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Many of Lila's beverages possess aggressive botanical profiles—complex stews of bitter, sweet and herbal.

You don't need high-proof liquors to fix a memorable cocktail. Need proof? Sit down for a sip during happy hour at Lila, the vegetable-focused downtown Sarasota restaurant run by chefs Ryan Boeve and Arthur Lopes.

The restaurant has a license to sell beer and wine, but not liquor, which is defined generally in Florida statutes as any distilled alcoholic beverage. But the rules are flexible enough to allow eateries like Lila to offer low-proof aperitifs, vermouths and liqueurs. Just because those beverages are low in alcohol content doesn't mean they're light in flavor. Far from it. Many of the lesser-known beverages that take up space on Lila's drinks menu possess aggressive botanical profiles—complex stews of bitter, sweet and herbal.

Boeve, tasked with developing Lila's cocktails, says the restaurant isn't doing anything new. It's just updating the centuries-old aperitif tradition of European cuisines, particularly those of France and Italy, where meals would often begin with a simple drink, like vermouth on ice. "The bitterness in there opens up your palate," Boeve explains.

Lila's creations aren't just straightforward pours, though. Boeve uses existing recipes as a guide to come up with his own blends, mixing and tasting to find what works. A typical Negroni is made from gin, vermouth and Campari. Lila can’t serve gin, so he uses Cappelletti, a Campari-like wine aperitif manufactured in northeast Italy, Cocchi Rosa, a wine aperitif from northwest Italy, and France's sweet red Dolin vermouth. Mixed with a smoked sugar cube, the drink may lack the whoa-Nelly assertiveness of a classic Negroni, but it has an intricate blend of flavors all its own.

Boeve's spritz is a riff on the classic Venetian mix, with the traditional Prosecco and soda, but Cappelletti swapped in for Campari. "An American in Paris" is a traditional 50-50 mix of the French aperitifs Byrrh and Bonal, seasoned with grated orange. And the menu even includes one zero-proof cocktail, built around Seedlip Garden 108, a distilled but non-alcoholic drink with a gin-reminiscent nose.

The drinks rhyme with Lila's commitment to flavorful food that's also healthy (or at least less unhealthy), as well as the restaurant's pluck and creativity. They make for an excellent kickoff to a long meal here, but also work as an accompaniment to a quick happy hour nosh. No liquor? At Lila, that's no problem.

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