I eat out six nights a week, always meeting two or three friends for reviewing dinners. So I can’t quite say when eating at the bar finally crept into my consciousness. Maybe it was in September, when Manhattan’s Le Bernardin, staid and very properly French, installed a lounge and introduced a menu up front along with a shocking “no jacket required” policy. “Even some of our regulars want to eat at the bar,” chef and co-owner Eric Ripert observes. “And not just for a quick snack. Maybe they’re alone. Or they’re in a hurry. We have two women who eat only at the bar now. They order from the regular menu.”
While waiting for a booth to clear at chef Laurent Tourondel’s Arlington Club Steakhouse on the Upper East Side, I was fascinated by the raucous bar scene. Barely visible behind a noisy clot of great-looking guys and savvy millennial couples sipping cocktails and waiting for tables to turn was a pair of svelte dames, spike heels tucked into bar-stool rungs, sharing a steak, oblivious to the clubby din. Surreptitiously scoping out the pickup potential, I imagined.
When, I wondered, did bars—in restaurants high and low, uptown and down, at taverns and neighborhood hangs—become so cluttered with eaters that determined drinkers are forced to guzzle on the perpendicular, blocking the aisle, jostling up against tables? Chef Alfred Portale recalls perfecting black-painted wooden boards to span a break in the bar and make dining easier at the Gotham Bar and Grill almost 20 years ago, when he noticed that nearby Union Square Cafe was making noise with its bar menu.
I remember how my cousin Mitch and his wife, Alison, showed up once a week at Lupa, Mario Batali’s instantly popular, no-reservation-required Roman-style trattoria. With hopefuls lined up outside, they perched at the bar. They drank and ate and drank until one day they were perceived as regulars and offered a table.
Tonight I’m solo and anonymous at Gotham, trying to scope out the bar-eating etiquette. The Friday-night jam waiting for tables is three deep, hands reaching for drinks between tall leather stools mostly claimed by bar diners. I look for a spot where coffee and a check seem imminent.
“You better tell the bartender you’re waiting,” a diner-about-to-exit warns me. I catch the bartender’s eye between a margarita and a spritzer. Kenneth, Gotham’s guardian of the 20-seat bar for a decade, could be a Hindu god with multiple arms, scribbling dinner orders with one hand, tapping the terminal with another, swizzling cocktails with a third. The busboy clears dishes. I hover.
“You can sit down now,” Kenneth says, smiling at me. “This is your home for the evening, my dear.” Just like that, I’m not really alone. I have Kenneth checking in and my-dear-ing me. Then there’s chatty Trevor on my right, discoursing on what makes a great negroni. And on my left, a nameless bar- eating regular grabs my stool when it starts to tip, helps me switch to a sturdier seat and recommends the chicken.
I haven’t been here in a long while. I love Portale’s embellished American cooking. If I gave stars, he’d get four from me. I order the $125 tasting menu and a French Syrah blend, a $10 glass that sells for $16 here. Actually, a very generous pour in a beautiful goblet. I’m assuming the eaters around me couldn’t get a table, maybe decided on dinner at the last minute or saw the house’s raves online and arrived solo too.
Since he went on the road selling wines and usually dines alone, my Neapolitan friend Francesco has become a connoisseur of bar eating. In Los Angeles he favors Cecconi’s for the “great-looking barmaids” and the comfy chairs (“unlike the torturous stools everywhere else”). “The bar is open and airy, with a view of the room that makes for a convivial vibe. I’ve had luck meeting women there.”
In San Francisco, he prefers the bar at Zuni Café because it’s open till midnight on weekends, “which is late by San Francisco standards.” He’s a fan of the marvelous chicken for two. “So if I meet another single at the bar, I normally suggest we share the chicken.”
Francesco is a fan of the Spanish chef José Andrés and his tapas at Jaleo in Washington, D.C. “It has great service and a great choice of sherries. I run into other European expats like me who know tapas are best enjoyed at a bar counter.” Craigie on Main is his Boston-area call for excellent bar fare and killer cocktails, “especially since it serves a three-course prix fixe in the dining room.” In Chicago, he likes the Publican: “Great atmosphere at fantastic, tall cocktail tables, beautiful people and really good bar food, oysters to charcuterie.”
My friend Barry Wine—the influential chef of the top-rated Quilted Giraffe till he got bought out by Sony—introduced me to the elegance of lunch at the bar of La Grenouille, with its signature explosions of flowers in every corner. “It’s easier to get your second and third drink if you’re eating at the bar,” he observes. “At La Grenouille, Bryan the bartender is already shaking my next Tanqueray cocktail while I still have a few sips left in my glass. No matter how often you go to a restaurant, you rarely get the same waiter [twice]. But Bryan is always there at the bar. He remembers what I ate, what I liked the last time, and he’s discreet about who I was with.”
Barry likes the brie stuffed with black truffles and Friday’s lunch special, pot-au-feu with horseradish cream. “A seat at the bar has a great view of the coming and going. I can say hello or goodbye to people I know.”
As for me exploring the bar scene, maybe I shouldn’t have ordered Gotham’s tasting. But the season for Nantucket Bay scallops is short, and I have a weakness for squab. Alas, it’s taking forever. If I were falling in love with my date or even flirting with a neighbor, I might not mind. Now it’s already 11 and I’m alone. The restaurant is full, but the bar is a desert with no Lawrence of Arabia in sight.
“May I top off your glass, my dear, so you can enjoy the wine with your squab?” Kenneth asks, making a hefty pour, half-filling my glass again. The squab is rare and delicious.
I warn him I’m fading fast. “Quickly, please, dessert,” I beg. At last: yuzu crème on a sable Breton with yogurt sorbet, matcha tea crumble and two kinds of powder with a veil of pulled sugar. The critic in me finds it too gussied up. But I’m wild about the intense little midnight-chocolate, vanilla and pistachio trufflish squares that come with the check. Knees stiff, I stagger to the coat check. Guess I’m not the adventuress I thought I was. Next time I eat at the bar, I’ll bring a friend.