Not so very long ago, bar food suffered under a stale-popcorn, canned-nuts and frozen-to-fryer stigma that was hard to shake. But no more. Today's bar food is on par with the best that restaurant kitchens have to offer the diner seeking a full meal.
Driven by guests' desire for smaller portions, better ingredients and the ability to eat what they want, when they want it, operators are enlisting their chefs to produce a proliferation of high quality small plate menus that are proving to be extremely popular. We spotted the following culinary trends surfacing in bars and restaurants around the country as consumer behavior and operator response shift and progress.
1 Big-Time Small Plates
Many operators who used to feature more entrée-sized items for the bar say they are cutting back on those offerings in favor of a greater number of snacks and small plates, which encourages experimentation and sharing.
"Our menu has transitioned to fewer sit-down style items and more mini sandwiches and shareable items," says Wayne Dupre, bar manager at RumBA Bar at the InterContinental in Boston. And at 14 Lucky Strike Lanes & Lounge locations nationwide, "We've cut our entrée offerings by half, and doubled the amount of small plates we offer," says Bill Starbuck, consulting chef at the Sherman Oaks, Calif.-based chain. Likewise, at Plan B Bar + Kitchen in Chicago, "Not many people were eating the full sized burgers and sandwiches so we took those and made mini versions, which have greater perceived value," says co-owner Ryan Golden.
2 Noshing Night and Day
The blurring of daypart boundaries continues as more Americans eat between and after traditional mealtime, and increasingly find the best place to do that is the bar. Operators report that more guests want to eat at the bar, and they're doing it "from lunch right into dinner" and beyond, says Catherine Gilmore, co-owner of The Gage in Chicago.
Similarly, Kelly Liken, owner of Rick & Kelly's American Bistro in Edwards, Colo., says, "Initially we did our snacks and starters section thinking it would attract late-night customers. But we've found it's very popular in the late afternoon and early evening, too."
3 Fast and Less Costly
More operators, both independent and chain, are using bar menus with very appealing prices to attract money- and time-crunched Americans. Many items are under $5.
"It's a great way for guests to get a sampling of the most popular foods we serve in the dining room, but at a much smaller price point," says Bob Okura, vice president of culinary development at Calabassas, Calif.-based The Cheesecake Factory, which introduced its first bar food menu last year, with items priced from $1.95 to $5.95 per plate.
"People like ordering three items at $3.99, rather than one entrée at $15" agrees Terry Lawler, general manager at L-Woods Tap & Pine Lodge in Chicago, which offers $3.99 options on its "After Eight" bar menu. And at Nacional 27, bar chef Adam Seger reports a great reception for the venue's first-ever bar-specific food menu featuring three mini sandwiches — Pork, Grouper and Beef Tenderloin — at $2.95 each.
4 Raising the Bar Food Bar
Though it might not make sense for everyone, in some venues with a gourmet restaurant component and available resources and staff talent, bar noshes are getting downright exquisite.
"Everything we do is all-natural, scratch-made and hand-crafted. Nothing is out of a bottle," says Liken of Rick & Kelly's, one of many operators responding to guest demand for better quality. More bars now feature fine cheeses and use organic, locally sourced and additive-free ingredients, while still others are also doing house-made charcuterie.
5 Delectable Diminutives
Of all bar food options, carefully composed tiny bites are perhaps hardest for diners to resist. These amuse-like bites are almost always finger foods, easy to pick up and share. An example is Randy Zweiban's $3 "Bites" section at Province in Chicago, which includes teeny toasts with toe crab and pork nibbles on baby buns (bocadillos) among the options.
Also in Chicago, Spring restaurant's first ever bar menu offers pretty little nibbles of chef Shawn McClain's cuisine, such as the Short Rib Gyoza, $3, the Tempura Prawn with mango and togarashi, $4, and the Squash Wonton with celery and brown butter, $3.
