Remember when the bar was all about drinking? Those were good, boozy times. Now even posh restaurants are treating those stools like tables and having bartenders serve your duck confit. And David Chang couldn’t be happier.
By David Chang
Wedged a*s to elbow in the center of a packed dining room, moving my fork and knife in tiny, jerky motions to avoid bumping my neighbors, I’m consumed by a single thought: Why the hell didn’t I sit at the bar?
The bar is where it’s at. This is not a new development: Think of Grand Central Oyster Bar in Manhattan, your corner bistro, every diner ever, sushi houses, and hole-in-the-wall yakitori joints. Spain and Japan have understood the superiority of bar dining for decades. But America’s best restaurants are only just starting to catch on.
In the world of fine dining—temples of culinary delight where you eat for business, or get your parents to pick up the tab when they’re in town—tables had always been considered the best spots in the house. But the truth is that maybe 10 percent of a restaurant’s space is prime-table real estate. The rest is okay at best: You’re on a banquette (smushed up), or near the bathroom (whiffs of a*s), or by the door (sucks at least two seasons out of the year). Plus, you’re subject to all the house rules—seriously, tasting menu only?—and service that’s either smothering or imperial.
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Things changed in 2003, when Joël Robuchon opened L’Atelier in Paris. It marked the return of the most dominant chef of the past century, and it was all bar and counter seating. That blew everybody’s hair back—especially when he launched another L’Atelier in New York in 2006. People were astounded by the idea that you could eat awe-inspiring food in such a low-key way. Robuchon gave the bar culinary credibility.
When I’m eating at the bar of an amazing restaurant—like, say, Del Posto, Mario Batali’s super-luxurious Italian mecca—I’m usually free from a commitment to a multi-course meal, and I never have to make a reservation. This is important, because I don’t have it together enough to make reservations.
There can be downsides, of course—especially anywhere that treats the bar like a waiting room. But you can avoid most of them by following a few rules.
1. Count the bartenders
It’s best if there are two or more: one making drinks for the room, and at least one dedicated to the bar.
2. Location, location, location
If the bar is just one long, straight line, never sit at the ends. Sitting next to the service station—where the bartender passes drinks to waiters—is the bar equivalent of sitting next to the bathroom. You’re going to get bumped, and servers are going to hate you. Wait for the middle, where you’ll be one-on-one with the bartender. (Though if the bar has any right angle, that corner is the holy grail.)
3. Don’t travel in a herd
On rare occasions you can sit four people around a corner, but really, two is the max.
4. Though do bring a date
The bar is built for dates, especially first ones. You’re right next to each other—much closer than you’d be at a table. (That’s also why the bar is a horrible spot for a breakup meal.) The bar is also perfect when you’re years into a relationship and might be running low on things to talk about. There’s nothing sadder than eating with your girlfriend and staring at your food. You need some conversational help there, and a good bartender—especially one you see regularly—can provide it.
5. Or better yet, don’t come with anyone
There are times when I really want to eat alone. When I want to drink and eat well without talking to anybody and maybe stare unapologetically at my phone.
6. Prepare to make friends
When everyone’s so close, it changes the dining experience. Out on the floor, you’re a dickhead if you overhear a conversation and chime in. Not at the bar. You connect, trade stories, then trade bites. I’ve never shared as much food with strangers as I have at the bar. You meet great people that way—you’re part of this band of outsiders within the restaurant. And for me, that’s the best possible dining experience of all.
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