BELLY UP —
to the bar, that is,
for good old-fashioned comfort food.
Food served at the bar has come a long way from the beer nuts and beef jerky I used to gnaw on when I was 18. Back then, bar food meant racks filled with chips, pretzels, popcorn and pork rinds. If you were really lucky, you’d find bags of cheese popcorn and sour cream-and-onion and barbecue chips on those racks. Large jars of pickled, hard-boiled eggs were standard, as well as those bothersome jugs of pig knuckles staring you down.
You’ll still find many bars offering the likes of crunchy snack racks, but these days the tavern trend has moved toward serving bona fide food, and offering popcorn, should we say, is more or less considered just peanuts.
There seems to be a blurring of lines, where the restaurant ends and the bar begins, as well as the blending of ethnic and regional foods with an Epicurean flair. At the bar these days, casual, comfort food, like burgers, nachos, skins, wings, meatloaf and fish and chips, still reign. Innovative business strategies work toward bringing and keeping customers in your operation to drink as well as dine. While some restaurants offer menus specifically designed for the bar, for the most part, food served at the bar still works best when it comes from the main dining menu.
The 75-seat Noah’s restaurant in Stonington Village, CT, on Fishers Island Sound, has a menu specifically designed for folks mostly singles and couples sitting at their horseshoe-shaped bar. John Papp, co-owner since 1979, built the bar three years ago, and says “the horseshoe shape of our bar creates a sense of community and convivial conversation–people talk across it to each other all the time.”
At Noah’s, the horseshoe shape may contribute to the sense of community, but when I’ve sat down to dine at a bar, whether a stranger or not, I’ve found people there are open to conversation. Solo customers who are feeling social usually find that eating at the bar is the place to be. It’s just plain fun.
Despite the somewhat awkward seating – where to put the napkin is an issue, since with many bar stools, you really must lean in at an uncomfortable angle to eat, making it all too easy for the napkin to fall off your lap dining at the bar still offers lots of pluses, especially at locations where travelers are a key part of business. But all in all, looking goofy and tucking the napkin in your collar, or walking on the wild side without one, is a small price to pay for adventuresome dining.
Try enriching your bar quesadillas with avocado.
At Noah’s there are separate menus for breakfast, lunch, dinner and the bar all made from scratch. The ambitious bar menu covers it all, from appetizers, such as their number one seller guacamole and chips, Portuguese soup, Korean pancakes, edamame and chicken liver paté, to heartier fare like BBQ meatloaf, quiche, char-grilled spice-rubbed salmon, pan-fried flounder sandwich, vegetarian lentil bean-burgers and Rueben sandwiches.
Known particularly for their fresh seafood, at Noah’s, the location helps sell many of those items, Papp says. “You can see the water from the bar and hear the bells on the buoys clinking.” Noah’s has created a bar menu, which tends to resemble their lunch menu, to “get in at a different, lesser price point and give our customers the option of smaller portions if they’re not that hungry–and also the chance to create their own thing. We wanted to cast a wider net so people could have less expensive lighter things and we could benefit from them drinking at the bar.”
Papp says they tend to sell a lot of Martinis classic, well shaken, very cold with an olive for $5.75. Cosmopolitans are also very popular, although they sell more wine than anything else. Bar sales breakdown contributes 73% food, 11% wine, 9% liquor and 7% beer.
Allowing customers to create their own salad at Noah’s doesn’t mean waltzing through a salad bar. Equally popular during lunch and dinner, salad lovers can choose from four salad bases ranging from $3.25 to $5.25 that include a chef salad base with ham, chicken and Swiss cheese, house salad base of mixed baby greens, an iceberg wedge, or Matt’s–a variation of the house salad topped with roasted garlic, pecans, grapes and Danish blue cheese. From these bases customers can then add their own additional toppings from the salad additions list. Papp says salads at the bar are equally popular during lunch and dinner.
At Noah’s, dining at the bar is part of the plan.
Bar customers can also choose what topping to add to their Chinese noodles tossed with rice vinegar, soy and vegetable dressing, fresh vegetables and toasted almonds. Customizing Chinese noodle toppings range from $10.95 for three jumbo shrimp and $8.95 for teriyaki beef to $7.75 with chicken breast and $7.25 with vegetables.
