12 January 2010

From the Archives: Five Reasons to Dine at the Bar

I'm republishing a piece here from June 2005 that hasn't been available online for years. This one is special to me: it's the first food/drinks story I ever published professionally, a cover feature for Stuff Magazine (then known as Stuff@Night) on why bar dining is often superior to a table in the dining room. See if you think it still holds up.

by MC Slim JB
[originally published as the cover feature of the June 9, 2005 issue of Stuff@Night]

As a longtime Bostonian who loves to dine out, I struggle with conflicting goals. I want to eat well, but can’t afford to patronize luxury establishments every week. Fast food is cheap and tasty, but I hate the nausea and regret a half-hour later. One of my best strategies is to frequent mid-priced places and dine at the bar. It’s low-fuss, you often get better food and service, and it’s friendly and fun, especially if you’re dining solo.

My Belly Doesn’t Need Ms. Right; It Needs Ms. Right Now

There are few civilized pleasures as sublime as the two-hour-plus weekend prime-time dinner. Consider Union Bar and Grill, one of the South End’s sleeker, more well-oiled dining entertainment machines. Sliding into a glossy banquette for a Friday 8pm reservation, the four of us are a little dressed up and a lot revved up. We kick off with expertly-made cocktails, dulling the keen edge of hunger with the gratis cornbread and excellent butter.

We uncork a Chianti Classico to go with appetizers of short ribs, beet salad, and chorizo-and-corn risotto. Next, we attack entrees of lamb rack, pork tenderloin, roast chicken, and codfish. We pause a bit to take in the scenery before lingering over a five-item cheese plate with perfect accompaniments, washed down with a couple of glasses of port and an espresso or two. By the time 11pm rolls around, we’ve passed an entire languid evening of very pleasant food and solicitous service, amplified by a little hot-spot atmosphere, for a mere $350.

While lovely, this pricey scenario doesn’t quite play on Wednesday night, when it’s just two of us wandering into Union at 9pm, looking not quite daisy-fresh in rumpled work clothes, feeling irritable with stress and hunger. This moment calls for our light, tight, weeknight strategy:
  1. Pass on the hosts’ offer of a ready dining room table in favor of bar seats.
  2. Get a beer, a glass of wine, and two sandwich plates – a hefty Rueben and an Andouille-flecked hamburger with excellent frites. Appreciate the real care in the preparation (a burger actually cooked medium rare as ordered, and mmm, those frites).
  3. Wrap it up in under an hour, for about $50 including tax and tip.
  4. Feel good about minding our mid-week budget, avoiding delivery of bad Chinese or pizza, and not dreading the alarm-clock detonation we face in a few hours.
  5. Congratulate ourselves on being frugal, canny urban diners-at-the-bar.

My Folks Told Me Never to Talk to Strangers

There seems to be an unwritten rule at fine dining establishments in this town: you don’t chat much with nearby tables. Near as I can tell, there are two exceptions: 1) wishing someone a happy birthday or whatever occasion was just signaled by a candle-lit dessert (and hopefully, not a song); and 2) asking them what enticing plate just arrived at their table, so you can order it, too. At best, any other topic is likely to get you a look of polite forbearance that is clearly two seconds from curdling into disdain. We don’t mind looking at the pretty strangers next to us, we just don’t want them talking to us.

If you crave a little bonhomie with your steak-frites, you’ll have to dine at the bar. (This also applies to the comparatively rare communal table, but we’ll save that one for another time.) Maybe it’s that you are sitting close, or have better access to the social lubricant of alcohol, but bar diners converse far more easily than their dining-room counterparts.

Consider my recent visit to Dedo, a year-old little sleeper of a New American restaurant near Park Square. I come looking to sample the cuisine of its new chef, Jason Santos, whose work I admired at Tremont 647. Dedo serves some great-looking small plates in the bar, but not in the dining room. I love the Spanish custom of nibbling tapas early in the evening, so I opt for the bar.

