Atlanta Bar Scene: Aria’s revamped cocktail menu

For nearly two decades, Aria has dominated fine dining in Atlanta. But after 16 years, the once avant garde restaurant on East Paces Ferry and its chef and owner Gerry Klaskala decided it was time to shed the restaurant’s coat-and-tie image for a fresh, relaxed vibe more in keeping with Atlanta’s current dining landscape. While the white linen table cloths and iconic alien-like chandelier hanging above the dining room remain, a fresh paint job of chic gray tones, wall of leather banquettes and row of wooden four tops have given the space a warmth and approachability to attract an increasingly younger dining public seeking casual comfort with their cuisine. This now includes a no-reservations-necessary cocktail lounge just beyond the red doors of the entrance.

Aria’s new lounge affords patrons the option of an accessible area in which to grab a drink and quick bite without having to throw on a tie or a pair of Manolo Blahniks. “We want Aria to be comfortable for everyone even if they’re not going to stay for dinner,” general manager Andres Loaiza said of the new space. “The redesign, especially the new lounge and bar, makes Aria less intimidating, especially to new guests. Our beloved regulars who have come back to see the new space fell in love with it.”

The heart of Aria’s beverage program still includes what can only be described as a baller wine list of page after page of hard-to-find vintages where bottles can reach in the hundreds of dollars. When lead bartender Russell Donovan joined Aria six months ago, he was tasked with overhauling the cocktail menu to keep pace with the biblical list of wines and become an integral part of the restaurant's dining experience.

Donovan has developed a gracious and thoughtfully curated cocktail program of seven classically composed drinks which highlight seasonality, Southern ingredients, familiar flavors and simplicity without sacrificing complexity, “Part of the challenge that appealed to me here was that most people know Aria for their wonderful wines. Cocktails are not on their radar even though that’s been part of the program for years. Aria operates at such high level of quality for food and wine. Our cocktail list needs to operate on the same level.”

While Loaiza admits Aria’s bar continues to sell a lot of whiskey and Scotch on the rocks along with classics like the Manhattan or martini, he says they’re moving the new cocktails more and more each day as guests realize there’s more than meets the eye behind the bar. “I have found people who dine at Aria, especially our regulars, have great palates and aren’t afraid to try new things,” Loaiza said of the new drinks list. “For instance, the Regulator cocktail with suze and Genever Bols. Here’s two unique spirits, one bitter, one full of juniper and malt yet the cocktail is being ordered quite often. We have a lot of Campari drinkers, so the suze is an easy transition. Genever is great for Scotch drinkers. It’s the whisky drinker’s gin. Once you explain these flavors to guests, they realize it's not unfamiliar territory.”

In a Buckhead sea swimming in Chardonnay and vodka drinks, Aria’s continued willingness to educate and lead guests down a familiar path while not being afraid to push the palate gives the restaurant and its new cocktail program a definitive edge. If you’ve not been to Aria lately or felt you weren’t fancy enough to grace its doorstep, let down your hair, loosen that tie and sidle up to the bar for a drink because this isn’t your father’s Aria any longer.

We suggest trying these three cocktails the next time you dine or swing in for drinks at Aria:

Stray Cat - aged white rum, grapefruit, lemon, orange, grapefruit bitters

Stray Cat

This rum cocktail is comprised of Denizen’s aged white rum, grapefruit, lemon, orange and a few dashes of grapefruit bitters. The drink is wonderfully refreshing and surprisingly complex. The slight funk of the aged rum gives the cocktail rich undertones without going overboard while its sweeter grassy notes play up the tart juices of the grapefruit, lemon and orange without overwhelming the palate.

Feel the Burn

Feel the Burn is all the familiar flavors of a summer barbecue in the southland. Smoky mezcal, the mellow sweetness of cantaloupe, tart lime juice and a hint of heat from habanero all combine to create a bright drink with a little kick at the finish to wake the senses. A great introduction to mezcal cocktails with enough complexity to keep fans of the agave spirit coming back for more.

12 Mile Limit - rhum agricole, apple jack, rye whiskey, house grenadine,

12 Mile Limit

The one remaining holdover from Aria’s days of yore, this Prohibition-style cocktail based on the Jack Rose brandy sour is boozy and strong. Comprised of three colonial era spirits, the drink is deliciously complex mixing the funky grass notes of a Martinique agricole rhum, traditional applejack (brandy) and spicy notes of rye whiskey. Add lemon and housemade grenadine, shake well and this brandy sour transforms from a devilish little cocktail to what Donovan refers to as the “two drink limit”.

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