The bar at Eleven Madison Park is humming on a Wednesday night as the sun fades behind the skyscrapers of lower Manhattan and commuters dart across Madison Avenue on their way to the subway. The eight bar stools are all occupied, as are most of the low tables.
The lounge feels like a subdued speakeasy, decked out in grays and taupes, a place to bring your cocktail-nerd friend to have drinks made with a minimum of five ingredients each. Bartenders are framed behind the bar with staging lights and make each cocktail with various spritz bottles and vials. The food menu is cryptically modern, with one-word descriptors like “sesame,” “green pea,” and “carrot.” The dining room, out of view to drinkers sitting at the bar, has been hailed as one of the best restaurants in the world, but that’s almost irrelevant; many of the customers here have no plan to make their way there tonight.
The bar of a fine dining restaurant is often seen as the space where diners pass time before the main event. On a busy night it might hold spillover seating, or act as a consolation for a fully booked dinner service. But that’s changing. Today’s chefs and restaurateurs are rethinking the purpose of bars in their tasting-menu restaurants, seizing the opportunity to provide an entirely separate experience for guests. In the process, they are redefining the bar’s role in fine dining — making it a destination in and of itself.
The idea isn’t exactly new; ambitious restaurateurs have long cared for their bars. Perhaps the quintessential example of this is restaurateur and hospitality pioneer Danny Meyer’s Gramercy Tavern in Manhattan, and its market-driven tavern room. Opened in 1994, the tavern room’s open kitchen and serious service (complete with all of the ornamental aspects of fine dining, like coursed-out flatware and stemware) made it an essential stop for the neighborhood.
Jim Meehan, famed barman behind PDT and author of Meehan’s Bartender Manual, worked the bar at Gramercy Tavern for two and a half years. “Historically, great bars were attached to hotels or they’re where you wait for your table,” he says. He points to Delmonico’s, which opened in 1837 as the first fine dining restaurant in the country, and the sectioned-off bar room there, which has a more casual atmosphere, as an example of how these spaces used to be seen. “Chefs putting cocktail bars front and center is them embracing bars as not just a waiting room for guests, but a part of the dining experience,” Meehan says.
“Not everyone wants to go out and have a tasting menu, and no one understands that more than me,” says San Francisco chef Chris Bleidorn. He opened his eagerly anticipated tasting-menu restaurant Birdsong in San Francisco this May, and is currently plotting what to do with its basement bar space. “I’ve been doing [tasting menus] for 15 years, and there’s another end of the spectrum where you just want to have something made by chefs that care.” To that end, he’s going more casual downstairs: Think an on-trend wine bar serving rustic whole cuts of meat and natural wines by the glass. “I wanted a space to go out to eat with my wife and have a steakhouse kind of meal,” he says.
In Chicago, chefs John Shields and Karen Urie Shields opened Smyth and the Loyalist, two different concepts housed on top of one another, in 2016 — the year that these kinds of double-duty restaurant spaces took off. “Originally we planned on doing a high-end restaurant, and we wanted something attached that was a little more casual, because that’s how we are,” John Shields remembers. “But when we walked into the space it kind of dictated itself.” And so the Loyalist became a bar.
Upstairs, Smyth serves five-, eight- or 12-course tasting menus that have earned the team two Michelin stars. Downstairs, the Loyalist serves more humble dishes, like chicken wings and clams linguine, alongside playful options like a foie gras eclair. The Shields’ goal in having two distinct concepts was not to please every possible diner, but rather to create one place that filled more needs in the area. “Sometimes it’s just nice to have a neighborhood restaurant where you can pop in and out — it doesn’t have to be a big event,” says Karen Urie Shields.
Attaching bar spaces that function as stand-alone restaurants onto existing fine dining restaurants is also a way to blur the demarcation between “bar” and “restaurant” and what we experience when we go to both. At Momofuku Ko in Manhattan’s East Village, the bar and dining room are next door to one another, with one entrance but a shared dividing wall.
Ko’s bar, which opened to much fanfare in February, faces a small kitchen that handles orders for the bar area. Visitors would be hard-pressed to find evidence of the tasting menu happening on the other side of the wall — beyond the appearance of signature dishes like the much-Instagrammed duck pie that used to be on the tasting menu. The handwritten menu changes daily and usually features dishes from the tasting menu that have been reimagined or dishes that are experiments for the other side of the wall. “The food in the bar space is like a test version for Ko, and we can play with techniques and ideas,” says chef Sean Gray. “There’s a difference in atmosphere, so the food matches.”
The Ko bar also gives customers who came for the tasting menu a more complete experience. “Before we built the bar, [walking into the dining room] felt like being dropped into the middle of a song or a composition,” says Ko general manager Su Wong Ruiz. To combat this, the team recently removed the exterior doorknob to the Ko dining room, requiring all guests to enter through the bar space. Diners are greeted and led through the corridor that connects both spaces, a dark hallway with pumping music, before they enter the tasting-menu space and take their seats at the chef’s counter. “Now it’s more of a complete piece, and people want to sit at the bar before moving into dinner,” she says.
While the new space puts the Ko bar squarely in the tradition of fine dining bars that serve as waiting rooms, the bar area’s dishes, which are deeply technical and imaginative, paired with the austere design, push the genre forward, presenting a unified vision that Eater NY critic Ryan Sutton declared one of the city’s best new restaurants of the year.
It’s well and good to reach new customers or reshape guest experiences, but beyond all that, a flourishing bar space can majorly impact the restaurant’s bottom line. “There’s a bit more control with a tasting menu in terms of product, but financially there’s more investment,” says Bleidorn. A bar space that serves dishes using a similar caliber of ingredients can repurpose those luxe items in more ways than a tasting menu can.
Bar spaces also have quicker turn times and lower prices, which takes some of the pressure off of the fine dining restaurant. “The Loyalist is able to generate the revenue that we’re looking for, and we don’t have to hit as many covers in the fine dining space,” says Shields.
Of course, running two distinct operations under one roof comes with challenges for the staff. “Most nights I float between both spaces trying to see the big picture,” says Wong Ruiz. “I constantly have to move around and I can’t get tunnel vision on one space.”
These hybrid bars offer a different experience for the chefs, too. “I think we all start out super ambitious, and maybe that’s based off of ego,” says Shields. “As a chef, you’re driven by fine dining, and then you get older and you have to figure out ways to make your dollar go further, and you open up something more casual.”
Bleidorn feels the same way. “As chefs, we’re cooking tasting menus all the time, and some days I just want to pick out a few things on a really good menu.”
There are just some things diners can only get at a bar — and fine dining chefs want in on that. “I think our regulars at Gramercy didn’t sit at the bar because they wanted to be left alone; they wanted to sit there because they wanted to feel that energy that a bar has,” says Meehan, who expects to see even more fully thought-out bars attached to fine dining restaurants in the future. “Chefs who think they need to water down the experience for the bar are missing the boat.”
Korsha Wilson is a food writer and a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America. She is the founder of A Hungry Society, a blog and website dedicated to celebrating food culture’s diversity and helping create a more inclusive food world.
Editor: Hillary Dixler Canavan