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What’s the deal with bottle service?

Sherry Maddox works behind the bar at Nikita. She's also a student of urban culture, apparently.

During a quiet moment before the hedonistic "Naked Sunday" onslaught, she addressed a bedeviling topic. Americans, you see, have long struggled with ideals such as segregation and equality. And while we spend decades attempting to solve the more egregious divides, we still welcome certain superficial barriers.

"Why do you wear a Rolex?" she asks. "Why do you buy a Ferrari?"

For the record, the Burning Question crew put a key to a Ferrari only once...if you get our drift...and we picked up our "Rolexx" watches from some guy on a New York street corner. Yet the accoutrements represent a form of segregation from the common masses. Bars and restaurants have always used artificial means to define their crowds as well--through VIP lists or premier tables, that sort of thing.

The latest nod to superiority is bottle service, where bar patrons agree to purchase a jug of liquor in exchange for a hot table at a popular venue.

"More and more, bars are trying to create an implied separation," acknowledges Eddie Germann of the lounge/dance club Seven. "It's not enough now to be physically separated."

Although a mainstay in Vegas, bottle service reached the Dallas consciousness fairly recently, through the auspices of Sense and Candle Room. "We don't charge for membership; we don't charge a cover," says Tino DeFranco, manager of the latter members-only hot spot. "The only way to ensure a seating area is premium is asking that they commit to a bottle." An expensive proposition, mind you. Well and premium liquors vary in price at both spots but start in the $250 range. Drama Room offers the service for a set price of $250. At Lush, the rates depend on the size of the group, topping out at $600 for up to 25 people crowding into their VIP section. Nikita and Seven also trade premier tables for a hefty bottle charge.

And it is a trade.

"The venue is committing their best space," says Greg Kinella, manager at Sense. "The guest is committing to a certain level of consumption."

The most appealingly appointed space for bottle service, by the way, is Seven's "bedroom," an elevated corner spot combining lounge seating with an actual bed. Naturally they installed a mirror on the ceiling.

Bottle service benefits bars in several ways. In one quick transaction they ring up 26 shots--although, as Brian McCullough of Drama Room points out, if the establishment doesn't share tips, "the bartender doesn't make shit." It also slows the bar-hopping tendencies of fickle Dallas patrons. Spending $300 or so for a $30 bottle of booze is enough to keep even the most footloose $30,000 millionaire planted for a few hours. Finally, bottle service functions as a kind of cover charge.

But why would anyone wish to partake of the service when a few drinks at the bar will accomplish the same effect?

Obviously, the phenomenon appeals to the aspect of American culture that values self-fulfillment. "It's really one way of saying, 'Hey, I've got the mojo,'" DeFranco says. "It's the perception of prestige."

Of course, the Burning Question crew already sports knock-off watches and tools around town in a souped-up Le Car--all the trappings of serious mojo, whatever that means. So there must be other factors motivating the popularity of this bar feature.

"If you're going to drink 20 drinks in a night, it's worth it," McCullough points out.

Keep in mind our mathematical (and financial) deficiencies here, but bartenders generally squeeze 24 or so pours from a standard .750-liter bottle, depending on the venue and the type of drinks ordered. Groups succumbing to the allure of bottle service, however, may ask for stronger drinks. We're guessing 20 from a bottle. That's about $15 per drink, not including tip, which probably seems like a cost savings to certain somewhat duly elected officials, but not to the lowly, Le Car-driving crew.

Now, bottle-service customers end up with a dedicated server (patrons are not allowed to touch their prized possession, according to state law), a range of mixers and other perks. "It's an added sense of value for the customer," Germann says. "They're being pampered."

But, compared strictly with the typical per-drink cost, bottle service simply doesn't make sense. Patrons end up shelling out Medici-level prices for martinis, and crowds of more than five barely pick up a buzz from one vessel of alcohol. The momentary elevation in status, however, mitigates some of that expense.

Ultimately, there's nothing really wrong with the feature. It is to ego what a sports car is to penis size. It's the designer label of nightlife.

On the other hand, as Kinella explains, with bottle service "you make the commitment to have a good time, and there's something to be said for that."

 
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