So a dish walks into a bar ...
Lobster, risotto, and lamb heart meatballs are taking the place of onion rings, fries, and mozzarella sticks at Boston's watering holes
Once upon a time, bars were for drinking and restaurants were for eating. Beer nuts, onion rings, and mozzarella sticks were the middle ground. Bar food was there for you when you needed it, but you didn’t go out of your way to get it.
As restaurants became more “chef-driven,’’ and chefs more ambitious, bar food evolved. Today, many bars are dining destinations in their own right. The food offered is increasingly serious — as much a distillation of the chef’s vision as the fare in the dining room.
“I love jalapeno poppers, but that’s not what we serve,’’ says Tony Maws, chef-owner of Craigie on Main in Cambridge. The bar food “is still within the philosophy of the restaurant. It’s still coming from me. I can’t take a sharp turn.’’
There are economic as well as culinary reasons for restaurants to pay more attention to bar menus. Customers are looking to spend less when going out. Owners are looking to drive high-profit alcohol sales. Bar dining satisfies both parties.
“People are looking for lower-priced options,’’ says Bonnie Riggs, restaurant industry analyst for market research company the NPD Group. “They’re also looking for smaller portions.’’ Restaurant industry traffic has been negative for the past two years, she says, except in two areas: breakfast and snacks. According to NPD research, snacks account for 40 percent of industry growth over the past five years. In a new report, “The Future of Foodservice,’’ NPD predicts snacking at restaurants will grow by 9 percent over the next decade.
These combined forces mean that bar menus around town just keep getting better. When an exciting new restaurant opens, it’s likely to offer an equally exciting bar menu. When a restaurant gets a new chef, he or she is likely to revamp the food served in the bar as well as in the dining room. Sometimes the bar becomes as much of a draw as the restaurant itself.
Craigie on Main is one example. Its reputation is built on a French-inspired menu of dishes featuring the best ingredients the kitchen can get each day. The restaurant relocated from Craigie Street to Main Street in 2008; the larger new space meant room for a bar. Now Craigie is known for its burger as well as its seasonal 10-course tasting menus. “At 5:20, there’s a line outside the door and everyone rushes into the bar,’’ Maws says.
At $18, while not inexpensive, the burger is a more accessible pleasure. It’s an estimable one, a large patty of loosely packed local, grass-fed beef enriched with added fat. Bright pink at the center, served on a house-made bun, it’s topped with cheddar from Vermont’s Shelburne Farms and, if you wish, house-smoked bacon for $3 more.
The burger is widely loved, but it’s far from the only attraction at Craigie on Main’s bar. A potato galette is a construct of thin potato slices fried to a deep brown crisp on the outside, submerged in horseradish cream and decorated with bacon bits and plump, orange salmon roe.
Maws takes nose-to-tail dining literally. While his a la carte menu features a roasted pig’s head for two, the bar menu makes the most of the other end. Pigs’ tails, fatty and juicy, come in a pool of the funky, spicy Vietnamese condiment nuoc cham, with cilantro, chili slices, and bits of peanut. Gnawing on them and sopping up sauce with a bit of bread is an elemental pleasure.
Lamb heart meatballs originated on a tasting menu, and the chefs realized they’d make a great bar dish, Maws says. The rich little spheres melt in the mouth; they’re paired with creamy buckwheat polenta and pecorino. Craigie on Main’s bar food doesn’t have the sophistication of its main menu. But at its best, it’s soulful in a way the dining room fare is not.
Bergamot in Somerville is the kind of restaurant that might once not have bothered with a bar menu at all. Opened in April, it’s small, intimate, and focused on technique. But chef Keith Pooler also wanted to offer a homier, more rustic style of food he says appeals to everyone, himself included. “Everybody loves fried clams, loves calamari, good charcuterie, things like that,’’ he says. “Eating at the bar is more of a social event. It’s for people who don’t want the fuss and muss of sitting in the dining room.’’ When he goes out, he tends to gravitate toward the bar.
At Bergamot’s bar, customers don’t miss a thing. They can still order off the dining room menu, even though dining room patrons can’t sample the bar food. It hardly seems fair. They’re missing out on Pooler’s signature calamari, fried crisp and served with nutty grains of wild rice, scallions, slivered water chestnuts, and a sweet chili sauce. It tastes familiar, like old-school American Chinese food, but all dressed up. “You want another bite after you eat it,’’ Pooler says. There’s also a rotating preparation called “bacon and egg or egg and bacon.’’ The night I order it, it features chicharron in the role of “bacon.’’ The pork belly has been scored, marinated, and deep-fried, so it curls out into fatty spokes. It comes with a runny fried egg and spicy cabbage slaw. And anyone who lives in the neighborhood might make a regular meal of the lobster melt — big chunks of fresh, sweet meat sandwiched with gooey cheddar, mayonnaise, and scallions between slices of crisp, eggy, buttery brioche.
