Selection: Bottled beer, wine.
When I wrote about Sbarro last year for Slate, I mentioned that one of the few things the chain had going for it was that some locations served beer. This remains true. However, they sell it at an insane markup—$5.19 for a 12-ounce bottle of Peroni, Budweiser, or Heineken. Their wine is also ridiculously expensive: full-sized bottles of bad wine go for $23.99. I ordered two breadsticks and two miniature bottles of Woodbridge by Robert Mondavi Merlot and consumed them in a cavernous underground seating area. At $5.19 apiece, they weren’t a bad deal, but I wouldn’t go there again without a good reason.
Atmosphere: The Sbarro I visited was located in the basement of Madison Square Garden but did its best to impersonate a food court, with ample seating and track lighting serving to conceal the overwhelming sadness of the entire endeavor.
Clientele: Eccentric. Seated adjacent to me at Sbarro was a man in a Christmas sweater conducting some sort of business meeting. (It was March.) This particular Sbarro is also a locus for homeless people, tourists, and homeless tourists.
Pick-up potential: Excellent. Sbarro ought to make this a key part of its marketing strategy. Sbarro attracts the sort of people who are lost, confused, and have bad judgment—the pickup artist's bread and butter.
Selection: Bottled and draft beer, wine, prosecco.
Shake Shack, the New York-based burger chain that is slowly expanding to other markets, features the widest selection of liquor by far: various craft beers in bottles and on tap ($4.50 to $5.75), red and white wine, rosé, prosecco ($18 for a half bottle). It's even got its own brand of wine: a sauvignon blanc "made for Shake Shack by Frog's Leap" (according to the menu). I ordered cheese fries and two Shackmeister Ales—made for the chain by the Brooklyn Brewery. The fries were gross and the beers tasted like the draft line hadn't been cleaned in years. But, hey, trendy!
Atmosphere: Every single Shake Shack I've ever visited has been art-directed to an obnoxious extreme, which a lot of people seem to like: Shake Shack was the only restaurant I visited where there were several other people lounging around and drinking, rather than hastily gulping their bottles of beer before jumping on the commuter rail.
Clientele: At 10:30 p.m. on a recent weeknight, the restaurant was full of slender urbanites in attractive shirts, sitting around telling humorous stories about their experiences at "salad parties"—apparently some sort of hideous potluck event in which salad is the only thing on the menu. So, basically, if you are boring and wealthy, you will love Shake Shack.
Pick-up potential: The length of the line in which you stand to order should give you plenty of time to chat up strangers.
Steak 'n Shake
Selection: Draft beer, wine.
Roger Ebert once wrote that, if condemned to death, he would choose Steak 'n Shake to cater his last meal. I wouldn’t go that far, but I’d gladly dine at Steak ’n Shake before appearing in court to contest a traffic ticket. Though the liquor selection at Manhattan’s Shake ’n Steak Signature is decidedly an afterthought, the woman at the front counter didn't blink at my order of a small fry and two 16-ounce Brooklyn Lagers—a bargain at $11.73. The beer was cold and crisp, the perfect thing with which to wash down a handful of Steak ’n Shake’s weird little shoestring fries.
Atmosphere: The place certainly felt like a typical Manhattan bar—small, crowded, and full of people on their feet. But while it was obviously going for a mid-century nostalgia theme, it was aggressively lit in a weird futuristic style, as if Gene Roddenberry had opened a ’50s-style diner.
Clientele: Displaced Midwesterners. Bust out with the first verse of “Bear Down, Chicago Bears,” and it’s likely that half the restaurant would instantly respond with a rousing “Make every play clear the way to victory.” (Note: If you actually try this, please send me the video.)
Pick-up potential: Poor. The setup does not encourage loitering, conversation, or anything but eating, drinking, and leaving.