Well, I guess it makes sense for the guy who teaches at a cooking school to give you advice on food—at your bar.
Bar snacks have been around since ancient taverns in Mesopotamia (bread) and Ancient Rome (deviled eggs). Over the ensuing millennia, they have served two main purposes, namely putting food in guests’ bellies to keep them from becoming intoxicated, and encouraging drink sales with salty snacks.
Both the types of bars and the food they serve run the gamut, from cheap to luxe, seedy to soigné. I will give you some recommendations, from simplest to most complex, in a moment, but first, a little history of American bar food.
American taverns certainly served food during the Colonial Era—and a LOT of cider—but they were modeled on the English pub, and were more community-minded. As our population grew, industrialization surged, and both the middle class and the number of laborers increased drastically.
The American saloon was born—a place where men (mostly) went to drink affordable beer (mostly) and socialize after work. Women entered either through a side door or not at all because the atmosphere could be a bit indelicate. In fact some saloons had a trough at the base of the bar so drinkers didn’t even have to leave their spot to…um…well, you know.
As competition grew, saloon owners began to offer “free” food to the patrons to gain their business. It became commonplace for bars to serve a full lunch of sandwiches, boiled eggs, beans and, for some reason, raw onion. The practice spread to more highbrow businesses such as luxury hotels The Plaza and St. Regis, and patrons began to expect a good amount of free food wherever they drank.
Prohibition brought this practice to a screeching halt, but bar snacks did not disappear for good. Here now, a few ways to feed your bar patrons affordably, with increasing levels of complexity and equipment needs.
1) Dry Snacks
Okay, you don’t want to cook anything. You don’t even want to prepare or cut anything, and want to keep clean-up to the most basic. Pretzels and peanuts, bar “mixes” of different crackers, perhaps with some nuts in there, are pretty much the norm.
While better than nothing, such bar snacks show no imagination, and little care for your patrons. If you don’t have a kitchen, buy something interesting, like vegetable or pita chips.
Nuts cost more, but pick something a bit unusual, like macadamia nuts or pistachios, and have it become part of your image. And if you insist on dry pretzels, at least choose a good brand—they won’t cost that much more than the bargain brands.
2) Chips and Dip
Okay, you do have a kitchen, and can talk your chef/cook into preparing some snack items for the bar once a day. Corn tortillas are really inexpensive, and frying your own makes them about 900% better than store-bought. Add some salsa (there are some great brands for purchase if you don’t make your own), and your guests will be impressed.
Pita and bagel chips are also easy to make and can be baked rather than fried. A simple dip made with white beans, rosemary, garlic and olive oil is fast, cheap and delicious. It’s also much more impressive than a bowl of cheezy poofs.
Eggs, in a few different forms, have been one of the most enduring bar snacks. Hard-cooked (the preferred culinary term rather than “boiled”) were often available gratis in American bars in the 1800s.
And think about it—they are shelf-stable for a few hours at least, the shell protects them from other guest’s hands, and they usually don’t make a huge mess. High in protein and rich, eggs are the perfect food to prevent intoxication because they take longer to digest. Oh, and they make you thirsty.
German-American bars in the 1850s introduced pickled eggs to the mix, and are still famously served in bars like Joe Jost’s in Long Beach, CA, and sport a fantastic neon shade of green. (Eggs picked in beet juice turn a vibrant fuchsia.) Pickling eggs is remarkably easy, but you can also buy them already prepared.
4) Get Fancy the Easy Way
With the addition of some simple equipment such as a toaster-oven or microwave (hidden from the guests, of course), you can start adding warm treats like profiteroles (high-class cheezy poofs), soft German pretzels or one of my guilty pleasures, pigs in a blanket. They are all relatively self-contained and not too messy, and aren’t that expensive to buy or hard to make from scratch.
You’d even be surprised at how impressive it is when the bar nuts are served warm. You can move into full-on food service, of course, with appetizers like Clams Casino or Oysters Rockefeller or warm sandwiches.
But the point here is to keep the product affordable because you are offering it at no charge. And don’t worry, your drink sales will go up enough to more than cover the cost.
John Fischer is a professor at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, NY, and a former wine director at several New York restaurants.