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When it comes to soda, some restaurants don't do diet

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Jason Kosmas and Milos Zica of Employees Only in New York City sort through fresh mint for the night's drinks. The restaurant uses fresh herbs and homemade liquors but no diet soda in its drinks. (Amanda Angel/CNS)

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Employees Only, a restaurant in New York City, uses fresh fruits and herbs in its drinks, but not diet soda or artificial sweeteners. (Amanda Angel/CNS)

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Jason Kosmas, an owner of Employees Only in New York City, takes a drink order at the bar. The restaurant has a wide selection of artisanal liquors but no diet soda. (Amanda Angel/CNS)

Slick investment bankers and thin women carrying thin cell phones sat at the bar at Employees Only in Manhattan waiting for mixologists--exalted bartenders in chef’s whites--to serve up candy-colored drinks.

Behind them, a slim waitress took a drink order at a table in the dining room. A rumpled man, sitting down at the table after a Monday’s worth of work, asked for a Diet Coke.

“We don’t have Diet Coke,” she replied.

“Diet Pepsi, then,” he said.

The waitress smiled demurely. “We don’t serve diet soda," she said. "It’s a matter of principle.”

The man opted for a glass of tap water instead.

As eateries across the country scramble to accommodate current dieting fads and provide healthier and lower-calorie meal options, a few holdouts are resisting the trend.

The beverage choice at these restaurants and bars is less about health and more about an aesthetic. Unlike health-food restaurants that eschew artificial sweeteners because they are not natural products, these restaurants pride themselves on serving the best-tasting ingredients whether they arrive on a plate or in a glass.

Dushan Zaric, an owner of Employees Only, believes he is defending the American palate against artificial flavors and chemically engineered ingredients. He and the four other owners decided early in their planning stages for the restaurant that they would stock no diet soda, which Zaric said tastes “like children’s medicine with bubbles.”

The restaurant also doesn’t serve artificial sweeteners, skim milk, soy milk or light beer.

“We want to protect what’s real,” Zaric said.

In Philadelphia, Ray’s Happy Birthday Bar tries to maintain a Depression-era tavern aesthetic. It has a trough from the 1930s that runs the length of the bar and jazz music on Thursday nights. It serves RC Cola, but not Diet RC. Lou Cappozzoli, who is Ray’s son and now runs the bar, has resisted the lure to serve diet soda.

“We get requests for diet, maybe a few a month,” said Rose Cappozzoli, Lou’s wife. But her husband doesn’t plan to add the diet selection to the menu.

Over the last two years, sales of diet soda, as well as all carbonated drinks, have declined slowly, according to John Sicher, the editor in chief of Beverage Digest, a publication that covers the nonalcoholic beverage industry.

Even so, as of 2005, Diet Coke was the third most popular nonalcoholic drink sold in the country, behind regular Coke and Pepsi.

“It would be very surprising to see a restaurant that doesn’t serve diet soft drinks,” Sicher said. He added that diet colas were still popular choices in restaurants, and usually sold as an alternative to the regular sugary drinks.

Diet sodas have also escaped the scrutiny that regular sodas have received from politicians trying to curb the incidence of obesity. Former President Clinton crusaded successfully to take regular sodas out of school cafeterias last year as a way to combat childhood obesity. However, under his plan, high schools were still allowed to sell diet sodas.

In New York City, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg approved a measure to ban unhealthy trans fats in restaurants in December. He also initiated a program to put healthier options like fresh vegetables and skim milk in bodegas around New York City.

“Diet soda isn’t our fight,” said Jason Post, a spokesman for the mayor.

Cesar, a pair of Spanish restaurants in the San Francisco Bay Area, offers diners tapas dishes and to wash them down, Austrian fruit syrup sodas, sparkling Alsatian lemonade, Jamaican ginger beer and Pepsi, but no Diet Pepsi.

“I always find it ironic when someone orders a diet Pepsi along with a creme brulee,” said Richard Mazzera, one of Cesar’s co-owners. The closest thing he has to light beer is a pilsner. And when the wait staff puts down a plate of sweeteners for coffee drinkers, it contains only sugar cubes and sugar packets.

“If they’re worried about calories, then they’ll order water," Mazzera said. "That’s probably better for them anyway.” He does not drink diet soda, but his daughter does. When she is at Cesar, she mixes herself an Italian soda.

Dale DeGroff, the self-proclaimed king of cocktails, was one of the first bartenders to demand the same quality of ingredients for a beverage as a Michelin Star-rated chef would serve with a meal, and made a name for himself at the Rainbow Room and Aureole in New York City.

As for diet drinks, “It’s a nonissue,” he said. “There’ll always be Diet Coke behind bars. And the more high-end restaurants have it, the more skinny rich ladies will drink it.”

Jared Brown, a seasoned bartender who co-wrote the book “Shaken Not Stirred: A Celebration of the Martini” and the Web site of the same name, applauded Employees Only and Cesar for their decision.

“Did they ask da Vinci to paint with washable paints?" Brown said in an e-mail message. "Would you ask Emeril Lagasse to use margarine? Should Ferraris be built with four-cylinder engines to conserve on fuel consumption? Any bartender who takes this stance is a true professional, an artist, and has my unflagging respect.”

Neither Zaric, Mazzera nor Cappozzoli said their anti-diet policy affected their customers or their business. About twice a month, Mazzera says he comes across a diner thirsting for a Diet Pepsi, so he must explain the restaurant’s policy. The confusion isn’t as vexing as introducing some Bay Area denizens to the idea of a tapas bar.

“People come in thinking we’re a topless bar,” he said. “That’s a bigger problem.”

E-mail: aa2524@columbia.edu