6 Retro Revisited
Because they are fun, social and not-too-serious, bar foods lend themselves well to whimsical upgrades of retro comfort foods such as macaroni and cheese, tater tots, corn dogs and pigs in a blanket — even baby Beef Wellingtons. The latter will be served at The Light Group's newest yet-to-be-named Las Vegas venture, says executive chef Brian Massie, who is expert at fun finger foods with a retro twist and gourmet appeal. His Tater Tots, filled with brie and bacon and priced at $10, are popular at Stack Restaurant & Bar at the Mirage, while Five-Cheese Macaroni Bites with truffled cheese sauce for $10 are also a hit at Fix Restaurant & Bar at the Bellagio.
Many more operators around the country are having fun with similar themes. Chef Lindsay Autry's whimsical bar take on Pork & Beans puts crispy braised pork belly over a cannellini bean cassoulet at the Lazy Goat in Greenville, S.C. Updating classic Oysters Rockefeller at the Woodfire Grill, executive chef Kevin Gillespie serves Fried Oysters "Rock" — cornmeal-fried oysters served with house-made smoked candied bacon cubes, crispy shallots and garlic chips, over spinach béchamel sauce — for $11.
7 Regional Re-past
Also homey and nostalgic, small plates that celebrate regional foods are enjoying a renaissance of interest at the bar.
"Tavern Bites" at Jackson 20, a new-American tavern at the Hotel Monaco, a Kimpton property in Alexandria, Va., are almost entirely Southern-inspired — including items such as Cracklings with Spicy Yogurt Sauce for $7, Catfish Fingers with handcut fries and tartar sauce for $7 and BBQ Pulled Pork mini sandwiches with cabbage slaw and chili vinegar for $5.
"We use the Tavern Bites menu as a great way to introduce people to the southern food traditions that we're about," says Avi Rathnakumar, general manager.
Chefs Allison and Slade Rushing do the same with their "Something to Snack On" bar menu, which puts an upscale spin on Louisiana dishes at Bar UnCommon at the Renaissance Pere Marquette in New Orleans. Fun small plates include the Hush Puppies and Caviar with crème fraiche priced at $9, the Hot Deer Sausage and Cheddar Biscuits for $6 and the Coconut Shrimp Beignets with pepper jelly sauce, priced at $7.
8 Geared for Adventure
The smarter Americans have become about food, the more open they've become to trying unusual items they might have rejected in the past — especially at the bar.
"It may be hard to get people to buy into octopus and sweetbreads at an entrée price, but we've had an excellent response when they're priced at $4," says Lazy Goat's chef Autry. Jackson 20's Rathnakumar adds, "Now, unusual items are a turn-on, rather than a turn-off."
"Chicaronnes (fried pork skins) and their southern cousins, cracklings, are a great example," says Nacional 27 bar chef Adam Seger. "Two years ago, you couldn't give them away. Now people love them."
9 World Food is Good Food
Showing their greater food smarts, Americans have become more informed, and therefore more relaxed with, a variety of cultural/ethnic origins of dishes at the bar. Calling something fusion is almost passé, say many chefs.
"Now, you name the ingredient, not the culture or cuisine it's attached to," says Evans at Hugo's.
"They get it," says chef Michael McDonald at one sixty blue in Chicago. "It's no longer necessary to spell things out as much."
10 Marvelous Mixes
Nut and snack mixes today are much more likely to be house-made signatures.
"We put a lot of love into these — they're not just an afterthought," says Ryan Morgan, chef at Art & Soul restaurant's ArtBar lounge in The Liaison Capitol Hill, an Affinia Hotel in Washington, D.C. Morgan serves fresh-made cracklings and boiled Georgia peanuts as nibbles there.
Lynae Fearing and Tracy Rathbun — wives of famed Dallas chefs Dean Fearing and Kent Rathbun and co-owners of Dallas' Shinsei restaurant — sell an Asian-themed snack mix that's a '70s send up. Dubbed "Asian-style Trash" the mix includes corn, wheat and rice cereal, wasabi peas, cashews, pretzels and bagel chips tossed with granulated onion and garlic, Worchester and soy sauces and butter.
In Boston, chef Mark Romano roasts peanuts, almonds and pistachio nuts in a brown sugar, rosemary, cayenne, salt and butter mixture to make Highland Kitchen's "own version of a '70s party classic." This dish proves that even as culinary trends evolve, so do the best return.