While some restaurants struggle to fill their seats even on a Saturday night, others are lucky enough to turn people away. Great for these popular hot spots. Not so great if you are one of the people left chilling on the sidewalk. What do to? Well, if you can’t score a table, grab a seat at the bar.
That’s exactly what we did when failing—numerous times—to nab a table at the Minetta Tavern in the West Village. I had such a positive experience dining with a friend at Minetta’s bar, that I convinced my husband to eat at the bar at two more trendy restaurants—Babbo and SD26. (He went on to dine one evening at the bar at Marea, where scoring a table on the weekends is akin to being invited to a State Dinner at the White House).
We discovered that as bar diners we enjoyed many advantages over our dining room counterparts. Some minor adjustments were called for, too. But once those small changes were made, we enjoyed not only our meals but also the entire experience.
While we didn’t need a reservation to eat at the bar, we found that calling ahead helped us pinpoint the best time to arrive. Popular restaurants often fill up in the bar, too, so knowing whether to show up at six or nine, often gave us an edge.
At the Minetta Tavern, we were told to arrive early. The young woman at the reservation desk told us there were no tables available (well, we had to ask!) so we quickly found two seats at the attractive bar. Adjustment Number One: sitting comfortably on a bar stool for the duration of a meal. It’s rare to find a bar stool with a back, so some leaning on the bar is necessary. Also, carrying a small purse is advisable, otherwise you may find yourself holding that Louis Vuitton trunk on your lap the entire evening.
Minetta’s bartender, an affable young man with a sexy accent, spread white napkins in front of us and put down silverware. We discovered the first bar advantage—having the bartender recommend the best wines. We ordered two glasses of the chilled Chablis—excellent!—and looked over the menu. Typically when we dine at table, the waiter recites the evening’s specials. At the bar, our bartender recited the list with much editorial content.
Minetta’s two burgers—the Minetta with cheddar and caramelized onions, and the Black Label Burger, featuring dry-aged beef—are winners, yet we were in the mood for fish. While we deliberated, we ordered salads. Another advantage—because your server is directly in front of you, placing an entire order at once is not necessary. So we could nibble on our salads and wait to order our main courses. We finally settled on the grilled Dorade, with piperade, aioli, fried chickpeas and capers, and the Filet of Trout Meunière, with jumbo lump crabmeat and brioche croutons. Both were delicious.
The pace of a meal is important. Wait too long between courses, and chances are the food will arrive tepid. That rarely seems to happen at the bar. The bartender is there front and center—no need to flag him down to ask what’s happening to the food. At Minetta, even though we waited to order our main courses, the food arrived promptly and hot.
Minetta’s bar scene is very lively, the patrons young, attractive, well-dressed, and very friendly. Your date a bore? Why not strike up a conversation with the person sitting on the other side? When eating at the bar, there’s no such thing as dining alone. If other diners won’t talk to you, there’s always the bartender.
When leaving Minetta, we stopped at the reservation desk to book a table for the next available Friday or Saturday night. The young women explained the restaurant only books a month in advance and all the weekend spots were already spoken for. So if we return, we will once again be at the bar.
A few weeks later, my husband and I took in a jazz show in the Village and decided to pop into Babbo. Mario Batali’s restaurant is always jammed and unless you book weeks in advance, chances of reserving a table are low. When we arrived around 8:30, even the bar was full. We gave our names to the maitre d’ and he promised us the next two available stools. A half hour later, we were seated.
Babbo’s wine list is impressive and the bartender took particular delight helping us pair the wine with our food. Since it was after nine, we decided to eat light. Another advantage of bar dining—no pressure to order three courses. Babbo’s menu changes nightly, so there’s always lots to sample. That evening, we enjoyed small plates of tripe, barbecued octopus, and pasta with stinging nettle. For a main course, we shared branzino, with sweet peas as a vegetable. Babbo gets a late night crowd, so when we finally relinquished our bar stools, patrons were waiting two deep to take our places.
One evening found us leaving a cocktail reception early and looking for someplace to dine without consuming a large meal. We chose SD26, one of our favorite restaurants, run by Marisa May, a former Woman Around Town. (SD26 was recently named one of the best new restaurants in the country, but we already knew that!) SD26 actually features a wine bar with tables, so that area is large and attractive, the perfect place to linger. Since we visited early before the dinner hour, we were able to find two perfect seats at the bar. The bartender, a longtime employee with the May family, having worked at their previous restaurant, San Domenico, was a delight. He kept us well entertained while suggesting dishes and wines.
We began with a selection of salumeria, cured meats. As always, they were delicious and we enjoyed them with wonderful bread and olives. We shared orders of spaghetti cacio e pepe, pasta with cheese and coarsely ground pepper. Deciding that we were still hungry, we shared the ossobuco—absolutely the best! And just the right amount of food.
SD26’s front area is lively in the evening, with young people enjoying complimentary plates of pasta with their wine. The evening we visited, there was live music, a wonderful jazz trio.
Knowing that we can always eat at the bar has taken the stress out of dining. We now find ourselves checking out the bar area whenever we venture into a new restaurant. Although it hasn’t happened yet, if the last available table is in Siberia, we can politely say, “No, thanks. We’ll just eat at the bar.”