The bar snack is a great indicator of the UK's culinary progress over the past couple of decades. Once, there were often just crisps, nuts and pork scratchings to satisfy drinkers who fancied a nibble. If you were lucky, the bar might have served sandwiches or would be equipped with a hot cabinet containing pies and pasties.
Such fare bore all the signs of Britain's post-war diet - lots of fat, starch and questionable protein. Nevertheless, it represented a recognition that the drinker tends towards peckishness, especially after finishing work, and that providing such snacks adds valuable revenue to wet sales.
Nowadays, bar food reflects a different Britain. World cuisine is so much a part of the landscape that we don't even notice it as extraordinary. Alongside this there has been a trend towards customer choice, and a well constructed menu means you can cater for a variety of types of customer.
"Sandwiches work well, but try adding a twist on the traditional and create more innovative fillings, such as Parma ham with rocket and balsamic vinegar, or tomato and mozzarella with olive oil," says Dave Howarth, trading director at Woodward Foodservice. "A good bar menu consists of a variety of light and more robust options. Include a range of salads on the menu and offer customers the opportunity to pick their own toppings and dressings. Robust dishes work well on a bar menu for people dining in the early evening or for those wanting to make more of their lunchtime meal."
Keeping it simple is also vital. Your target market is popping in at lunchtime or after work. They're not there primarily to eat, so you need to tempt them to do so. And if they are tempted you want to get the food out with the minimum of fuss, says Antony Bennett, development chef with RHM Foodservice.
"The key is simple food, well executed," he says. "With bar snacks it's almost the reverse to restaurant dining. In a restaurant you want fluid descriptions that show off a dish in its full glory. You have the benefit of the customer having time and energy to decipher the menu, chopping and changing their mind several times before choosing. In a bar, customers want options that are easily identifiable. A favourite of mine is fritto misto - with homemade beer batter, chunks of salmon, prawn and tail-on scampi, it makes a cracking fritto platter."
Easy to eat Platters are also suggested by BPEX food service trade manager Tony Goodger. "Platters to share provide bite-sized finger foods that are easy to eat and relatively mess-free," he says. "Options include a variety of flavoured chipolata sausages, British produced air dried ham and montada de lomo, which is pork loin slices marinated in garlic and paprika, flash-grilled and served on garlic bread."
Hugh Judd, food service project manager of the English Beef and Lamb Executive (Eblex), suggests scaling down the portion sizes of popular favourites and making them into a format that's easy for people to eat with their fingers or just a fork, such as mini beef or lamb cheeseburgers on small rounds of bread, or bite-size steak pies.
At Great Fosters hotel in Egham, Surrey, chef de cuisine Christopher Basten wanted a selection of bar snacks for serving on the 30-seat
terrace overlooking the venue's impressive topiary gardens and Japanese bridge. "We wanted to reflect the standard of food available in the restaurant in the food served out on the terrace," he says. The 50-seat Oak Room restaurant holds two AA rosettes and serves modern British cuisine. So besides a selection of
regular light meals, Basten created two new concepts that are going down a storm with the hotel's bar customers and have increased bar revenue by 30% to 40%.
The first appears on the menu as "Sip, Dip and Roll", and allows customers to choose one soup element from shellfish bisque, chilled gazpacho or lemon Thai broth; a dipping item with a sauce from prawn satay, lamb kofta with mint yogurt, and potato and coriander samosa with curried mayonnaise; and a roll or wrap from duck spring roll, stuffed vine leaves, and tuna sushi with wasabi mayonnaise. For £11.50, customers create their own trio, presented on a white oblong plate sourced from Continental Chef Supplies with the soup element in a demi-tasse.
Basten's other concept is a twist on the ever-popular Iberian bar food format - tapas. Each plate consists of four items themed around a particular cuisine and costs £10. The most popular is the English tapas with an emphasis on provenance of ingredients such as a Gloucester Old Spot chipolata with apple sauce and sole goujons made with Brixham sole. A mini Yorkshire pudding with roast beef and a cauliflower fritter with curried mayonnaise make up the plate. A Mediterranean selection includes calamari, mini pitta, green-lip mussel and stuffed mini peppers, while an Oriental plate comprises prawn won ton, duck and coriander toast, chicken satay and tempura vegetables.
The flexibility of tapas, with the idea that the customer can pick as much or as little as they like from a nibble to a plateful, attracted pub company Greene King to the concept about a year ago when the development team was trying to think of new ideas for light bites for its managed estate. "You can order items individually or create your own meal. They're quite snacky, good with drinks, easy for staff to produce and for customers to eat," says food marketing controller David Scott. "They've been very successful. Tapas revenue accounts for 23% of all dishes on the main menu and 55% of all light bites."
While the concept is Spanish in origin, Greene King has not felt bound by that country's culinary traditions. It offers a range of bites that include olives and cherry tomatoes, tiger prawns with peppers and onions, Cumberland sausage with tangy salsa and nachos with salsa and jalapeños, to name but a few. Each dish costs £1.65 or you can get three for £4.65. Greene King also offers a charcuterie deli board which offers slices of Wiltshire ham, chorizo and salami as well as Stilton, paté and ciabatta.
Lots of small, separate menu items sounds like trouble for the kitchen but, says Scott, it's not if you prepare yourself thoughtfully. "If you're well prepared with all the components to hand they're easy to produce and get out quickly," he says.
Deli board The Peach Pub Company, which has six establishments in the South Midlands, offers deli boards in its bars. At £1.50 per item, customers can make up a small snack for one or a big board to share. As with tapas, there's a choice of items. These include cheeses such as Taleggio and Forme D'Ambert, charcuterie items such as chorizo and honey-roast ham, and traditional antipasti like olives, feta stuffed peppers and artichokes. There are also selections of bread and fruit as well as hot deli items such as sticky pork ribs and an Indian selection that includes bhel puri and duck tikka.
Peach hit on the idea almost by accident, says director Lee Cash. "We had some little white dishes and oval plates and found some really good suppliers of antipasto items. We put some on the dinner menu to see how it went - now the deli boards make up 12% of our food revenue."
Cash is aware that such a profusion of menu items can cause headaches for the kitchen, but says that good organisation eases service. "We have a big saladette in the kitchen with all the items in it, so it never takes more than six minutes to produce an order. We always try to come up with menu items that take the pressure off the kitchen and try to make sure at least 10% of each menu section is really easy for the kitchen to produce."
Peach makes sure its menu is varied to suit different types of customer, says Cash. "We try and work with some reference to the English seasons and change our menu three times a year. Our chefs have autonomy on 60% of the menu but they have to include things that meet set criteria - something for girls watching the calories, hearty meals for the boys."