You're sitting at the lacquered-wood bar at P*ONG, chef Pichet Ong's debut restaurant in Manhattan's West Village, which focuses on small plates and desserts. As the bartender serves a trifecta of warm date cake, chocolate financier and chevre cheesecake, the woman sitting next to you begins inquiring after the dish. Before you know it, she's tucking in, sampling the dish for herself.
This is the first time you've met her. You'll probably never see her again. But her trying your food — and you likely trying hers — is par for the course in the communal experience that's come to define dining in the bar area of many high-end restaurants.
There's a certain type of person who likes eating at the bar, says Jason Denton, one of our expert panelists and owner of Bar Milano as well as Lupa, 'inoteca and 'ino in New York City, all considered stellar spots for parking on a stool. These restaurants in particular, he says, are "a bit looser. There's a lot more action going on, and the interaction with your server and those dining nearby is more intimate."
So maybe claustrophobics should stick to table seating. But for the rest of us, eating at the bar can be an enriching, entertaining experience since you not only get to try an array of different dishes, but you get to see what goes into making them.
At the aforementioned P*ONG, the bar's standout feature is the serving station just behind it: Guests get to watch Ong and his staff prepare menu dishes such as house-cured arctic char with aniseed pastry, mission figs and maple mustard emulsion or chocolate, even pinot-noir-braised duck with kabocha tapioca, raisin and oyster mushrooms.
Similarly, at New York Bar and Grill at the Park Hyatt Tokyo, the bar is an extension of the kitchen, divided only by a glass wall, so you get an excellent "behind the scenes" view of the cooks preparing prime quality Japanese and imported beef, market fresh seafood and poultry.
Bar-focused restaurants tend to offer extensive cocktail lists as well. At the Phillipe Stark-designed Katsuya in Hollywood, Calif., the cocktail list rivals the sushi menu in originality, with drinks like the watermelon cucumber mojito, with crushed seedless watermelon, English cucumber and fresh mint mixed with Bacardi Light rum and freshly squeezed lime juice. Kevin Stuessi, president of parent company SBE, which owns Katsuya as well as The Abbey in West Hollywood, believes the bar is unique for a sushi joint. "When you think of sushi, you don't really think of a cocktail program," says Stuessi. "We've gone beyond the typical sake and plum wine."
This casual form of dining can also buffer a restaurant's bottom line, say restaurant owners. People tend to order more drinks while being served by the bartender and are in and out a bit quicker than with table seating — which means more plates are ordered over the course of an evening.
The bar-restaurant combination is becoming so popular that many newly opened dining spots have designed their entire seating plan around the bar, like Bar Blanc in New York's West Village, where guests cozy up to a marble white bar in the center of the restaurant while noshing on dishes such as sautéed sweetbreads with fresh sheep's milk ricotta and baby greens, as well as seared black cod withwilted arrow spinach, roasted salsify, celery, squid ink and saffron mussel sauce. Part-owner Kiwon Standen says that her travels in Japan inspired this concept. "Eating at the bar is typical in Japan," says Standen. "I love the informality of it."
A restaurant bar also allows those who don't want to wait two months for a reservation to get in more quickly. Maybe that's why restaurant-industry insiders claim to be avid fans of eating at the bar.
"I'm not exactly a planner, and when you're in the restaurant industry, you're busy," says Standen. "I like the idea that I can go somewhere and have great food, without making big plans."
Informality, good conversation, style and, of course, great food. That's what goes into a successful restaurant bar.