America’s graze craze may have its detractors, but one thing is for sure: The small plate revolution has added depth and dimension to American “nosh-and-a-drink” possibilities. From casual sports bars to high-end gastropubs, the quality and variety of American bar food increases daily.
“It used to be that bar food was the most basic of snacks,” says Sarah Schafer, chef of Frisson in San Francisco. “But now people expect more. They want that friendly, accessible tavern aspect to bar food, but elevated to a new level.”
This is especially true of traditional American fare. Today, there are seared foie gras and PBJ sandwiches at Frisson, Crab Cake Tater Tots at the Blue Line Club Car in Chicago and dressed up mini-burger “sliders” that are truffled, stuffed and perched on pedigreed buns everywhere in between. Even peanuts—the All-American bar snack standard—have achieved status in some locations via tasty, house-made renditions.
The best American bar food creations deliver regional flair or retro whimsy and their bolder flavors are readily matched with beer, wine and cocktails. Mini pigs-in-a-blanket Russian-roulette-style (one “blanket” per serving hides a fresh habanero pepper slice) go great will cold beer at the Five Star Bar in Chicago. Chef Jessica O’Donnell’s updated Philly Cheesesteak—truffled cheese steak empanadas with aged cheddar, white truffle oil, red onion poblano marmalade and spicy ketchup—are a good match for local beers at the Good Dog Bar in Philadelphia.
And how about that Frito Pie at Shady Grove Restaurant and Patio Bar in Austin, Texas? A small bag of corn chips, opened and topped with the restaurant’s 10-pepper Sirloin Chili, onions, cheddar cheese and jalapenos; the dish “is usually served with our signature Shady Thang—Margaritas made with pisco brandy, vodka, triple sec and fresh squeezed lime juice,” says general manager Jenn Parker.
SIGNATURE TRUMPS STANDARD
National noshes including hot wings, burgers and fries and chips continue to hold sway as the most popular bar foods, but even within these categories, operators say signature versions sell better than standard renditions.
To achieve that signature difference, operators specify and promote branded or high-end ingredients. Chef James Gottwald’s Kobe Beef Burger at Rockit Bar in Chicago, for example, comes with melted brie, medjool date aioli, fried shallots and truffled French fries. Similarly, chef Erik Hopfinger’s Mini-Burger Sliders at Circa in San Francisco have a black truffle and brie stuffing. And at Alfa Restaurant and Bar in Philadelphia, a trio of sliders are “dressed three different ways: with caramelized onion, caramelized fennel and jack cheese,” says owner Joe Beckham.
But Rockit Bar’s Gottwald cautions against going too far with luxury builds on American favorites. “Too much of any good thing can doom an item to novelty status,” he says, pointing to the $18 Rockit Dog—a foot-long Kobe beef hot dog on steamed poppy seed bun with sauerkraut, cran-mustard and chimichurri sauce—recently removed from the menu. “It got us lots of press, but nobody ordered it,” says Gottwald.
A simpler signature strategy is to add ingredients with regional recognition. In Portland, Ore., for example, the New Orleans-themed Roux Restaurant makes its house burger with Cascade natural sirloin, grilled house-made tasso, red pepper aioli with arugula and a side of blackened fries.
Choosing alternative ingredients also makes signature statements. Ground chicken burgers served with ginger mayo and cucumbers far outsell other items at the Walrus Bar in Dallas, Texas, and are a better fit for specialty cocktails, says owner John Reardon. Chef Arren Caccamo at Levende in San Francisco has had such success with Mini Lamb Burgers, which pair well with beer and red wine, that they’ll soon be joined by shrimp and lobster, wild salmon and tuna varieties, thus expanding the beverage pairing possibilities.
Likewise, while deep-fried hot wings continue to be popular, so are non-fried versions including chef Chris Schlesinger’s Wings of Mass Destruction at the East Coast Grill and Raw Bar in Cambridge, Mass. Schlesinger’s wings are rubbed with jerk paste and grilled, rather than fried.
Less-messy-than-wings offerings include Chicken Bites and Chicken Skewers created by Bill Starbuck, executive chef for the 14-unit, Sherman Oaks, Calif.-based Lucky Strike Lanes. The Bites are chicken breast chunks lightly breaded, deep fried and tossed with one of five sauces. The Skewers are chicken breast meat marinated or spice-rubbed and grilled.
“These dishes were created to be fun, flavorful, portable, conducive to sharing and to go well with alcohol,” says Starbuck, who will soon launch a roof-top lounge that will include more small-plate shareables and signature cocktails.
“Some items, such as our Tomato and Cheese S’mores, work well with light red wines. Others, like our Crunchy Mashed Potato Rolls, are good with beer or Martinis, and many of our more froufrou items, such as Tuna Lollipops—seared tuna bites with sweet chili sauce and Napa slaw—go really well with Martinis and specialty cocktails,” Starbuck notes.
Sloppy Joes and macaroni and cheese are two more All-American bar food favorites. At Azure Restaurant in Boston, chef Robert Fathman’s Braised Beef Steak Bomb—red wine braised shoulder and chuck served on a peppered brioche bun with blue cheese, house made pickles and white truffle fries—is “really a grown up Sloppy Joe.” And at the Five Star Bar in Chicago, owner Lyle Aker has had such success with a Sloppy Joe recipe “like my Mom’s except we add a splash of beer”—he’s moving the sandwich from his “50-cent Minis on Monday’s” promotion to the core bar menu.
What about making mac ‘n cheese into finger food? Many operators around the country bread and fry mac n’ cheese balls, or combine the longtime favorite with crab or seafood (rather than potato) to make croquette-like “tots” that work well as a crunchy side dish to both Martinis and beer.
Regionally-focused small plates celebrate local fare ranging from Salt Cod Fritters at Eastern Standard Kitchen and Drinks in Boston to Fried Boudin (sausage) with pickled peppers at Cochon in New Orleans.
Cochon executive chef/owner Donald Link’s appetizers are based on recipes from his Acadian grandparents: shrimp, crabmeat and sometimes crawfish pies, “that are kind of a Cajun version of an empanada—pie dough folded around rice and seafood,” chicken livers soaked in buttermilk, fried and served with toast and pepper jelly; batter-dipped alligator pieces, deep fried and served with chili garlic aioli. Cochon offers moonshine, beer and a small selection of wines.
At Cochon’s sister restaurant, Herbsaint, general manager Joe Briand says guests frequently choose Frogs Legs—deep fried, gently tossed in compound chili butter and herbed with parsley, chervil and tarragon. “You can either go with a big, fatty white wine as a complement, or choose a high acidity white—we serve a Pinot Grigio—to cut the richness,” says Briand.
Farther east at Louis and Marlene Osteen’s Fish Camp Bar in Pawley’s Island, S.C., locally famous boiled peanuts are offered gratis at the bar, “usually in the fall and winter,” says Marlene Osteen. Cold beer is a must-have with boiled peanuts, says Osteen, who also works with Low Country staples such as Barbecued Shrimp with Scallion Biscuits and Fried Green Tomatoes on Fish Camp’s bar snacks menu.
Foie Gras BLT.
Proceeding up the East Coast, seafood is popular bar fare, running the gamut from Lobster Roll sandwiches at Boston-based Beerworks’ three locations, to Azure’s posh signature appetizer, Oysters in Bondage. The dish features Wellfleet or Duxbury oysters double-wrapped in smoked salmon and julienned Yukon gold potatoes and deep fried. Served with cr