Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Barfly's Beat: Eating at the Bar

The bar ain't just for drinks!
Most people think of the restaurant bar as a place to grab a pre-dinner drink or lounge post dessert. Casual diners do not realize that in New York, bar seats in many establishments are as coveted as Manhattan real estate. The cognoscenti, who actually enjoy the camaraderie and directness of a bar meal, know that eating at the bar is much more that a pit stop. It is the destination. In premium eateries that have a bar scene, you need a virtual (and sometimes literal) reservation or at least know the bar staff to acquire a seat. Once you get that seat, you stay for a while ...a long while.

Last week I was eating at the bar in The Waverly Inn in New York's Greenwich Village. The snarky Douglas S. was behind the counter and as unspoken decorum demands, I signaled that I would like a Michter’s Straight Rye Manhattan (up) and a bar seat when one became available. The place was Thursday night crowded but the thought of John DeLucie’s perfectly cooked pork chop or Hudson Valley free-range chicken potpie and the general atmosphere of the place beckoned. I waited very patiently - like a “Saint” they would later say - cocktail in right hand, trench coat over left arm, felt fedora in free hand – for the other diners and drinkers to finish up and vacate the occupied seats. But I wasn't hurried or nervous about fighting for a spot, I know the drill. Though the place was filling up fast the next one would be mine. Some new patrons (who seemed a bit tipsy) "asked" already sat customers if they could get their seat but Douglas advised them in his signature direct manner that "this gentleman" (meaning moi)was next one on line. Now, there is no line at WI per se. It is more like a mob of folks sipping drinks waiting for their impossible to get table reservations and hoping to get a seat while they wait. But there are unwritten rules that transcend the specific establishment. In addition to first come, first serve - there are three simple rules I follow in restaurant bars – especially the good ones - that always get me in.

1. If you want a seat, kindly ask the bartender when they think one will be available for dinner and ask to be seated next. (Respect and courtesy can go far, even in this town)
2. Order a drink and keep the tab open. (This lets them know you are serious about sitting for a while)
3. Do not hover behind and upset seated customers. (First it is rude, second it will not get you the seat any faster)

My bar dinner at The Waverly Inn actually lead to another one this past weekend which I have to say was one of the best. While I was enjoying an after dinner Fernet Branca I recognized Igor, one of the superb bartenders and a proprietor of Employees Only. Since EO opened, Igor has made me countless cocktails and always made our crew feel first class when we walked through the door. He knows me as one of those guys who is serious about cocktails and invariably ends up having chicken soup late night. So I decided to buy him a drink and we got to chatting. I told him about my eating at the bar philosophy and he asked if I had ever had dinner at EO’s bar. To his amazement I told I had not and only sampled their killer Serbian chartucerie platter on occasion. Well he insisted I stop by the next time I had a chance and try it out.

Well the opportunity came the Saturday before Christmas. I figured the place would not be so crowded what with half of Manhattan heading back to see their families and I was spot on. Igor was outside having a smoke and welcomed me in with open arms. I got my usual seat (I like to occupy the "dugout" area of a bar for a sweeping view of the room). Starting out with a Negroni aperitif, I followed with a robust Super Tuscan when dinner arrived. The dinner menu was actually quite diverse but as soon as I saw Juniper Braised Rabbit I knew I was sold.

I began with crispy sweet breads over red globe grapes and fried capers.
For my entrée, I had no choice but to take the braised rabbit over creamy polenta and roasted veggies.
I topped the meal off with the dark chocolate cheesecake with banana whipped crème paired with a double espresso caffe corretto with Jacopo Poli grappa.

More grappa followed and then few other custom crafted cocktails such as the Ramos Gin Fizz and an Aviation. The conversation flowed with other bar patrons while Igor and fellow principal bartender Jose made sure my glass was never empty until I called it a night. The experience was exceptional because I felt as if I discovered a gem that had been under my nose the whole time. EO had outstanding food, impeccable and sincere service, and the experience was perfect way to kick off the holiday weekend.

Other Loungerati eating at the bar favorites:
1.Freemans – go for the seasonal cocktails, stay for the Venison Stew.
2.Balthazar – simply stop in for a plateaux des fruits de mer and a carafe of Sancerre on a lazy Saturday afternoon and you will understand.
3.Blue Ribbon – Brooklyn or Sullivan Street locations are winners. The attention to detail, raw bar, bone marrow, plus potent nightcaps make it a crowd pleaser year after year.
4.Bar Tabac – Sunday brunch with soccer on the flat screen and Michael Arenella jazz next to the bar. Throw in their Eggs Bar Tabac (baked eggs, ratatouille, and merguez sausage) and you stay for dinner!

So next time you consider a meal at the bar, remember that it is much more than chicken wings or nachos on a Sunday afternoon. Nor is it simply tapas or small plates before a sit down dinner. Whether you go solo or with a friend or on a date, the bar eating experience is communal and hardly ever solitary. Good bartenders are engaging and as long as you respect the unwritten code of securing a seat, you will be rewarded with a great dining and drinking experience … and heck a shot of Fernet may suddenly appear in front of you on the house.

- Fredo


  1. You got some kind of life. Next time you're here, we'll have to explore the restaurant bars this way out.

  2. Oh indeed. I want to post an article on Chicago eats..preferably at the bar ;).