If you’re like me, you’ve probably never heard of Earls Kitchen + Bar, a North American “upscale casual” restaurant chain originating from Alberta, Canada. That’s not to say that they aren’t great, because they are, I’m just not well-versed in the Canadian food scene. Lucky for us, they’re slated to open a Tysons Corner location this fall, and I was thrilled to be invited to a cocktail demo lead by Cameron Bogue, the restaurant group’s Director of Beverage Operations.
I didn’t quite know what to expect. Still being relatively new to the food blogging world, we’ve only just started getting invited to preview nights like this. And up until this point, most of the restaurant stories we’ve done have been smaller restaurants or local chains.
With 64 locations in North America, Earls Kitchen + Bar is absolutely a chain. The restaurant group has over 7,000 employees and feeds approximately ten million people per year. This is a major restaurant operation here. The Tysons Corner location alone is a massive 10,000 s/f restaurant at the bottom floor of the VITA luxury apartment building near the new Silver line metro entrance.
So, quite honestly, I was expecting a larger corporate-ish event. The kind of event where you meet so many people that you don’t actually remember anyone or have a conversation that lasts more than the time it takes to exchange titles and business cards.
I’m happy to say, though, that this event was quite the opposite. A small, intimate section of the Mandarin Oriental DC’s Empress Lounge was set aside for the demo, which was comprised of a handful of food writers as well as the management and PR team for Earls Tysons Corner.
Oh, and the star of that evening, Cameron Bogue.
My impression of Earls can be best summed up by something Bogue said at the end of the night. As he packed up his bar utensil set, he was still beaming with energy from his beverage demo. He had spent the last hour and a half showcasing three cocktails he developed for Earls (which we’ll get to in a second), a nice perk of his role as the restaurant chain’s Director of Beverage Operations. His knowledge and enthusiasm for their beverage program–his beverage program–made it clear that Bogue was fully-immersed in a job that he loved.
As Bogue finished packing up his bar tools, I made a point to stop by and mention to him that his passion is clearly evident in what he does, but he corrected me–“It’s an obsession, really.”
And he was right. Bogue is obsessed with all aspects of cocktails. During his demo, in addition to a brief history of the libations, Bogue showed us how to make them, and also why he chose each component for the drinks. It was a charming mixture of professorial knowledge, combined with a giddiness and excitement that can’t be faked.
Bogue takes great pride in what he does and brought with him high standards for the beverage program at Earls. Each drink has its own character–some with their own specific glass (or camping mug). Juices are always fresh squeezed and all syrups are made in-house. Small steps that make a huge difference. And Bogue’s obsession isn’t just reserved for work, as some of the other Earls managers joked about his wall of spirits he had at his home and a kitchen drawer filled with, not utensils, but bottles of bitters.
So, although you might think passion and genuine obsession would be hard to find in a restaurant group the size of Earls, it was definitely present. It even extended beyond Cameron Bogue to the whole Earls team, each happy to tell their own stories within the company and their excitement for what the brand represents.
For example, Dylan Todd, the General Manager of the Tysons Corner location, has been with Earls for almost two decades, working his way up from washing dishes when he was 15 to his current role, managing one of the restaurant group’s most anticipated locations. You don’t stay with a company that long unless you truly have a passion for what it represents.
Of course, none of that passion matters if the drinks aren’t any good. Luckily, they were good. Very good.
Allow me to introduce you to a few fine libations…
This dangerously drinkable classic cocktail, Bees Knees, is the kind of drink that makes you wish for summertime and a hammock. And apparently people love to steal the honey bear glasses from Earls restaurants. No, I did not take mine with me…but I thought about it. Maybe next time…
Cabin Fever is a rustic cocktail that’s also well-balanced and, just feels plain cozy. It’s hard to not make friends over a round of these. And yes, that’s a pine cone in the mug. No, you don’t eat it, but it does help hold in the aromatics. Plus, it’s just cool. When’s the last time you had a pine cone in your drink?
Bogue’s take on this classic of all classics, the Old Fashioned. No big tricks or gimmicks here. Spirits. Sugar. Bitters. Ice. Nothing more. Don Draper would be proud.
Overall, it was a fun night of learning, laughing, good company, great conversation, and of course well-crafted cocktails. Based solely on these three drinks, I can safely say that the beverage program at Earls is an accurate and delicious reflection of Cameron Bogue’s obsession and a good omen for the food scene in Tyson’s Corner. The grand opening can’t come soon enough.
Disclaimer: I was a guest of Earls Kitchen + Bar and was provided free samples of the three fabulous drinks mentioned above; however all opinions are my own. All photographs in this post are courtesy of Earls.