You can’t get a reservation.
You’ve tried, a little, and it was either 5:30 or 9:30 blue plate special, or NYC dining time.
Or you’re traveling, and didn’t have time to research ahead to make a reservation.
So, do you stay in your hotel room and eat a sad club sandwich? Or do you just stay home and watch bad TV?
In case you haven’t heard, bar dining has been one of the biggest shifts in restaurants in the last 10 years. Yes, you can eat at the bar. Yes, you can have an equally quality experience. Arguably, it can be a better experience. We’ve had some of our best experiences eating at the bar. Bar sitting, for the sake of this missive, includes chef’s counter, kitchen counter, or any other counter seating as well. (Caveat: in Europe, bar dining and chef’s counter dining is in its infancy. Le Terroir Parisien and Willi’s Wine Bar in Paris are the exception. See the Paris entry for reference). And, the best part is, no reservations needed.
What if you walk in and the bar is full? The great thing about bars is that people move much quicker. Some are there for drinks only, others waiting for a reservation.
So here’s a few strategies to nab those bar seats if it’s busy:
The stealth hover:
Do an assessment of all the people seated. First look for checks that have been delivered or credit cards that have come out. If not, look for empty glasses or finished dessert plates. There’s your target.
Order a drink from the bartender and you stand somewhere within lunging distance. You drink. You hover. But, be cool about it, not stalker-like.
Do a quick room scan and find the power. It’s usually the bartender, sometimes the host. Be nice to them. Smile. Don’t demand. Order a drink and simply say I’d love a few seats at the bar for dinner. Is anyone close or being seated soon? The caveat here is you have to be a little charming and actually nice. If you are, it can work, and they help you get priority if people are waiting.
Let me buy you a dessert:
If there’s no motion at all, target the Chardonnay chicas. It’s usually two – three women that are gossiping and catching up, and impossibly not moving, even though white wine is gone or almost gone and has been for an hour (sorry for the stereotypes, but as a woman, I can get by with it). Hang out near them for a bit and look for an opening to offer to buy them dessert.as bribery for their stools when they leave. If you deliver in a really nice, funny way, it has worked several times. Since this tactic is the most weird, only use in an emergency.
Now you’re golden. The inside scoop is that the bartenders often know the menu best, and will give you an honest assessment of what they like, not deliver a script. For many places there’s a bar menu available at the bar, so you have your choice of the bar menu or full dining menu. (There’s only one place we’ve seen recently that made the critical error of not serving the full menu at the bar. Rebelle in LES of NYC. If you’re an owner, don’t do this. Ever.)
Bartenders are also great in coming up with drink ideas and new things. It can be a balance of a social and great dining experience. Whatever you want it to be.
And, if the owner or designer did a good job, the bar is one of the best places to eat. Comfortable, interactive and a great vantage point.
Look around when you’re sitting there and assess whether they did a good job:
- Did they choose a 20-minute stool? That’s what we call a chair selection designed to get your ass moving, not hanging out (you, not your ass). There is always a debate between backless and stools with backs. It needs to fit the brand experience, but most bar diners hate completely backless. Bar drinkers and strictly social groups mind quite a bit less.
- Does the bar have a lip that prevents you from getting close enough to your plate, or from resting your elbows on the edge? Rookie mistake. We know, we’ve made it (200 bar designs ago).
- Is there a good, well-lit liquor display? Many places spend a lot of real estate and energy on a great back bar of liquor. And, they don’t light it well, or at all.
- Lighting overall. Lighting often makes or breaks a restaurant experience. Some customers can’t pinpoint what it is they don’t like, and most often, it’s lighting. Over illuminated, or lights on people, not surfaces and features, is the kiss of death
- If you eat at the bar, do they provide a decent set up? Or do they just give you silverware? Sometimes a simple napkin as a placemat, and roll-ups and plates provide that “yes, you can eat here.”
- Great bars and bartenders keep the bar top clean, but use good clutter. Good clutter is the tools of the trade, fruit, mixes, herbs, bitters, really anything that provides good theater. Bad clutter is a seemingly unclean bar top, a sticky bar top, or crumbs. All bad.
- Purse hooks (or as “he” says, pocket book hooks). For your bag, purse, sweater. Not having these is akin to not providing toilet paper in the bathroom. Some owners/designers use expensive materials on the bar front (die wall in design terms), light the face of the bar and forget hooks. Aren’t there supposed to be people sitting there? Why all the money on the front of the bar? To light people’s legs and shoes?
- 420+ options of beer and cocktails. Craft beers and great cocktails have been a great shift in the restaurant experience. But, please. Be a bit more curated and decisive. Options are good, overwhelming is not.
- It needs to be appropriate. You’ll never please everyone with sound, but use common sense and allow for conversation. The only place loud pounding music is appropriate is the places with 420+ beers.
Here are some other bad examples we’ve seen lately:
- Fixed stools. Looks good in photos, but that’s it. There is never a magic formula to make fixed stools comfortable.
- Posting of all required licenses in direct view of bar sitters. There are so many places you can put these to still have in view, and not be the focal point for customers.
- Blue toned lights (cold, white fluorescents) in the restroom. Do you want me to look dead so I leave early? Try making me look good so I order another bottle of wine.
The Quick Hit List:
Where are good bars to eat and drink? Here’s only a few:
“Some Good Bars for Dinner” (US Only)
- SPQR, San Francisco
- AQ, San Francisco (clever chef’s counter idea)
- Bestia, Los Angeles
- Spoon & Stable, Minneapolis
- Bar La Grassa, Minneapolis (chef’s counter or bar)
- Butcher & the Boar, Minneapolis
- Meritage Oyster Bar, St. Paul
- Nico Osteria, Chicago (chef’s counter)
- XOCO, (Wicker Park) Chicago
- Au Cheval, Chicago
- Girl & the Goat, Chicago (we’ve bought desserts there before in exchange for seats)
- Saxon & Parole, New York
- Cherche Midi, New York
- Upland, New York
- ABC Cocina, New York
- Freeman’s Alley, New York
- Estela, New York
- Tico, Washington DC
- Le Diplomate, Washington DC
- Hank’s or Pearl Dive Oyster Palace, Washington DC
- Domenica, New Orleans
- Peche, New Orleans
- Cochon, New Orleans
- Neptune Oyster Bar, Boston
- Bricco, Boston (old school North End Italian)
- B&G Oysters, Boston
- 9 Park, Boston
- Row 34, Boston