like house-made Shirley Temples and a real blast from the past: the Orange Julius. “There’s a slew of copycat recipes around the web, so we played around with a few of them to figure out what we did/didn’t like and cobbled together a version that really spoke to our memories of getting an Orange Julius at the mall when we were kids,” shares Owner Gray Brooks. “Although I imagine what we came up with is probably better, since it tastes good to me now as a grown-up.”
Gray compares the process to their tomato soup: It attempts to reference Campbell’s iconic soup, which has such a strong memory connected to it, but doesn’t quite live up to the hype when you have it as an adult. The same goes for syrupy Shirley Temples – with a bit of tweaking, a childlike recipe (and memory) is redefined with an elevated house-made version. And with the assistance of talented mixologist Michael Killbridge (who makes all their own grenadine, shrubs, tonic water and other tinctures for the three restaurants) on staff, just about anything is possible.
A big part of the reason the owners of Jack Tar put so much thought and effort into their non-alcoholic drink menu is because they have a young child and are consistently reminded what it’s like to be a 6-year-old in an adult’s world. “Whenever we’d go out to eat with Cole, my wife and I often start with a cocktail, so I started asking the bartenders to make something for our son, so that he could be included in that part of dining out,” Gray explains. That family-friendly focus, from the food to the drinks, became a focus at Jack Tar.
When dining out, our family has also found that good, skilled bartenders are happy to create a mocktail on the fly. So, if you are out to enjoy a nice dinner and don’t see any non-alcoholic drinks listed on the menu, don’t be afraid to ask if they can whip up something special. You may discover a new favorite drink for your child or for yourself!
Many cocktail bars offer a few great mocktails regularly. Some of our favorites can be found at Alley Twenty Six, which highlights a new non-alcoholic cocktail on the menu on a rotating basis – the choice is dependent on the season and what ingredients are available. On Thursday mornings, Owner Shannon Healy and some of the other Alley bartenders hold experimental sessions where they make new syrups and tinctures and also use the time to create those unusual non-alcoholic cocktails that keep with the same quality and inventiveness of their alcoholic counterparts. This summer, they featured a “summer-at-the-beach” inspired Coconut Pineapple Shrub, which included coconut, pineapple, apple cider vinegar, lime and soda water. Past favorites have included the Grapefruit Blueberry Shrub, a shrub with local blueberries courtesy of Eastern Carolina Organics, and the Temperante Tiki, a non-alcoholic riff on a tiki cocktail.
There’s fruit juice and then there’s aguas frescas, and, really, there’s no comparison. Aguas frescas are made with fresh fruit, flowers and seeds, blended with sugar and water. Popular in Mexico, you can find them at a few Durham restaurants.
If you look behind the register at El Chapin, you will see a brightly colored variety of them lining the wall. They rotate flavors often. The one I enjoyed recently tasted like I had stuck a straw straight into a fresh watermelon!
New restaurant Tamale Factory and Tequila Bar also offers a great variety of aguas frescas – all made in house with fresh fruit. These refreshing drinks serve as a great alternative to regular sodas and a much more authentic option to pair with the food. I recently enjoyed the hibiscus water, which had just the right amount of sweetness.
One of my favorite drinks to enjoy on a hot afternoon (usually after doing yard work!) is a milkshake from NanaTaco. They offer the straightforward flavors of vanilla, chocolate (Hershey’s) and Oreo cookie, but the most popular flavor is the Mexican chocolate, either regular or spicy (they add a dash of cayenne). A close second is the roasted plantain flavor, which takes on the flavor profile of roasted marshmallow. For those in the know, the manager recommends a mix of both Mexican chocolate and plantain.
They also offer seasonal milkshake varieties like pumpkin pie during the holidays, which incorporates pumpkin pie filling, shortbread cookie crumbs, a touch of horchata (cinnamon rice milk) and cayenne. This past Girl Scout cookie season, they offered Thin Mint and Caramel Delight, which they’ll bring back next year.
Lattes and Lassis
For coffee lovers, The Durham Hotel has a must-try: The coffee soda – cold-brew coffee mixed with sugar, vanilla bean, sparkling water and crushed ice.
We live in an area where we get to enjoy food and drink from around the world. Take, for instance, the Kenyan chai latte at The Palace International. “All chais are made with a spice blend known as tea masala, but the taste varies depending on what seasonings are used,” explains Owner Moses Ochola. “Our masala is a blend of spices heavy on cardamom, cloves, nutmeg and ginger. We slow brew the tea masala with Kenyan black tea (unique to Kenya) on the stove until it has the desired flavor and consistency. This is what creates the distinctly bold flavor of our chai.”
The Palace also offers a stellar Nairobian punch: a secret blend of tropical juices, but some of the easily identifiable flavors are pineapple, orange and passion fruit juice.
At Viceroy, we have enjoyed the masala chai lattes as well as the creamy and smooth lassis (a sweet or savory Indian drink made from a yogurt, water, spices and fruit). Flavors change out regularly, but they currently feature a coconut chia lassi. In past seasons, we’ve enjoyed the fun, pink, beet lassi.
With these options and more, “no booze” doesn’t have to mean “boring.” As restaurants become more creative in satisfying customers with food restrictions, I predict a trend toward expanded non-alcoholic drink options as well, so that everyone can sip on something special. We’ll cheers to that!