How Trick Dog Reimagined the Cocktail Menu - Imbibe Magazine Subscribe + Save

A cocktail menu often serves as an introduction to a bar. Even before setting foot inside, nowadays one can simply scan a drinks list online to pick up on a bar’s vibe. Is it the type of place to grab a quick and simple drink or to explore more ambitious, creative cocktails? After having created 17 inventive menus over the past decade, the bar team behind San Francisco’s award-winning Trick Dog wanted to devise something special for their decennial menu.

But what to do when each previous menu has managed to top the other? Turns out, oneupmanship doesn’t factor into their creative process and menu development. Here’s what does.

Be Different, Not Better

“Josh [Harris, Trick Dog founder] brought up really early on that we shouldn’t be trying to one-up ourselves every single time. It just needs to be different mainly in the menu design and format,” says Beverage Director Nick Amano-Dolan. This focus, he continues, “allows us direction and room to grow rather than looking at these certain aspects of the menu and going, ‘Well, how do we top that?'”

For the 10-year anniversary menu, instead of something showy, they decided on a retrospective theme in the form of an art museum—specifically San Francisco’s Museum of Modern Art. What better way to celebrate and honor everyone who had contributed to the bar’s success over the years? Each menu was treated like a work of art, framed and displayed around the bar. The Museum of Trick Dog Art’s (MoTDA) cocktail menu was designed to look like SFMOMA’s pamphlet. It even includes a map of the exhibit in the bar. But instead of a menu featuring fan favorites over the past 10 years, it’s comprised of brand-new drinks inspired by each past menu.

“What’s more important is for Trick Dog to remain on the cutting edge of what it’s doing.” —Josh Harris

Rise to the Challenge

Even though assembling a list of the decade’s most popular cocktails would have been an easy route to take, easy is not the Trick Dog way. “That’s a good idea for one night, but it’s not a good idea for six months,” says Harris. “It’s important to us that we’re always challenging ourselves to be creative in ways that keep us inspired. Trick Dog is all about creating original cocktails.” To do a greatest hits list would feel like cheating, according to Harris. “What’s more important is for Trick Dog to remain on the cutting edge of what it’s doing,” he says.

For the MoTDA menu, the team became historians, studying the previous menus for cocktail ideas. The result was drinks such as the What Rhymes With Trick Dog (recipe below), which is made with goldfish cracker-infused bourbon. Inspired by the July 2017 menu’s Ritz cracker-infused cocktail, they created a Manhattan/Old Pal-style drink with oloroso sherry. The entire mixture was then infused with goldfish crackers; not a random idea but “just the same way that you would add salt to a Negroni,” Amano-Dolan explains. They even experimented with other savory snacks and crackers, like Chex Mix and pretzels, before deciding the fish-shaped cheddar crackers worked best.

Always Be Consuming

Good ideas don’t happen in a vacuum, so the team is always getting out there and exploring, consuming everything. “It’s about always having our eyes and our ears and our mouths open just excited to taste, excited to consume culture however that presents itself around us,” says Harris. When Amano-Dolan started working at Trick Dog, Harris advised him, “Hey man, you’re going to get to a point very quickly after being connected with this whole process where you look at the entire world through the lens of whether it could be a Trick Dog menu or not.”

And Amano-Dolan has, taking in San Francisco and all its different cultural cuisines and flavors. “You go from one little neighborhood to the next, and you can get completely different flavor profiles and combinations of things that’ll blow your mind and have you try to recreate it in your own way,” he says.

Take Your Time

“I think the greatest thing that we unintentionally did was decide we were going to make new menus every six months,” says Harris. Unlike many craft cocktail bars, instead of updating their menus to showcase seasonal ingredients, Trick Dog updates biannually. Harris credits local bar The Alembic in the Haight-Ashbury District with the idea. “It was just a bar with good drinks and food in a neighborhood where people wore what they want,” he says. “So we were like, ‘That’s totally our thing. That’s what we want Trick Dog to be.’” The Alembic created cocktails on a six-month schedule.

But San Francisco seasons boil down to spring/summer and fall/winter, so “how do you capture 55 and foggy 365 days a year?” Harris asks. “That was a big one for us.” Instead, they focus on the flavors of those seasons.

Ultimately, it came down to giving guests a chance to work through the menu. Some people take pride in checking off every cocktail on the list. But Harris views it as a way to gain their trust and open people up to explore the unfamiliar, where they eventually find their new favorite cocktail. “I don’t think that we’d have the same experience with people fetishizing certain cocktails that we’ve had in the past if it wasn’t a six-month menu,” he theorizes, “because [the drinks] need that amount of time to really come to life in people’s experiences.”


“It makes it more of a dynamic process when you have multiple people that are coming together and creating something…” —Nick Amano-Dolan

This MoTDA is the first collaborative menu that involved more of the bar staff. But this fairly new process perfectly complemented the retrospective menu, which had everyone—from door hosts, food runners, servers, and kitchen team to barbacks and bartenders—studying Trick Dog history and honoring the past staff through their creations. “It makes it more of a dynamic process when you have multiple people that are coming together and creating something, rather than everything coming out of primarily my brain for what I think would be good on a menu,” says Amano-Dolan, who only took the helm of menu creation last year and made it more of a team effort.

The barbacks have proven the most excited about getting involved. “They’re some of the most engaged [at the weekly menu meetings] because they’re the ones that have been studying, wanting to prove that they can move up in our system and take on the larger job roles and responsibilities,” Harris says. “It’s just exciting to see that kind of enthusiasm and creativity.”

The MoTDA menu will run through the end of June but its exhibit will be on display past July even after the brand-new menu debuts on July 7.

What Rhymes With Trick Dog

1 oz. goldfish cracker-infused bourbon
1 oz. Martini & Rossi Rosso
1/4 oz. Amaro Averna
1 tsp oloroso sherry
1/4 oz. demerara syrup
4 dashes saline solution

Tools: mixing glass, barspoon, strainer
Glass: bucket
Garnish: lemon twist

Add all of the ingredients to a mixing glass with ice. Stir to chill, then strain over a large cube in a glass. Garnish.
Goldfish Bourbon100g goldfish crackers
750ml bourbon (ideally at least 90 proof)
Gently break apart the goldfish and pour bourbon over them in a large container. Let them sit overnight, then strain through a coffee filter. 
Saline Solution25g sea salt
250g filtered water
Combine the together and mix until the salt is fully dissolved. 

The Trick Dog Team, San Francisco

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