When customers enter J. Paul’s restaurant in Washington, D.C., they’re smack in the middle of the bar. In fact, from the street, they get a good preview of it. “The bar drives the whole mood of the establishment,” says Drew Jackman, beverage director for Capital Restaurant Concepts. “We do a tremendous amount of business from tourism and business clients who might initially come in just for a drink or a snack, only to be pleasantly surprised by how good the food is. Then they’re likely to come back in, maybe bring some of their colleagues or clients for dinner.” The same holds true for Old Glory, another Capital concept.
Music to the ears of any restaurateur–it’s great to get that new customer to come in once, but turning them into a repeat customer is the name of the game. Giving your bar menu the attention it deserves might just help make that happen.
The challenge for the bar concept comes in the seemingly universal expectations people have for bar fare that they wouldn’t necessarily hold the restaurant menu to. By its very nature, the bar is a more informal venue, so customers rely on it for an impromptu, non-committal alternative to taking (or having to reserve) a table in the dining room. When they walk in, they might not be certain how long they intend to stay; will it be just for a quick drink or will they decide to settle in for a spell? They’re relying on a certain amount of flexibility from their hosts.
And when your customers do peruse that bar menu, you can bet that whether they are conscious of it or not, they already have some idea about what they’re hankering for. A good bar menu will operate with a touch of clairvoyance, anticipating what the bar patron’s going to want, if not necessarily offering it to them in the form they expect.
The on-going popularity of such bar staples as fried calamari, chicken wings, and nachos is testament to the power of the people’s choice when it comes to cocktail noshing. “Everyone wants ‘something like nachos’,” says f&b consultant Kathy Casey. “It’s the quintessential bar food that everyone loves but often won’t admit to.” Jackman echoes the sentiment, saying that nachos and chicken wings represent a good 20-25% of what goes out to bar patrons at J. Paul’s and Old Glory. “People simply gravitate to those chicken wings,” he says. At Old Glory, traditional fried-and-sauced Buffalo wings are available, but a signature twist they also offer are wings that have been marinated and baked before being finished over an oak-fired grill.
Signature dishes are key in your bar, just as they are in the dining room. Nachos, for one, don’t always have to come in the form of a mountain of chips and cheese. For a more posh variation, Casey suggests a bite-size alternative: single chips topped with vibrant, interesting flavors such as lump crabmeat with shredded white cheddar.
Or if Mediterranean is your theme, take it further with small triangles of toasted pita bread, topped with a chunky blend of chopped olives, feta and fresh herbs. The idea of crisp and warm and flavorful gives folks what they’re looking for.
Fried calamari with a side of aioli (garic mayonnaise) or marinara pleases to no end, but wouldn’t work at ultra-hip places like the pan-Asian Ponzu in San Francisco where it could wreak havoc on all the balanced energy customers were getting from the signature Feng Shui Cocktail. Chef John Beardsley does the job their with Chili-Salt Squid: fried squid that are tossed with lime juice, scallion, chile, house-seasoned salt and cilantro leaves, served with lime wedges for squeezing rather than a dipping sauce alongside. “It has become a crowd favorite,” says Nic Janes, Ponzu’s general manager. “We couldn’t take it off the menu.”
OLIVES MAKE THE BAR
Perhaps your operation can’t manage at that high-profile level. You don’t have to go far to come up with simple bar fare to make your own imprint on. Olives are one of the quintessential bar snacks that leave plenty of room for interpretation. Though they are ready-to-eat when they arrive in your kitchen, you can easily embellish them with some simple seasonings–crushed red chiles, chopped garlic, fresh minced herbs, citrus zest, or sprinkled spices; all can do the job of boosting an olives flavor and putting a house spin on them before serving.
Lately, the mundane edamame (in-pod soy beans) has been making the scene in Asian-style settings and even French bistro-type operations, like Rue 57 in midtown Manhattan, have introduced them to good customer response. Who knows, it may one day replace the peanut on modern bars.
Chef Amaryll Schwertner of Stars in San Francisco has managed to make a house signature of even the humble bowl of popcorn. For her “regular guy” type customers (read: none too adventurous) who often come in at the end of their work day, she treats them to popcorn with a twist: organic air-popped corn tossed with extra-virgin olive oil and sea salt and served in a lovely silver dish. She regularly livens up the popcorn with flavors like toasted cumin seed, finely minced herbs tossed with salt, or perhaps orange zest that’s been pounded with the salt before it is sprinkled over the popcorn. It makes for a fun give-away that she offers bar customers in the late afternoon, from about 3:30 to 6:00 pm.
TRADITION, MEET INNOVATION
It’s hard to deny that Spain’s famed tradition of tapas helps fuel our modern approach to bar food. With a wide variety of foods available in small portions, customers can enjoy a veritable smorgasbord of flavors and textures to nibble, with little chance of getting bored.
At Sala in New York City, owner Michael Jannetta does tapas right–thanks, in part, to regular consultation from a chef in Spain. The lounge and dining room are very captivating in mood and style, and the menu has to match.
Pinchos, or “pinches” are by-the-piece bites with loads of flavor–including Banderilla de Datil, a date stuffed with an almond, then wrapped in bacon and deep-fried (“It offers that perfect blend of sweet-salt-crunch,” says Jannetta), and Pan Tumaca con Jambon, serrano ham with tomato, extra virgin olive oil and garlic served on bread. Seven pinchos are on the menu, a complete sampling of which is available on the raciones (“rations”) menu, which offers more substantial tapas selections. Here the breadth increases to such dishes as boquerones (exquisite Bay of Biscay white anchovies) with crispy potatoes, serrano ham croquettes, tortilla espa