The contemporary American bar menu has come a long way since pretzels and bar nuts.
Today, anything goes.
Roast chicken hangs in there
as a leading bar menu item.
by Rona Gindin
photograph and food styling
by Marisa Pellegrini
At Pat’s Bar & Grill in St. Louis, it’s fried brains between two slices of white; at the Astor Place Bar & Grill in Miami Beach, it’s spicy jerk-seared tuna; and at the Karl Strauss Brewery & Grill in San Diego, it’s calamari friti with a chile aioli tartar sauce. It’s All-American bar food, those munchies and little meals tailored to the customers, atmosphere and location of each operation, and as a food category, it’s as strong as ever.
These spicy, savory small-portioned items designed for the bar crowd tend to be great check-builders for any establishment. “Bar food can definitely be a great add-on sale for someone coming for a quick drink,” notes Michelle Thomas, director of advertising and marketing for national chain T.G.I. Friday’s. “Customers will smell the restaurant’s food and order an appetizer; then other customers see that appetizer and order one for themselves. The sales feed off each other.”
While pub grub menus are as dissimilar as today’s theme bars, corner taverns and brew pubs, bar food shares some common denominators across the spectrum.
Finger foods remain overwhelmingly popular with the barstool set for the obvious reasons–convenience, casual comfort and the promotion of a sharing social atmosphere at the bar. For pub-style establishments, the menus presented at the bar and at tables are often identical. And full-service restaurants with busy and separate bar areas often provide any menu item to bar patrons, too.
At Astor Place and other restaurants with creative chefs, bar menus are often composed of selections from the kitchen’s eclectic appetizers. Besides jerk-seared tuna, Astor Place’s bar noshers can indulge in such “indigenous Florida cuisine” options as yellowtail snapper soft tacos served with baby greens, avocado tartar sauce and salsa fresca with a vegetable tortilla salad ($8.95) or a barbecue shrimp “Martini” with chipotle cocktail sauce ($9.95). “We offer our entire menu at the bar, but most bar customers order an appetizer if they’re buying food,” notes food and beverage director Steve Mann.
Gary Strack, general manager and self-described guru of Cambridge, MA’s Miracle of Science Bar & Grill favors a small, high-quality fun menu over standard pub fare for the 25-to-35-year-old post-college professionals who arrive for the local microbrews. Scrawled on a chalkboard, each day’s menu features about 10 items priced under $9. Kebabs are common, including lamb with an Indian mint yogurt sauce, chicken with a satay sauce and dry-rubbed beef served with apricot blatjang, a West African chutney. “We’re trying to be a cut above the nachos and chicken fingers you normally get when you go to a bar,” Strack explains.
Brewpubs, while usually not the first to incorporate cutting-edge culinary developments, are reliable indicators of bar food trends. At the Karl Strauss Brewery and Grill, upscale versions of simple appetizers such as beer-battered onion rings, spicy buffalo wings, spinach and garlic dip and calamari are strong sellers, as is the beer-friendly sausage sampler, featuring Polish sausage, bratwurst and bockwurst, served with whole grain, Dijon and honey mustards. Also popular are grilled chicken skewers, smoked mozzarella and pepper Jack cheese served with salsa fresca, avocado salsa and black beans.
Convenience plays a big role in bar food success as well. Like many establishments, The Copper Bar at Laurel, a San Diego hotspot where jazz musicians play every evening, generates dinner orders from customers initially intending to sit in the dining room after cocktails but who instead remain at the bar. “Often people start in the bar then say, ‘Forget the table, I’m going to stay at the bar,” says manager Jack Jaeger. “We serve a chicken cooked in clay pot, which takes a half hour to cook. Often customers will order that, listen to jazz and before they know it, the half hour has gone by.” As at T.G.I. Friday’s, one order begets another, Jaeger points out. “Once the pot is opened, the scent permeates the room and 10 more orders follow.”
Bar patrons also favor a mix of such appetizers as smoked trout, salmon tartare, steamed mussels Provencal and butternut squash ravioli. And often, diners return to the bar to finish their meal, Jaeger points out. “After dinner, many customers come to the bar for a cognac or port and a creme brulee.”
And appetizers can solve two problems; how to boost bar checks and introduce unusual menu items to a customer base, offering the uninitiated a way to sample ethnic cuisine before committing to an entire meal. Visitors to Walt Disney World often order appetizers with their bar drinks at Bongo’s Cuban Cafe, an upscale concept in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. Finger foods such as yucca frita, fried pieces of casaba, ham croquettes and ground beef-stuffed potato appetizers are as popular at Bongo’s as they are in Cuban homes.
Top-quality classic appetizers satisfy bar customers at the cozy and traditional Billy Martin’s Tavern in Washington, DC’s Georgetown. “We list all of our beers on one side of a table tent in the bar, all the appetizers on the other,” notes manager Steve Ryan. “This is a classic sort of place, so we’re not hittin’ every trend that comes through.
Billy Martin’s customers opt for the contemporary classics that are a far cry from jerk-seared tuna–potato skins, onion ring loaf, stuffed mushrooms, and smoked salmon served with chopped eggs, capers, toast points, onion and tomato. “Generally people will come in for a drink and then say, “let’s have a little bite while we’re sitting here,” Ryan explains. “It’s a nice add-on sale.”
WORKING CLASS HEROES
At the other end of the pub grub spectrum are neighborhood spots such as Pat’s Bar & Grill in St. Louis, where calf brains are cooked, mashed with eggs and breadcrumbs, formed into patties and deep fried to be served on white bread with pickle and a raw onion.
