No Kitchen? No Problem. These Bars Still Make a Menu Work
Air fryers, popcorn machines, tinned fish, and other ways bars create a memorable menu, minus a kitchen.
“We’re going to the popcorn bar tonight, right?” I ask my friends at least once a weekend. While there’s no bar called "Popcorn" in New York City, my friends know exactly which one I’m referring to: George & Jack’s Tap Room, a dimly lit, darts-and-pool-table dive bar that anchors one of Williamsburg, Brooklyn’s buzziest street corners. George & Jack’s is your quintessential dive bar equipped with mismatched chairs, ample seating that is fought over in ritual territorial mating dances, and plenty of beer and well cocktails. Besides immaculate vibes and well-dressed patrons nailing the balance between casual effortlessness and “I’ve been thinking about this outfit all day,” George & Jack’s has a device that secures their spot in the upper echelon of cool: a self-serve popcorn machine that dishes out delicious, intoxicatingly scented movie-theater style popcorn. Best of all? It’s totally free.
While George & Jack’s popcorn machine has become a focal point for the bar, it’s also key to their business since any establishment seeking a liquor license in New York City must serve food. Liquor licenses are notoriously difficult to get throughout the entire US and rules differ from state to state, even within major cities. Licensing fees throughout the country can range from $5 in South Carolina to well over $10,000 in Utah. For many states, though, serving food is a must, even though bars are rarely equipped with full-service kitchens.
When faced with the issue of serving food with limited space, equipment, and resources, bars are forced to be creative and sometimes even a little scrappy. While George & Jack’s self-service popcorn is a memorable addition to their classic dive bar aesthetic, it does allow them to legally maintain their liquor license since they don’t have a food menu and serve exclusively drinks otherwise. Other bars have sought out more ambitious food programs despite not having a formal kitchen. Read on for everything you need to know about how to serve food at a bar with no kitchen — by which I mean no large appliances, hood, or burners, but something more than a sad bag of chips hanging from a string behind the bar.
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Pick the right appliances
Making bar food without major appliances — or even a deep fryer — can be tricky. To prepare food at a bar without these, turn to tabletop appliances. At 169 Bar, a dive bar in New York’s Two Bridges neighborhood, bartenders serve up $5 paper cups of previously frozen dumplings and empanadas that have been warmed in a microwave. While they're essentially mediocre dorm food, these bites are a welcome respite during a long night out and taste so much better after a few beers.
Just a few blocks away, Accidental Bar, a sake bar in the East Village, seeks a more ambitious approach to food — and it happens to be the kitchen where I gained my restauant chops the year after graduating college. The 30-seat bar has a dedicated cook each night and serves a succinct menu which, when eaten in full, is a proper dinner for two. Cooks lean on the convection magic of air fryers to roast mushrooms, make toast, crisp potatoes, and even dehydrate fruit. “With a confined space each tool you keep needs to have multiple and specific uses. Air fryers served as the workhorse of our space,” says Jordan Larsen, former chef at Accidental Bar.
In a one-cook prep, the chefs at Accidental Bar masterfully toggle between two dual-basket air fryers, where eggs soft boil at a low temperature in one basket while the other roasts potatoes at high heat. The “kitchen” at Accidental Bar is a narrow corridor — which can fit approximately 1.5 humans — with metal shelving packed to the brim with an air fryer, a single hot plate, and a small toaster oven, among other cooking utensils. Around the corner is an 4-foot open top refrigerator with a 6-inch work surface. Needless to say, it's tight.
Prep well and often
Mise en place, or kitchen prep for the non-Francophile or Chef’s Table-obsessed among us, is an important part of any smooth restaurant service. When it comes to cooking without a real kitchen it is crucial. “You can make more magic happen during service if you have lots of prep ready at your fingertips,” says Corrissa Colamartini, Lois Bar alum and current chef at Accidental Bar, which both have prep stations made for a single cook during service. “Being well prepped eliminates steps during service which is important when you are working solo in a kitchen.”
In large kitchens, ample room in fridges means that certain ingredients can be prepped in batches and last for a few days before needing to be replenished. When space is tight, more frequent prep is common — think roasting five potatoes once a day instead of fifteen every three days.
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Menu plan to fit the circumstances
Even swankier spots are forced to navigate the issue of making food without a formal kitchen. At Darling, a rooftop bar in the Park Lane Hotel overlooking Central Park on New York’s Billionaires Row, the menu is planned with their limitations in mind, highlighting raw dishes served cold. Their gorgeous seafood, caviar service, and elevated crudites can be assembled in a small prep area with limited equipment.
The food at Darling is just one example of how bars deftly craft menus around the constraints of the physical space, a key aspect to setting up a team for success. “It can be frustrating to dream up a new dish and realize that the idea wouldn’t adapt well to your setup,” says Larsen, who planned the opening menu at Accidental Bar.
“The constraints can also help narrow your creative focus when you consider the strict confines within which to dream and design," Larsen continues. "The first menu was the hardest because we didn’t exactly know how it would all flow together during a busy service. With these parameters you budget your time differently, but when it’s a slow night you get the chance to test new things.”
Some bar menus, though, need decidedly less planning and preparation. Like any good sticky-floored, cash only, half-functioning jukebox joint, Philly-based dive bar Bob & Barbara's has a succinct menu of pre-made snacks that get prepared by simply adding hot water or cracking open a package. The menu boasts not just one, but three flavors of instant ramen, a good old bag of chips, cookies, and snack mix (which is made in-house, by the way). For folks looking for heartier bites, Bob & Barbara’s encourages take out from a restaurant next door — a move used by many bars seeking partnerships with nearby restaurants.
Serve both hot and cold
Besides beverage fridges, bars often have limited refrigeration space, and nearly never have a walk-in fridge. To mitigate this, many bars look toward tinned fish and other conservas for heartier plates that come together with just a few accouterments like herbs and bread. Maiden Lane, another buzzy bar in New York’s East Village has a “Tin Shop” where bargoers can purchase canned fish and shellfish to take home, but they also offer a composed tinned fish plate that comes with herbs, flaky salt, torn bread, and mayo. Aside from a few small fridges, Maiden Lane has a rotating toaster which they use to warm bread for simple sandwiches and bruschetta, and make crostini to serve with prepared whitefish dip. A single hot plate allows for quick quesadillas and even bacon. Plenty of dishes, like their dive bar cucumber-and-cream cheese tea sandwiches, are served cold.
My personal dream bar would have dive-y vibes and bubbly wine on tap with a menu consisting of microwave-ready pizza pockets, single-serve sleeves of Oreos, and plenty of iced cold green grapes. Whether or not I open that dinky bar one day, or work at another wine or sake bar, serving food without a kitchen is a challenge, but that is easily navigable and can incite wonderful creativity. It can lead to some of the most memorable experiences for diners where the name of your bar gets forgotten in lieu of the free food you might serve.
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