“The eight seats at the bar are probably the eight best seats,’’ Pooler says.
When former “Top Chef’’ contestant Tiffani Faison became the chef at Rocca in March, she filled the menu at the South End Italian restaurant with bright flavors and elegant dishes: scallop crudo with grapefruit and horseradish; whole wheat tagliarini with blueberries, mint, and Meyer lemon; spiced lamb loin with turnips, radishes, and licorice.
At the bar, she went for dishes she calls “craveable.’’ Instead of french fries, you’ll find fried gnocchi or “fries with eyes,’’ tiny fried fish with crisp basil leaves, chilies, salt, and pepper. And there are crostini and pizzette with toppings that command you to order them all. “I didn’t want dumbed-down pizzas,’’ Faison says. “I wanted to continue the flavor profiles I’m interested in, that speak to me. What’s interesting and can be done with pizza?’’
Lots. A pizzetta topped with grilled lamb, goat cheese, duck fat fingerlings, grilled scallions, and tomato jam, for instance. Faison’s favorite combines house-made ricotta, earthy and smoky Friarelli peppers, and salumi.
My favorite thing on the menu may be a crostino of lobster salad, decadent yet balanced. It features grilled bread slathered in lobster butter, topped with lobster salad, chili-spiked tomato sauce, microgreens, and a drizzle of olive oil. “Lobster and butter in whatever form are friends and should not be separated,’’ Faison declares. Amen, sister.
“Bar food as seen through a chef’s eyes is a bit tongue in cheek,’’ she says. “We get to play around, be a little more adventurous. Things aren’t as much of a price commitment, so we can push harder and test the waters a bit. And inevitably, it’s what we want to eat while drinking.’’
Eating at the bar also feels homey. (As Pooler puts it, “People want to feel like Norm coming into Cheers.’’) When Charles Draghi and Joan Johnson opened Erbaluce two years ago, they wanted to draw more formal diners, but also to be a frequent stop for residents in the Bay Village neighborhood. “We want to treat people like they’re in our home,’’ says Draghi, the chef. “We have a lot of regulars who are like family. We’re open six nights, but on the seventh we’re still here, and if people knock and say hi, I’ll start the fire and make them something.’’
Their enoteca menu helps create this feeling. “I think the bar menu is a manifestation of our whole philosophy,’’ Draghi says. “Come on in, sit down, we’ll take care of you. Take a load off, relax from your day. A lot of people who come in have stressful careers, but they can forget about it for a bit and have some nice pasta, a nice bowl of soup.’’
While Erbaluce’s dining room menu changes daily, its enoteca menu remains more constant. It includes zuppa Pavese, broth made from game birds with a poached duck egg, crostini, and Parmesan. (Originating in the college town of Pavia, the soup may be the Italian equivalent of instant ramen; Draghi explains that it gets many Italians through their poor student days.) There are juicy boar meatballs; mussels in a tomato and saffron broth; platters of seafood antipasti that might include the likes of smoked bluefish salad, lemon-cured striped bass, orange-marinated salmon with purple basil, and pickled green tomatoes and watermelon rinds. “I’ve worked in so many technical restaurants, but this is the food I really like to eat,’’ Draghi says. “Most chefs like simple food with really good ingredients.’’ (It should be noted that his idea of “simple’’ involves things like house-cured olives and beautiful floral garnishes.)
His favorite enoteca dish, he says, is risotto Edoardo, named for the uncle who taught him to make it. “With mushrooms, green peppers, and parmigiano reggiano,’’ says the menu. This humble description does not prepare you for the perfect plate of comfort you are about to consume. A bit of chicken liver stirred in at the end with the cheese is what gives this dish its distinctive taste, Draghi says. “Every time we make that risotto, the smell and the taste take me back to being a kid.’’
But chefs ought to be careful when constructing bar menus. It’s hard to predict what will become a signature dish. Create something wonderful, and you could be making it for the rest of your career. Just ask Paul O’Connell, the chef at Chez Henri in Cambridge. No matter how ambitious and delicious his French-Cuban food may be, the dish he’s most associated with is the pressed Cuban sandwich of slow-roasted pork served at the bar.
“It’s tried and true,’’ he says. “It pays a lot of bills. I joke that people say yeah, he cooks some great food, but he makes a mean sandwich.’’ Recently, people suggested he update the bar menu, so he added oxtails, meatballs in chipotle sauce, a lobster roll made with the Peruvian pepper aji amarillo. “Some really nice stuff,’’ he says. “It just didn’t sell.’’ Everyone was still ordering that pressed Cuban sandwich.
“I respect the Cuban,’’ he says. “The thing just became an icon.’’
Devra First can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.