Why We (almost) Always Eat At The Bar

by Jeremy Maron on June 18, 2012

It’s 7:30 at Tres Hermanas, my favorite Mexican restaurant, and the wait would make a lesser man weep. I put my name in with the hostess, but already know I have no intention of sitting at a table. I make for the bar and hope to find two empty seats. It’s a tight squeeze, but I get my wife and me in, between two guys doing shots and what has to be a couple on a first date. The bartender looks at us and smiles. Without asking he puts two of his famous top-shelf margaritas in front of us and asks how the hell we are doing.

Except for the bartender every one is stranger. The guys doing shots left for their table and have been replaced by two self-indulgent cougars (pretty women in their late-forties, who want to look like they are in their late-twenties) on the prowl. I also notice the first date couple have now found a table. A guy sits down in their place. He’s from Boston on business for the week and a Yelp review brought him to the restaurant. Nobody likes eating at a table alone and the bar is good for that too.

Friends are often surprised when going out to dinner with us. The owner or server will know us by name, and more often than not, come out from behind the bar or kitchen to greet us. “How do you know the each other?” friends will ask, and the simply answer is: we didn’t know each other, we got to know each other.

And the best place to start that relationship is at the bar.

My initial judgment of the cougars next to us is a bad one. When they sat down they ask us to scoot over a little to get them in. We oblige, but I wasn’t too happy about it. But then they go on to ask us what’s good drink and food-wise. They order exactly what I suggest, and then they buy my wife and me drink. Which is something I would have totally done in the same situation. It’s the classy thing to do and all of a sudden I realize what an asshole I was to prejudge these amazing ladies. And these ladies were amazing.

The conversation continued. We found out how they became friends, that one just got out of a bad relationship, and the kind of work they do. Both were funny, beautiful and had a great personality. If I had any single guy friends that were not emotional 12-year-olds I would have hooked them up in a second. By the end of the evening they had invited us to go out dancing with them at a local club. Instead we got their emails and we still chat today.

This type of thing happens regularly at the bar. And not just with other patrons, but with owners and staff as well.

From the bar you see everything happen. The rushes of customers, servers rattling off drink orders, and that brief moment when the staff needs to catch their breath. Sitting there you see the movement and energy of the people running the joint. I find the organized chaos comforting. The façade of a restaurant dining room is broken down and you’re on more equal footing with the person serving you. You watch them working. While they are there to serve you, they are not at your beck and call. They may have to clean some glasses or answer a question from the waitress. And at the bar, that is acceptable. A bleacher democracy exists at the barstool. Doctor, storekeeper, politician… all of them wait on the bartender.

I hate to be “waited” on, the gulf between server and patron. Part of it may be that my first jobs were in restaurants. Ever since, I enjoy watching that behind-the-scenes process of how the food goes from kitchen to table. I also find myself sympathizing with the staff more than the clientele. The level of expectation by many diners is not only unrealistic, but borders on a level of elitism that should not be tolerated in a country of equals. If you’re the guy who thinks it’s ok to yell at a barista because you asked for “dry” cappuccino…well, fuck you.

One the thing I’ve found is that the bar is refuge for the owners and staff. No one wants to hang out in the back of the kitchen. In the last hours of service, you will usually find a small group of employees “staffing” the bar. That’s when I usually start the conversation. I ask how the day was or how busy it seemed to be. And if nobody feels like talking, I don’t push it. I let it go. But more often than not, the bartender or server is actually glad to have a real conversation where they are not “on” or pretending to be nice to people who fail to reciprocate their courtesy.

That’s where it begins…with simple courtesy. Like any other friendship, the relationship moves from there. It can take time. But the rewards of treating people with civility and respect reap far more than getting seated quickly or that occasional free drink. It reaps community, and dining is best experienced as a communal activity. With friends, family and, without sounding too corny…with fellowship.

If you are open to it, you can almost always find it at the bar.

 

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Jeff Marmins June 18, 2012 at 4:48 pm

Well said Jeremy. While there is often occasion, especially with more people or children, to have a table, the bar offers all that you suggested. It often holds true at the counter as well. I enjoy having my children feel that they are “part of the action,” at the counter rather than “being served,” at a table.

Relationships can develop candidly at a bar in much the same way they can at a barbershop. I find bars can be a place of frank advice and discussion. You’re likely to get unvarnished opinion from your barber or bartender. They have automatic permission for unsolicited opinion and seem to be able to deliver it without sacrificing hospitality, the root of all great customer service. That’s another comment harangue altogether.

Further to your point Jeremy, candor is a great basis for genuine relationships. What better way to make a new friend than at the bar where posturing and pretense are often left at the door.

Jeremy Maron June 19, 2012 at 12:26 pm

Well said, Jeff!

The anonymity, or maybe the better way to phrase it is “the lack of established relationships”, of bar patrons lends itself to frank conversations, unfiltered opinions and a directness of dialogue which can be hard to find these days (in this world of ever continuous bullshit postering and pretense).

Cheers,

JAM

Judy Farah June 18, 2012 at 5:26 pm

I sometimes go for a drink or dinner alone after a long news day. Funny, it’s typical for guys and gals to show up at bars by themselves in the Northeast where I grew up — think of the Boston bar in “Cheers.” But people think twice of it in California.

I always find the staff to be friendly and most of the fellow bar patrons when I’m solo. We always get a conversation going and have a good time.

Jeremy Maron June 19, 2012 at 12:16 pm

Judy,
Agreed. After a long day when you need a little social interaction but nothing too taxing, eating dinner at the bar of good restaurant is perfect.

Thanks for posting.

JAM

Jeremy Maron June 19, 2012 at 12:42 pm

Hey everyone,
List three restaurants (and their city) that have great bars to eat and have good conversations in. Here’s three (in no particular order) for Sacramento:

-Tres Hermanas (of course)
-Aoili’s Bodega (small bar, great staff)
-The Paesano’s

Your turn

Don Rood June 22, 2012 at 10:12 am

I love a dry Cappuccino!

Jeremy Maron June 22, 2012 at 12:46 pm

Please re-read the last two words of paragraph 9.

Cheers,
JAM

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