The Beauty of Eating at the Bar

Reservations are cumbersome. Waiters aren't always the nicest. Getting drinks faster is always better. Eating by yourself at a table looks lonely. These are among the reasons some people, like myself, prefer to eat at the bar. 

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Reservations are cumbersome. Waiters aren't always the nicest. Getting drinks faster is always better. Eating by yourself at a table looks lonely. These are among the reasons some people, like myself, prefer to eat at the bar.

Not that this should change your mind or influence you in any way, shape or form, but I ate at Basta Pasta's bar for two weeks in a row. A week before that, I had a burger at Joe Allen's bar. And sometime within the timeframe of my last credit card statement, the Meatball Shop by my apartment was packed, but had plenty of bar seats available—so I snagged one.

I enjoy eating at the bar, okay? But there are people still questioning the practice. "Do you expect the same service eating in the bar as in the dining room? Especially when they have the same menu," a reader wrote to  Michael Bauer at Inside Scoop SF, the San Francisco Chronicle's blog devoted to that city's restaurant news. Bauer replied with an answer I fully endorse:

In fact, I generally get better service at the bar than at a table; it seems someone is always in front of you and can — and does — monitor your progress. Obviously something went terribly wrong at this Top 100 restaurant.

This back-and-forth made me wonder why people eat at bars — and why they don't.

I put the question out there, to friends, family, coworkers, and former coworkers. Atlantic Wire alum John Hudson pointed me to this illuminating debate on Seinfeld about bar-eating etiquette:

In a completely non-scientific and purely anecdotal survey, the majority of people to whom I spoke were supportive of bar eating. Here are the reasons why:

The Bar Seat Takes Away the Loneliness of the World

"It's less depressing eating alone at the bar. When you're eating alone at a table with only an empty chair to look at, you have visual proof of how lonely and cold this world is. The bar gives you a brief distraction from this depressing reality," Dan Chung, a Chicago-based journalist who worked at The Associated Press, told me. Visual proof of the loneliness of the world—that's the empty chair. Not only does an empty chair sitting there staring at you remind you that you are eating by yourself, but it also announces to everyone else in the dining room that you're flying solo.

"Eating alone at the bar is, for some reason, infinitely better than eating alone at a table," another friend added, while Joe Tacopino, a reporter for the New York Post, described a sensation even sadder than Chung's:

Every time a waitress walks over to my table and feigns an interest in me (when I know full well she'd rather be texting her boyfriend while smoking a cigarette next to the dumpster in the parking lot) I'm reminded of how uninteresting I am and how old and boring I have become.

Tacopino and Chung are actually fun meal-mates. I promise. But they're hitting on something real here, as evidenced by the attention given to Dutch Designer Maria van Goor's pop-up restaurant, which only took solo reservations.

"While solitary eating is generally regarded as a sad ritual of refueling—a symptom of anomie in a busy, crowded, and uncaring world—fine dining can be another matter altogether," wrote The Daily Beast's Christopher Dickey, highlighting the very real stigma solo diners feel, but also the growing acceptance of it in fine dining establishments. Eating at the bar, I'd argue, is part of that acceptance.

Bartenders Take Away the Loneliness, Too

Logistically, it makes sense that the further away you are from something, the longer it will take for you to get to that something. Apply that to restaurants and alcohol, and science says that you should be getting your drinks faster if the bartender is also your waiter. That's a big plus. And there's also the concept of buybacks, as our contributor Jen Doll told me.

Think about it: there's probably more of a chance a bartender will remember you than there is of a waiter or waitress doing the same. If you drop in for a bite, you could be placed in any random zone, served by any random waiter. A bartender's domain is the bar. If you want to be a regular and do your part in visiting the restaurant often and nabbing a seat at the bar, there's more of a chance you'll run into the same person. And more of an opportunity for free booze! Factor in that you're probably talking to a bartender more than to a server, even if it is just for drinks, and there's an even greater opportunity that you'll be considered a regular and given all the benefits afforded to that caste.

With all that personal contact, you could make friends with a bartender and maybe even date a bartender (if that is your wont), but that's not recommended unless you are okay with the idea of never eating at that bar again.

You Get to Take Your Time

A couple of friends, as well as my own sister, mentioned the idea that sitting at the bar doesn't feel rushed, with no pressure to leave so another group of diners can sit down. Others mentioned they love eating at the bar because they don't feel the pressure to order main courses from the waitstaff. Being a fast eater and non-lingerer, I don't usually feel the rush from the wait staff—but I can empathize.

The Same-Side Couple

"You can eat comfortably alone, but if you are with someone, it makes it easier to talk/watch the game without having to be one of those 'same-side-booth' couples," my friend Stephanie Driscoll told me. That makes sense. Couples who, given the option, choose to sit on the same side of the table are a point of debate, generally greeted with an eyeroll or a smirk. I think there's something intimate there, but I, too, would do a double-take if I saw a same-side-sitting couple in my general vicinity. A bar allows you to do that since, depending on the bar, everyone is on the same-side. And you and your loved one can enjoy the pleasures of same-side dining without the judgment that practice usually carries.

The Little Things

Among the other reasons I was given for the pro-bar side were (in no particular order):

  • Better views of the action
  • Better view of the television
  • Better view of the bartender
  • The option to give fake identities
  • Makes you more attractive
  • High stools
  • "Some people have invited me to their table."
  • No obligation to talk to people
  • Speed— think of a "dinner quickie"

And When You Shouldn't Eat at the Bar

All those reasons for eating at the bar aside, I did hear two stories that might change my dining habits. The first doesn't affect me personally, but, apparently, there are people in the world who ate at the bar when they were children. The trauma of seeing other kids eat at tables is something such bar-eating children carry into adulthood. "[My mother] loved it because she liked to talk to all the people at the bar and she said we got our food faster. Also, I used to live in a snooty neighborhood and kids made fun of me for sitting there because all of their families sat at tables," a friend and opponent of bar-eating told me.

The other injunction against bar eating is for when you're dining with more than one person. One person dining at a bar is great. Two is fine. Three, as Seinfeld showed us, gets a little awkward. Plus, you should be getting reservations anyway.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.