Tater Tot Sundaes and Other Ways Bars Get You to Drink More

The chef at Churchkey reveals his bar-menu tricks.

Birch & Barley. Photograph by Scott Suchman

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Traditionally, bars served free salty nuts so that customers would order more booze. Are there other tricks restaurants pull when it comes to drinking-friendly foods? We asked Bill Williamson, the chef at Logan Circle’s Birch & Barley and ChurchKey (1337 14th St., NW; 202-567-2576), to explain his menu strategy.


“The burger is kind of the gateway drug. They’ll come in on Tuesday and have a great burger, and come back on the weekend and try something that’s more outside their comfort level.” Like, say, trout-roe tater tots or gnocchi with broccoli-rabe pesto.

Deep-fried hot wings

Bars are often places of heightened stim­uli—loud, hot, crowded—and the food is no different. “You want to touch all the sensations,” Williamson says. “The texture, the spiciness, the cooling of the palate from the beer you’re drinking.” Also, chicken wings don’t require much effort from the kitchen staff.


Cheese and dough are always crowd pleasers, but there’s more to it. They’re handy for padding the stomachs of vegetarian drinkers. Plus, “when eye-catching dishes walk through the dining room, people ask, ‘What’s that?’ Once one hits the floor, you’ll sell ten more.” Here, attractive wooden serving boards help draw attention.

Mac and cheese

Unlike in a restaurant, freewheeling bargoers won’t necessarily eat their food as soon as it hits the table. Williamson favors a dish like mac and cheese or cacio e pepebecause the noodles hold up over time: “Dig in, come back seven minutes later—it’ll still be saucy and delicious.”

Tater-tot sundae

Some dishes are designed to be eaten, others are meant to be talked about—such as this ice-cream sundae with cinnamon-sugar-crusted tater tots. “Those kinds of things make our guests ask questions,” Williamson says. “That creates conversation with our bartenders and servers—and, in turn, can be an opportunity to sell another beer.”

This article appears in the November 2017 issue of Washingtonian.

Ann Limpert
Executive Food Editor/Critic

Ann Limpert joined Washingtonian in late 2003. She was previously an editorial assistant at Entertainment Weekly and a cook in New York restaurant kitchens, and she is a graduate of the Institute of Culinary Education. She lives in Petworth.

Food Editor

Anna Spiegel covers the dining and drinking scene in her native DC. Prior to joining Washingtonian in 2010, she attended the French Culinary Institute and Columbia University’s MFA program in New York, and held various cooking and writing positions in NYC and in St. John, US Virgin Islands.

Jessica Sidman
Food Editor

Jessica Sidman covers the people and trends behind D.C.’s food and drink scene. Before joining Washingtonian in July 2016, she was Food Editor and Young & Hungry columnist at Washington City Paper. She is a Colorado native and University of Pennsylvania grad.