Bar Associations

16 May 2006
Bar Associations

Ice-cold beer and perfectly mixed cocktails are a good start. Well-conceived food menus add much more without straining kitchens.

This article first appeared in the 15 March 2006 issue of Restaurants & Institutions (R&I).

R&I is the USA's leading source of food and business-trend information and exclusive research on operators and restaurant patrons. Editorial coverage spans the entire foodservice industry, including chains, independent restaurants, hotels and institutions. To find out more about R&I, visit its website

By Allison Perlik, Senior Editor

Patrons in a restaurant's bar or lounge who aren't eating might be an underplayed opportunity and the ultimate upsell. Lured by a selection of casual, fun and easily prepared snacks, many guests will settle in for a longer stay, turning an occasion into an experience.

The selections don't have to be complicated. They can be as easy to prepare as they are to eat. Matched with imaginative approaches and often, value-minded pricing, these low-maintenance options are shaping bar menus across many segments.

Louisville, Colo.-based casual-dining chain Old Chicago has discovered a winning bar food in its Sicilian Pepperoni Rolls, bite-size packages that update classic pepperoni pizza with spicy pepper-Jack cheese, green onions and ranch dressing. Built from house-made dough stretched to order and layered with toppings pre-assembled in single-serving packages, they epitomize the evolution of lounge dining: they have an unfussy formula, are easily shared and offer a beverage-friendly profile.

Delivering similar characteristics in fancier trappings is Executive Chef Scott Shampine's happy-hour menu at Olea, an upscale, eclectic-Mediterranean restaurant in Portland, Ore. Priced to boost beverage sales by driving traffic rather than food profits (most plates cost $2 to $4), handheld options include spanakopita, assembled before service with steamed spinach and feta cheese nestled between flaky layers of phyllo dough brushed with duck fat. The palm-sized triangles are heated in the convection oven and plated over tahini for quick delivery.

"We don't want to serve inferior products at the bar because we're trying to get customers into the restaurant. We take it seriously and serve high-quality dishes," says Shampine, echoing an approach that lays the foundation for success in many operations.

Streamlined Service

At Noir, the 800-square-foot bar at The Charles Hotel in Cambridge, Mass., food must be executable from a tiny kitchen with only a panini press, one burner and a combo convection/microwave oven. Having a cook dedicated to bar orders ensures freshness, quality and consistency, says Chef-partner Jody Adams, who lightens the load by offering simple bar fare such as marinated olives with garlic, herbs and lemon, and toasted mixed nuts with wasabi peas in addition to sandwiches, salads and skewers.

Noir's facilities are capacious compared to 38-seat Krog Bar in Atlanta, where Chef-owner Kevin Rathbun's Mediterranean-accented fare is prepared almost entirely behind the bar. Ingredients for $4 to $6 tramezzini-crustless finger sandwiches on stone-ground white-wheat bread with fillings such as prosciutto and roasted peppers or pesto and Spanish Tetilla cheese-are stored in a refrigerated sandwich table and assembled to order on plates minimally garnished with caper berries. Other cold plates include antipasti, crudi (Italian-style sushi), cured meats and cheeses.

"We sell a lot of food like tramezzini and crudi between 7:30 p.m. and 10 p.m., and then until 1 a.m. people order snacks like Marcona almonds or an olive tasting," says Rathbun, whose wine-bar concept pulls in about 30% of sales from food.

Even operations with fully equipped kitchens devise measures to ensure that cooks and servers who handle both bar and dining-room orders don't get overloaded.

A Million Little Pizzas

Casual-dining chain Houlihan's, based in Leawood, Kan., has just begun testing a 12-item, dedicated bar menu featuring wood-grilled pizzas and multi-ethnic small plates aimed at guests seeking more-casual meals. With both hot and cold options available, wait staff bring out dishes as they are ready rather than serving everything at once.

"With small plates you don't have to course the food, so it's less of a choreography job from the expo side of the line," says Vice President of Culinary Dan Admire. "It's a huge time saver for us."

At Rioja restaurant in Denver, lounge customers often settle in for complete meals, but Executive Chef and Co-owner Jennifer Jasinski also wanted to provide affordable snacks that pair well with beverages. To balance the workload in the back of the house, she selects items that call for multiple cooking techniques to divide orders among stations.

Medjool dates, for example, are stuffed with a mixture of mascarpone cheese, lemon zest, parsley and honey and wrapped in speck ham before service; to order, they are seared in medium-hot pans and finished in the oven. For another presentation, house-made preserved lemons are cut in strips, dipped in tempura batter and fried until crispy, accompanied by roasted-garlic aioli.

Pocket Protectors

Cost and convenience are key considerations in crafting bar menus, whose profit margins often take a backseat to those of beverage sales.

At Rioja, where most selections are priced between $3 and $5, Jasinski balances higher-food-cost items such as sausage-stuffed calamari (38%) with more economical options such as tempura preserved lemon (26%).

Tom MacKinnon, executive chef of Five Restaurant at the Inn at St. John's in Plymouth Township, Mich., says the small plates he serves at the bar are a great deal for diners and for the kitchen, with prices ranging from $8.95 to $10.95 and food-cost percentages below 20%.

"Customers can order two or three plates and still be under the cost of an entrée," he says.