It isn’t long before the parade of little bites I’ve ordered gets my neighbors sharing dining-out stories with me. Everyone oohs at my “cappuccino” of sweetbreads and black truffles in a stiff sauce and a blanket of chestnut foam, served in a china latte cup. Despite the precious presentation, it’s a rocking little stew, a minor symphony of richness and slightly spongy textures. I marvel at the deviled eggs (here, done with tuna sashimi for filling, with nary a hint of mayonnaise), and recall other favorite versions (Mom’s, which hews to the circa-1960 Good Housekeeping canon, and Oleana’s, which adds poached tuna and olives to the filling.) A businessman from L.A. boasts of the dining palaces out West he’s visited while chasing the perfect poke (pronounced “pokey”), a raw tuna salad of Hawaiian origin – he rates Dedo’s very highly.

While we talk mostly of food that night, the scenario echoes a thousand similar moments I’ve enjoyed: a few strangers holding a friendly debate over dinner on the finer points of baseball, movies, music, drinking, and/or the attractiveness of the bar’s other patrons. What’s nearly taboo in the dining room is welcome in the bar. I’ve made many pleasant acquaintances and business connections this way, enjoying what might otherwise have been a dull hour or two. Actually interacting with your fellow man: it’s one of simplest and most accessible pleasures of dining at the bar.

The Best Server in the Room

In a handful of places in Boston, the bartender is such a multi-talented, genial host that you hate to hazard the dining room. Joe Carbonaro at Caffe Umbra is one of these, the rare barman who can deftly juggle responsibilities -- mixologist, wine steward, waiter, busboy, raconteur, and confidante -- and make it look easy, with grace and aplomb, like a professional athlete.

I rate him the best pure bartender in the South End (no faint praise -- there’s a lot of talent with shakers nearby): he just plain pours a beautiful drink. He crafted the restaurant’s signature cocktail menu, placing his own stamp on the classics, like a Negroni punched up with Punt e Mes. He’s on intimate terms with the wine list, quick with thoughtful food-and-wine pairings, slow to push the most expensive stuff, able to hold forth on esoteric dessert wines. That’s in between making drinks for everybody in the place, and serving dinner in the bar.

Joe approaches the food side of the job with similar seriousness and relish. He’s a subtle and effective salesman for Laura Brennan’s innovative rustic Italian and French cuisine, telling you exactly what he loves about each dish. He shows a Sicilian-American’s appreciation of the simple, beautiful ingredients on most plates here, like the asparagus shoots that accompany a torta appetizer. Despite a trim frame, he affects a gourmand’s lust for the pastry chef’s work. “You didn’t order this, but you have to – it’s off the charts”, say Joe of one of several nightly homemade ice creams, a melon-Sambuca number. We trust him, despite the unseemly combination. He’s right: it is spectacular, with a big upfront melon zing that fades almost completely to make way for an extended anise finish. Strange and utterly wonderful. Thanks, Joe!

Not to knock the dining room staff at Caffe Umbra; I’ve eaten in the back many times, and they too are skillful, polished and personable. But they’re not as much fun to watch work, and aren’t in the same position to regale us with stories about neighborhood goings-on. The wait staff doesn’t have the dedication to the art of tippling to solicit patrons’ opinions on the latest crazy super-premium liquor to hit the market (anyone for a sample of the new cherry-flavored rye?). If it’s Joe’s night off, or there are no seats at the bar, we head someplace else. We can barely imagine eating any other way there anymore.

The Food Here Sucks, Let’s Eat at the Bar

My beloved is giggling at a laptop in the next room. “What’s so funny?”, I call out. “Oh. My. God. Have you seen the glamour photos of Todd English on toddenglish.com?” “Yeah,” I reply: “Don’t hate him because he’s beautiful. Hate him because he’s too busy flogging his latest casino venture to stand at a stove in the town that put him on the map.”