In Colorado Springs, CO, at SouthSide Johnny’s Restaurant and Bar, diners can sit at the ‘diner-ish style’ wrap-around bar and be entertained watching the cooks prepare their food in the open kitchen. The action bar seats around 30 and accounts for about 25% of food sales according to co-owner/general manager, John Nolan.
“Bar food sales are up. With the economy going the way it is in a downturn, people aren’t eating out formally as much and instead they’re coming to more casual dining places.” Nolan says he’s also booking more company parties and believes it is economy-driven as well. “Companies aren’t willing to spend $60-$70 per person for fine dining parties anymore and instead are booking with me at $20 a person and getting platters of appetizers and two to three drinks per person.”
Nolan believes providing a decent, affordable menu goes hand in hand helping beverage alcohol sales. “If you don’t have a decent menu, they’re going to come in and drink their two happy hour beers and then go somewhere else where they can get a good meal; that’s why it’s important to provide good food,” says Nolan.
And that’s what SouthSide Johnny’s specializes in: good, down-to-earth-food. Day manager Jenny McKee says by far their SouthSide Burger is the best seller. The $5.50 double burger is griddle-cooked with double American cheese, grilled onions, shredded lettuce and topped with Johnny’s special sauce.
The $6.95 green chili enchiladas come in second baked in corn tortillas with cheddar and jack cheese–served with refried bean, lettuce and sour cream and of course smothered with green chilis. Meat loaf and fish and chips also do quite well in entrée sales department. As for appetizer sales, hot wings, nachos with the works, potato skins and the newest menu item, New York strip quesadillas “just fly out of the kitchen.”
Beer makers like Corona know how to promote beer and food.
“We sell more beer here than anything else with the food,” says Nolan, “and after that it seems like it’s all Martinis and Cosmopolitans.” Food sales don’t slow down even during their 4-7 happy hour. To help continue that momentum, Nolan just launched a $5.00 beer and burger promotion any time after 3PM, seven days a week.
MOOSE ON THE HOUSE
Back in the Midwest at The Club Tavern in Middleton, WI, considered by locals one of the greater parts of greater Madison, portion size helps dictate how good your menu is. Owner Moose Werner doesn’t do anything on a small scale, and nobody ever leaves hungry. The large round bar seats around 40 and there’s an adjacent dining room with tables for 70 or more.
Topping the popularity list is their $5.25 Moose Burger, topped with barbecue sauce, mushrooms, ham, and three cheeses Swiss, cheddar and mozzarella. “People come in all the time and order it saying they’ve heard about the Moose Burger just because it’s so big,” says Nick Zahn, assistant manager.
Their $3.45 house hash browns Moo-skis appetizer is also a hit, stuffed with bacon and onion and topped with melted Swiss cheese. Other popular menu items include B.L.T.’s, Otto This World Wings, Rueben sandwiches, fish & chips, and grilled chicken breast sandwiches with pepper-jack cheese, lettuce, tomato and remoulade sauce.
The $11.00 Kitchen Sink Burger allows the chef to grab anything he wants to go on this one, and according to Zahn, “is almost a foot tall.” Even the salads are big. Grilled chicken salad and blackened shrimp salad are two of the five 4-inch deep and 7-8-inch wide salads offered. Selling more at the bar during lunch, Zahn says, “a lot of people don’t finish the salads.”
The Club Tavern also has on ongoing promotion, called Moose’s Lunch Club. When you visit for eight lunches, the ninth is free.
The Club Tavern bar menu works right through the weekend, and that include weekend mornings as well. For $1.39, guests can get two farm fresh eggs, two strips of bacon or ham steak and buttered toast on Saturday morning. And on both Saturday and Sunday, it’s one pound of prime rib steak, called the Moose cut, and eggs, for $14.95. “We get a lot of people coming in here stopping for breakfast either on their way to or from church,” says Zahn.
SUNDAY MORNING COMIN’ DOWN
Living a stone’s throw from the Club, I know I’ve been there on Sunday morning but I don’t recall church having anything to do with it. But I am sure the Club Tavern’s Bloody Marys played a significant role. They offer nine variations of Bloodys, selling from $6.50 to $7.95 and they are all exceedingly tasty. From the Cajun to the Lim