Matt Curtis has raised the subject of beer in restaurants again. It's always a popular topic; most beer people would love to have a choice of interesting beers to drink before, during or after a meal, but the fancier restaurants get, the more obstinately they seem to stick to extremely un-fancy beer.
One bit of writing where a smart restaurant does sell beer is in Dorothy L Sayers' 1933 novel Murder Must Advertise. A middle-class advertising clerk doing some rather incompetent detective work has clumsily tailed his quarry to Simpson's in the Strand, a restaurant well above his pay-grade. There he sits, tense and irritable, struggling with the business of ordering his lunch and an accompanying drink.
“What will you drink, sir?”
“Lager,” said Willis, at random.
“Pilsener, sir, or Barclay's London Lager?”
“Light or dark, sir?”
“Light—dark—no, I mean light.”
“Large light Pilsener, sir?”
“Yes, no—damn it! Bring it in anything that's got a hole in the top.” There seemed no end to the questions that could be asked about beer
I think that maybe this hints at one reason - beyond tight margins, beyond lack of knowledge, beyond, in a narrow sense, snobbery - that restaurants might chose not to serve better beer and coffee.
When we go out, we tend to want to go to places where we feel at home, places that give us constant little reassurances that we belong there and should feel at ease. Offering people stuff that they don't understand - even if they don't have to order it, even if your friendly staff are eager to help them to navigate their way through it - undermines that. It says, this is a place for people who understand about this stuff - people who know and care about the difference between wit and weizen, or between a long black and a batch brew. Look at the way that people say "I just want a black coffee" or "I just want a pint of beer" - it isn't just a request for a drink, it's a prickly, defensive statement of identity from someone who feels challenged and excluded by a list of options that they don't understand.
People with the money and inclination to eat in a fancy restaurant are paying, at least in part, to feel like they're epitome of good taste. But in practice, while they can probably be expected to know enough about food to navigate the menu, and at least enough about wine to know that asking the sommelier for a recommendation isn't an admission of defeat, they are currently relatively unlikely to know or care much about craft beer of third-wave coffee. And when a traditional fine-dining restaurant restricts its beer list to a macro lager and a well-known bottled bitter or offers catering-grade dark roast coffee rather than single-estate Arabica, it isn't just cutting costs, it's reassuring the majority of their customers that there's nothing wrong with their lack of interest in either.