Maybe that’s not fair; Todd probably does don a toque occasionally hereabouts, but I know few once-rabid fans like myself who aren’t in mourning for the days, now more than a decade past, when he was the deserving, white-hot focal point of the Boston fine-dining scene. The Charlestown Olives created some of the most exciting food I’d ever seen, and served it up with real verve, the kind of experience for which we’d tolerate a hateful no-reservations policy and two-hour waits in the packed bar. Currently, that kitchen cranks out obviously premade, not-always-fully-reheated appetizers to a crowd of undiscriminating tourists. Latecoming locals must wonder what all the fuss was about.

Worse still are lackluster outliers of the English empire like Bonfire, a steakhouse that has Todd’s brand but none of his formidable virtues (I’m talking about cooking, not marketing.) My several underwhelming meals here have featured grotesquely oversized slabs of over-charred pork and beef, brought by staffers who seem mightily self-impressed for no reason related to their actual service skills. I think the dining room looks fantastic – I’ll admit to a soft spot for that Phillipe Starck-designed bordello vibe -- and I admire the wine list’s South American depth. But the food regularly disappoints, at really high prices. I just kind of hate it.

But I join Bonfire’s often-lively bar scene on occasion, resisting the staff’s insistent promotion of their over-sugared travesty of a Caipirinha. To my bemusement, the same kitchen that fails in the dining room succeeds in the bar, where it serves up lip-smacking tacos and small plates like tempura green beans. Even better, you can get these nice-priced gourmet snacks at an hour when few places in the Back Bay are still hopping (till 1:30am Wednesday through Saturday).

I haven’t forgiven Todd for big-timing his local former devotees. But late-night grazing at Bonfire’s bar does help me to forget for a moment how success spoiled a one-time favorite. “Gimme an El Tesoro Plata margarita straight up, please, and some smoked-duck taquitos -- hold the Vanity Fair spread.”

Don’t Look at the Pitiful Lonely Freak -- Maybe He’ll Go Away

Business travelers, stop me if you’ve heard this one: after a long workday in a strange city, you let your hosts go home to the bosom of their families for dinner. You’ve done enough homework to dodge the room-service turkey club: trusted local sources have pointed you to some worthy restaurants. A quick taxi ride later, and you’re greedily surveying an interesting menu, proud to be an intrepid, globetrotting epicure.

But before the appetizer arrives, you notice the unwelcome glances. That mooning, hand-holding couple across the aisle give you matching tight smiles that say, “Someday, modern medicine will cure your scrofula or whatever it is that keeps you in your sad prison of one.” The wary glares from the next booth’s klatch of sharply-turned-out young professional women send a rather different message: “Look at us again, pervert, and we’ll stone you to death with our teeny cellphones”. Mercifully, you have a paperback to bury your nose in, thus avoiding further eye contact.

Now the weird part: the next time you’re out to dinner in Boston with a group of your attractive friends, you espy some poor benighted soul at a table for one. And despite having walked several miles in those moccasins, your first thought is, “Oh, the poor leper! Why didn’t the maitre’d just lead her quietly out back where she could shoot herself?” Remember this moment the next time you’re out on your own. Preserve your dignity, and avoid harshing the buzz of diners who are trying to share laughter and witty conversation as well as fine food and drink. Eat at the bar. You already have enough other good reasons to do so. FIN

N.B. After this was published, women friends of mine pointed out that solo bar dining doesn't work nearly as well for women as men -- that unwelcome attention from boys on the prowl is often an unfortunate consequence of sitting at the bar without a companion. Shame on me for not considering this issue and mentioning it. (It was my first feature.)

N.B. 2 Special thanks once again to Scott Kathan of Stuff@Night for plucking me from the ranks of amateur reviewers on Chowhound.com and giving me my first shot at writing professionally! I've published hundreds of pieces since, and now write food/drinks features and two Boston restaurant-review columns (On the Cheap and Food Coma) for The Boston Phoenix and Stuff Magazine. See my blog for links to most of my professional work.