The ZACH Theatre’s $22 million Topfer Theatre addition was making headlines long before it opened this past fall. The state-of-the-art space boasts a 420-seat auditorium with a 44-foot fully trapped stage and orchestra pit, as well as a large outdoor plaza, where patrons can enjoy pre-show performances against the sleek backdrop of the building itself (which was conceived, unsurprisingly, by Andersson Wise Architects, who also designed the Austin’s W Hotel).
But there’s more to the Topfer Theatre than its beautiful new facilities and the well-received productions being put on within. With the physical renovations came the birth of an inspired craft cocktail menu, thanks to innovative Food and Beverage Manager Rick Ryan.
Ryan and Adam Swank, head bartender, design about six cocktails to match each show as it runs for typically 4 - 6 weeks. Though they don’t get to preview the shows, they put much research and thought into each creation. “I go completely intense with it,” says Ryan. “At the end of the day, these are kind of our babies.”
“Frequently, after we go through a creative session, our kitchen looks like a mad scientist’s lair,” Swank adds.
They just finalized the cocktail menu for One Night with Janis, which opens on July 10. In brainstorming the cocktails, Ryan says, “I looked at the time of year, and started riffing off things like The Summer of '69, really thinking about what that meant, in total as a country, but also (in the South).”
Expect to see a lot of Southern Comfort on this cocktail menu, as that was Janis Joplin’s drink of choice, though she preferred it “straight up”... from the bottle. “It’s a liquor that has recently made some resurgence, but often gets kind of a bad name,” says Swank, though you’d never know it from their well-rounded concoctions.
The Soco Cherry Coke gives depth to a simple childhood soda by the addition of spiced, rum-infused cherries and lime notes. Summertime is a refreshing seasonal elixir, with a subtle pear essence balanced by their housemade rhubarb simple syrup. The Saint Paloma combines Dulce Vida tequila with Saint Germain, lime juice, basil and grapefruit soda for a refreshing, herbal summer cooler, served in a mason jar.
“It’s all about the perfect marriage of ingredients together, because that’s what starts your journey,” explains Ryan, who brings with him two decades of food and beverage experience, both in front and back of house. He grew up in Oklahoma, surrounded by family members who loved cooking. He bussed tables as his first job, then went on to serve, then took on roles as a prep and line cook. After a stint in college, he realized, “I couldn’t get away from how much I love cooking and hospitality and being in this environment.”
He relocated to Boston for culinary school, working as an assistant manager of a French bistro while starting his own online bakery (which he named Doris & Dixie, after the two grandmothers who were his culinary inspiration). “How I bake is a very good reflection of how I do my cocktails as well. I do not let anything hinder me from an ingredient. If it’s edible, I’ll throw it in. And I love that about food. There’s billions of possibilities and combinations that are out there waiting to be discovered. And you don’t know unless you try!” He laughs and adds, “And trust me, I’ve had a few fails!”
It was when Venezuelan restaurant Orinoco invited him to be their manager that he really became focused on building up a bar program. “That was my first crack at truly starting to craft cocktails on my own and really utilizing that culinary experience,” he says.
After getting their mojito bar up and successfully running, he went onto Merrimack Valley Country Club, where scotch and bourbon reigned over tropical, rum-based drinks. After some time there, Ryan decided to move south and research possible locations for his bakery. It was here that he was introduced to Bobbi Topfer, who brought him on, first as a consultant, and then as the full-time food and beverage manager of the theatre.
“What I love about doing cocktails here [is] there’s a direct correlation that ties the whole experience together,” explains Ryan. “You come in, grab your tickets, go pick up your drink at the bar and automatically you’re in the experience.”
The downstairs bar opens an hour and a half before showtime and the upstairs Serra Skyline Lounge opens around 9:30 p.m. for after-show drinks, an opportunity to mingle with the cast and, true to its name, enjoy a breathtaking view of the city. Half of the cocktail menu is available before the show, while half is exclusive to the lounge and available after the show.
“Come upstairs, get a shot of this beautiful skyline, have one of these awesome drinks, and talk about the show with your friends,” says Ryan. “That’s a perfect ending. That, to me, is what a night out on the town should be...You’re teaching each other something but you’re doing it in a really fun and welcoming atmosphere.”
Now that Ryan has established this interactive bar program, he’s passing the torch to Swank and moving out to L.A. to start a catering business with several friends.
“[The food will be] this beautiful hybrid,” he describes. “It’s like dustbowl Oklahoma meets dirty Louisiana South meets gastro-pub meets vegan. It’s this whole culmination because that’s how my brain works! The world of food is too vast to be pidgeon-holed into one type of cuisine. There’s too much, it’s too exciting!”
With this new venture on the horizon, parting from the ZACH is bittersweet. (I asked Ryan if he’s a bit jealous he won’t be here to create cocktails for Les Misérables in September, to which he wistfully replied, “Get me into French liqueurs and you’ve lost me!”)
“I loved having this opportunity to work in a theatre environment. It blew my mind,” says Ryan. “I mean, if you're not learning something every day, then you're not doing something right. And I was. There was a lesson I learned every single day working here. And that's an amazing thing.”