Favorites include Steak Dogs, built from grilled beef tenderloin strips tucked into house-made, garlic-onion mini buns and punched up with teriyaki sauce, and Irish Egg Rolls, assembled before service with corned beef, house-made mozzarella and spiced sauerkraut; fried to order and served with Thousand Island dressing for dipping.

In Atlanta, lounge prices at modern steakhouse Taurus fit Chef-owner Gary Mennie's strategy to position his six-month-old eatery between fine-dining restaurants and local steak chains. Most entrées are $14 to $20, while bar options are priced for value at $3 to $10.

Like many operators, Mennie says that while flavor profiles are designed to pair well with drinks-crunchy, salty, savory-complementing specific wines and cocktails isn't the main objective.

"We're keeping it user friendly versus trying to match a particular plate with the pinot blanc," he says of Taurus' finger-food lineup, which includes Tempura Thin Beans with onions, fennel and mustard ($5) and house-made pretzel sticks teamed with three types of mustard for dipping ($3).

Be Prepared

Balancing house-made with the convenience of prepared products can go a long way in helping operators keep service times short.

Mitchell's Restaurant, Bar and Banquet Center, celebrating its 100th anniversary this year in Pittsburgh, prides itself on house-made soups and sandwiches during the busy lunch rush, but when it comes to bar munchies, frozen foods fried to order take center stage. In addition to popular standards such as onion rings and cheese sticks, more offbeat choices that include potato-wrapped broccoli, Cheddar cheese, bacon and onions as well as breaded portobello mushrooms with marinara also are offered.

At casual-dining chain Claim Jumper Restaurants, happy-hour choices pull options from both worlds. Frozen potato skins and chicken wings are purchased from vendors who prepare recipes to Claim Jumper's specifications, while barbecued-chicken mini pizzas start with house-made dough stretched to order. At the kitchen's pizza station, the six-inch pizzas are topped with sauce, two types of cheese, onions, and precooked, sliced chicken tenders. They are quickly baked and garnished with fresh cilantro.

"What we really look at in developing products is how many steps it will take to prepare them," says John Merlino, executive chef and director of research and development for the Irvine, Calif.-based chain.

Oona Settembre, corporate executive chef at Dallas-based "eatertainment" chain Dave & Buster's, says the best bar foods are finger friendly and shareable, with spicy, salty, robust flavors and her Cheese Fondue Fries are just that. They start with purchased garlic fries portioned in individual bags and cooked to order. The fries are tossed with garlic butter, minced garlic and grated Asiago cheese and plated with melted American cheese, bits of bacon and sliced green onions in separate containers for dipping and sprinkling.

"In casual dining, our choices still need to be familiar to be successful," says Settembre of bar menus' evolution. "In fine dining, options are a lot more diverse: the tapas craze, Asian food. Here, we're not ready for edamame quite yet."

Fancy Free

Complimentary bar munchies stir up thirst and provide a sense of hospitality. In some settings, a bowl of pretzels or peanuts might line the length of the bar but other operations take a more creative approach.

  • 3,000 pounds of russet potatoes are peeled, sliced and fried every week for signature Holy Cow Chips at Harry Caray's Restaurant locations in Chicago and Rosemont, Ill. Prepared throughout the day at dedicated kitchen stations and served only at the bar, the crisp, caramel-colored noshes gain distinctive flavor from a proprietary seasoned salt.

  • To help evoke a warm, inviting atmosphere in the bar at Taurus in Atlanta, Chef-owner Gary Mennie plans to offer fun, simple freebies such as rosemary-tinged popcorn and sweet-and-spicy nuts. "We're a neighborhood concept, and it's the little details that count," he says.

  • Presentation distinguishes Executive Chef Tom MacKinnon's gratis nibbles at Five Restaurant in Plymouth Township, Mich. Bar staples such as trail mix and cheese-flavored crackers are served in individual mini-pitchers so customers can shake the snacks into their handles rather than reach into shared dishes.

Fancy Free

Make room for snacks. Along with appetizers, salads and small plates, some operations are adding them as another pre-meal option. Delivered with few adornments and priced accordingly, these whimsical plates are starting to find room on menus nationwide.

  • Bar patrons at Fig, a neighborhood bistro in Charleston, S.C., can munch on deviled eggs for 50 cents a pop. "They're a huge hit," says Chef-owner Mike Lata, who has a staff member prepare 48 eggs daily.

  • Snacks at New York City's Cookshop include options that wouldn't work as well as full-blown appetizers, such as fried, spiced hominy and slices of grass-fed, air-dried beef. "It's a simple way to get started without the pomp and circumstance," says Chef-partner Marc Meyer. "They can be brought out while people are still looking at menus."

  • At Olea in Portland, Ore., the menu doesn't separate most dishes by appetizer or entrée designations. Using the term "snacks" to describe items such as Moroccan Lamb Meatballs or Chickpea Fried Shrimp implies dishes that require little effort from guests and are easy to eat out of hand, says Executive Chef Scott Shampine.

  • Chef-partner Jody Adams uses "snacks" as a catchall label at Noir in Boston for choices that include toasted, mixed nuts and marinated olives. "It's something you'd put in the middle of the table and share," she says. "It's the beginning of a meal, not a meal in itself."

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