Sometimes the best seat in the house is a stool
“WOULD YOU LIKE A SEAT AT THE BAR?”
I don’t know how many times I’ve watched with dismay as the couple in front of me has passed on this offer. There is the exchange of looks—are you that hungry, honey? because I can wait—followed by a firm refusal that sometimes carries a note of annoyance, as if the maitre d’ or hostess has tried to pass off yesterday’s fish. A seat at the bar carries the stigma of second place, fit only for low-status walk-ins who don’t rate a real table. For most, it’s the place where you uncomfortably park for a bit while waiting for takeout.
To me, the bar is the best seat in the house. In fact, at some of our finer restaurants eating at the bar is more, not less, desirable than a table. The reason more people don’t eat at the bar is because they can’t handle it: They’re wound too tight; they lack the requisite sass. But rather than judge, I am here to help. With the right attitude, you won’t want to eat anywhere else.
First, you need to let go of the idea that because you’re at the bar you will somehow have a less comfortable, less leisurely dinner. During a recent visit to La Belle Vie, my dinner companion and I were seated at a high, deep marble counter with perfectly comfortable chairs. We felt as at home as we would have at a traditional table, and we had a splendid view of the restaurant’s comings and goings. The bartender was a charming young gentleman who was always close at hand to refresh our drink but didn’t once rush us.
If the kitchen is a restaurant’s heart, the bar is its brain, which makes it a great place to pick up information. Bartenders don’t feel as beholden to the kitchen’s propaganda as the servers—you will judge them more for their drinks than the food they bring—so you’re more likely to get an honest assessment of the menu. The other intel you’ll pick up about employees or regulars—who’s sleeping with whom, who wants to sleep with whom—is gravy, but what sweet gravy it is. Most of us will never board a train bound for Istanbul with a dossier of secret documents; this is the next best thing.
Not only do you get more choices at the bar (often you can order from either the restaurant or bar menu), but the energy is almost always more fun. The physical bar at JP’s isn’t ideal—wood bars with ridges like this are for saloons and honky-tonks, not restaurants—but the vibe can’t be beat. We sat next to a couple of regulars; between bites of superb calamari, we mused over the dubious credentials of Top Chef ’s host, flirted with the bartender, and formulated theories about whether eating at the bar is more or less healthful than dining at a table. “When you eat at the bar you consume half the calories,” said our temporary friend. “It’s a little-known fact.”
Another little-known fact is that eating at the bar doesn’t mean you have to sacrifice intimacy. While the setting encourages socializing, you are not beholden to anyone. It’s the one social context where it’s okay to talk to people and then turn your back. And even though the bartender and other staff are always around, you can carve out wonderful little moments that feel all the more private because they take place amid the chaos of eating, drinking, and filling orders.
Speaking of booze, the Town Talk Diner’s old lunch counter is one of the best restaurant bars in town, known especially for its bourbon-spiked malts. They play great music, serve fried pickles, and have frisky bartenders. During a recent visit, the owner ordered a round of shots to liven up a lull. Sitting at the bar, if you play your cards right, you can almost feel like a staffer who just got off his shift. Like the time I benefited from some extra Monkey Business malt that didn’t fit in the glass. The rest of the drink—and the bill for it—then went to some poor sap in the dining room.
Of course, with all this goodness comes responsibility. You have to be nice to the bartender. You are in cahoots. Any secrets you hear are to be kept. Any mistakes are to be forgotten. You need to be considerate of people next to you. No scenes, no arguing, no sulking. Everyone is in it together.
To get the most from your bar experience, chat up a few strangers. (If you’re stuck for something to say, ask what they ordered.) But always be ready to give people their space. For extra points, be a little cheeky with the bartender. A playful “I saw that!” after she steals a snack from the garnish tray can open the door. (Everyone likes to be treated like they’re naughty—just be prepared to play.)
You are a traveler. You’re on vacation. So the next time the hostess asks if you want a seat at the bar, pretend she’s asking if you want to go on a mini-adventure. And by all means say yes.
MORE FAVORITE BARS
Not the most comfortable bar in town, but it certainly has the best bar menu. You can make a meal out of the cauliflower fritters alone. » The Craftsman Sit at the right end of this comfortable bar and you’re also treated to a view of the restaurant’s open kitchen, which turns out fantastic pizzas topped with smoked or cured meats. » Heartland Wine Bar Chef Lenny Russo is back to amuse your bouche with the bounty of our local farms and pastures. Perfect for a weeknight meal when the dining room feels too formal. » Café & Bar Lurcat The bar is long, kinked, and sexy—and makes you look better than you deserve. It’s perfectly okay to order nothing but cocktails and fresh hot cinnamon-sugar doughnuts. » Salut Bar Américain The faux-French décor isn’t fooling anyone, but we love a mirrored bar where we can look at ourselves—and spy on other people—while we eat. The frites aren’t bad either.
Dennis Cass is a freelance writer based in Minneapolis.