It sounds simple enough. “Let’s just eat at the bar.” But when someone walks into a restaurant and utters those words they have summed up a dining trend that is changing the way restaurants operate, influencing how they’re designed and transforming the role of the person on the other side of that bar, the restaurant bartender.
One recent night I watched it all play out at the bar of La Petite Grocery. That’s the bistro in Uptown New Orleans from Justin Devillier, a chef with a James Beard award on his resume and a growing national profile. But on this evening, for me and everyone else at the bar, the full experience of La Petite Grocery was in the hands of a bartender named Julia Wineski. (win-es-ki)
She mixed a six-ingredient cocktail, waved to the dog-walking neighbors through the big front window, arranged a dinner setting for newcomers at her bar, talked up the specials, sold the coconut cream tart for dessert and poured four different wine varietals for a waiter working the adjacent dining room.
I was watching a bartender at work, but it felt like seeing a maestro orchestrating a composition of cocktails, cuisine, service and hospitality for an ever-shifting audience.
Clearly this made an impression, though you can find examples like this all around the dining scene in New Orleans now. Restaurant bars are busy with people sitting down for full meals, and they aren’t necessarily there because they missed out on a table reservation.
What’s behind the trend? Well, for starters, a bar top dinner perch holds the promise for faster service, less fuss, and more interaction with the staff. It’s not for everyone, or every occasion. If you want your own space, some elbow room, a chance to catch up with your dining companion and the finer touches of traditional restaurant service, - you know, a proper upscale dinner – then of course you still want a table.
But there’s no denying that dinner at the bar has a growing appeal, and some restaurants are accommodating it right in their design. It’s no coincidence that when Emeril Lagasse opened his new restaurant Meril last fall, the bar and lounge got as much floor space as the dining room. And Lagasse’s much older restaurant NOLA, in the French Quarter, is now undergoing a big renovation to create a big new dining bar.
Palace Café took a similar tack during its own renovations two years back, creating a dining bar and lounge upstairs in its historic Canal Street property. The Uptown eatery Cavan has not one but two bars, both usually lined with people having dinner. And other spots like Vessel, built between the stained glass of an old Mid-City church, have essentially made bar-top dining the main act.
For bartenders in this role multitasking is a must. The gift of gab and mastery of the martini is not enough. As bartender, waiter and host, they have to wear many hats, blending a broad knowledge of contemporary dining with the banter and bonhomie of the bar.
Only time will tell if the trend will last, or if things will grow more formal in the future. But for now, here’s a tilt of the glass to the pros behind the restaurant bar who make it work today.