“We’ve been here since 1942, and we’re sort of an Irish bar with American food,” explains owner Teresa Connolly, whose father Pat founded the bar. Several generations of locals and tourists make themselves cozy while nursing beers at Pat’s bar, booths and tables. Besides brains, Pat’s crowd favors fried chicken, breaded and fried chicken livers, hot wings, cream cheese poppers, toasted ravioli, fried mushrooms and onion rings. Except for a porterhouse steak, the entire menu is priced at $7 or below.
Fried bologna sandwiches are the biggest draw at the Waldo, Ohio’s, local institution G&R Tavern. This 35-year-old pub also draws a family crowd that adore, the $2.70 ($2.90 with onion) bologna sandwich. “Our clientele is total regulars,” says owner Sam Postell, and they favor hamburgers, cheeseburgers, steak sandwiches, ham sandwiches, bologna salad sandwiches, chicken wings and fish sticks with their Buds.
Cholesterol counting is also not allowed at Denver, CO’s My Brother’s Bar, a woodsy spot in the city’s oldest neighborhood. Known for their sandwich menu, notes bartender David LeCompte, My Brother’s items are mostly under $5. “We have our hamburger meat delivered fresh every day, never frozen, and it’s lean, and the burgers are a good size,” LeCompte explains. “I think high-quality food makes a difference.”
Unlike some other local stand-bys, My Brother’s Bar has incorporated what for them are some trendier items, such as the Ragin’ Cajun sandwich, a grilled tuna steak topped with Cajun mayonnaise. The restaurant also makes its own chili and serves corn dogs for kids.
The diverse menu helps attract a mixed clientele. Lawyers and accountants from nearby offices visit for lunch, traveling salesmen stop in often and the evenings bring in an art and after-theater crowd. “The symphony orchestra will often bring its instruments in after practice for burgers and beers,” LeCompte notes. “It’s real comfortable in here.”
Bridging the pub grub gap between haute and hearty are the likes of T.G.I. Friday’s, where bar food crosses ethnic, pricing and traditional lines. Friday’s lists the best-selling items from its regular menu on a bar menu, playing up the appetizers and desserts. A sharing-oriented “three-for-all” is popular, featuring potato skins, fried cheese and buffalo wings.
The chain has had such success with entrees made with a new Jack Daniel’s sauce that it is now testing a buffalo wing appetizer/bar food made with the sauce, and preliminary test results look “very positive,” reports Michelle Thomas. The Dallas-based chain is also testing items that have been taken off the menu but continue to generate customer requests, such as fried artichoke hearts and broccoli cheese balls.
Entrees sell at the bar too, mostly to solo diners and lunch customers. Thomas says the one-on-one interaction with bartenders make these diners more comfortable; NTN trivia games help them pass the time.
The 20-unit Ale House chain while featuring up to 52 beers on tap, generates 70% of each restaurant’s $3.8 million in sales from food. “We have a value-driven menu aimed at a consumer base from highchairs to wheelchairs,” says Michael O’Donnell, president of the sports-oriented chain. “Our food is made from scratch, our portions are large, and our prices are real reasonable.” He points to a 20-ounce porterhouse steak for $10.95 and a full rack of ribs for $9.95 as an example. The menu has nearly a dozen burgers priced under $6, spinach dip, chicken fingers, chef salad and a fried fresh fish sandwich.
With all these bar food possibilities, smart operators trying to decide the direction for their pub grub program will likely find their answer sitting right there–at the bar.
Rona Gindin, based in Orlando, has been covering the food service industry for Cheers since our first issue.
While full meals at the bar are still popular, the range of product introductions make small plates and appetizer-size courses a growing category. Among the products with strong bar appeal:
Baltimore and Washington, D.C., area Phillips Seafood Restaurants have introduced a commercial foodservice version of its popular Crab and Spinach Dip, a savory combination of sweet blue crab meal, fresh leaf spinach and a blend of gouda, parmesan and cream cheeses. The dip is the best selling appetizer at the Phillips in Baltimore, one of the country’s top ten grossing restaurants. Call (888) 234-CRAB
Tyson Food Service has rolled with the beer-batter trend with Pubhouse chicken products, including beer marinated tenderloins, wings, chunks and breast fillets coated in seasoned tempura beer batter. Call (800) 24-TYSON.
Simplot’s Mo Grande Mexican appetizers line includes products using Simplot’s popular guacamole, including tacquitos, chimichangas and Baja Bandits. Call (800) 635-0408
Poppers, Anchor’s popular classic appetizers, now feature something they call Anchor Crisp, which they say makes the line crunch louder, taste better and store longer. And they recently introduced Beer Battered Fire Roasted Monterey Jack Poppers. There are now 29 varieties of Poppers.
Anchor also has a line of dips that double as entree toppings, like the latest spinach and cheese variety. Call (800) POPPERS.
Icelandic Brand Brewers Choice is the latest catch from the Coldwater Seafood Corp. The cod and haddock morsels, covered in a beer-flavored batter, are available in a variety of portion sizes. Call (800) ICELANDIC.
Fishery Products has rolled out their new Italian Seasoned Crumb Calamari Rings. They are pre-cooked and can be fried in about two minutes.
Pacific Tortilla Kitchens offers their new Mini Tacquitos in such Southwestern flavors as chicken chipotle, shredded beef, shredded chicken and nacho cheese. The wraps, which are made with red corn, yellow corn and flour tortillas, can be cooked in about two minutes. Call (800) 548-6363.