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Great Bar Grub

Long an afterthought, bar food is getting a second look at many restaurants.

Business at restaurants is slowly on the upswing, but one segment is especially healthy: snacking. Snacks made up some 40 percent of industry growth over the last five years, according to research by NPD. The firm projects that snacking at restaurants will grow nearly 10 percent during the next decade.

Bar food is one way to satisfy Americans' craving for snacks along with their need for affordable indulgences. It also allows a restaurant to lure in regulars — both at the bar and for full-blown meals. Clearly, if you haven't already done so, now is the time to get your bar food menu in top form.

Happy hours and bar food have long been the domain of large national casual chain restaurants; lately the field has gotten even more crowded. Two powerhouse chains, Cheesecake Factory and P.F. Chang's China Bistro, gamely entered the happy hour segment for the first time last year. Cheesecake Factory launched its program with $5 specialty drinks and $5 full-size appetizers; Chang's offerings include $3-$6 dim sum and street fare such as steamed dumplings and Asian-flavored tacos, teamed with $3-$6 specials on beers, sakes and wines and signature cocktails.

At a higher price point, Ocean Prime, a relatively young Cameron Mitchell Restaurants chain, clearly understands the need to feed folks in the bar. The design incorporates a prominent lounge area with fire pits and soft seating to encourage lingering. A “prime hour” early evening bar menu lists such posh nibbles as truffle deviled eggs, kobe sliders and tilapia fish tacos. It varies from location to location, so in Denver bison sliders rule and in Orlando a seafood “martini” is a favorite. One of the biggest sellers is Point Judith Calamari.

Bar snacks allow a casual restaurant to showcase what it does best. Old Chicago, a 98-unit chain known for its pizza and lengthy beer list, recently revamped its appetizer menu to include value-driven small plates such as Fried Mac n' Cheese, Tomato & Mozzarella Caprese, Crispy Thai Chili Bites, Signature Burger Sliders and Chicago Dog Sliders. Italian Nachos, Sicilian Pepperoni Rolls and a combination of those two with cheese garlic bread are popular mainstays. Mike Thom, director of culinary research and development for the chain, attributes their popularity to their shareability and value, and the fact that they represent tastes and textures that can't be easily duplicated at home. Plus, they are designed to pair nicely with the selection of 110 international beers on Old Chicago's menu.

The Greene Turtle Sports Bar & Grille, recently voted Baltimore's best sports bar in an AOL survey, sells a lot of flatbread pizzas, soft pretzel sticks with crab dip and an ever-popular item called “hog hammers” — a meatier version of pork ribs that c.o.o. Bob Barry says are “almost like a pork chicken wing.” The ideal dish for his bar customers, he says, is something that “can be set down in the middle of the table and two to four people can reach over and grab.” Not surprisingly everything is designed for sharing.

One of the best things about bar food is that it encourages the kitchen to have some fun. Holeman & Finch Public House, an Atlanta gastropub, pays homage to the ultimate bar food, the burger, every night at 10. Locals understand that it's the only time when the kitchen turns out exactly 24 double cheeseburgers on house-made buns with hand-cut fries and homemade ketchup, mustard and pickles. “The thought behind the minimal number and the 10:00 serving is not a gimmick; it's just the opposite,” Holeman & Finch's website explains. “A handcrafted burger takes a lot of time to prepare correctly. In order to pay the proper respect to this iconic American food, (chef) Linton Hopkins and company decided that only a handful would be made and served each night. This way, the burger is done right; and because generally, a burger on any menu tends to trump other items, it allows the rest of Holeman and Finch's menu to take its place with due respect.”

Burgers are but one option. At the Mediterranean-inspired Wave in Chicago, seasonal croquettes, Middle Eastern fare and gourmet ham and cheese make up the ever-evolving bar menu.

Crop Bistro in Cleveland is one of many restaurants across the country known in part for its gourmet popcorn. “Our ‘crop corns’ are just a really fun evolution of a new classic bar snack,” says Steve Schimoler, executive chef. The snack resulted almost by accident from a bout of “late-night munchies with staff while hanging at our bar after a long day. I threw it together, we inhaled it and we all knew it would be a hit; that's exactly what happened,” Schimoler recalls. “We have done numerous versions, but the Warm Balsamic Salad and White Truffle Herb versions can't be taken off the menu.”

Sometimes bar food is a microcosm of the regular menu. Washington, DC's Zola last fall launched a modern American menu for the barroom that features local meats, fresh fish and vegetables. It includes house-cured charcuterie, cheeses and sandwiches; the small plates can be combined into groups of three ($14), six ($22) or nine ($30).

Happy hours present a clear opportunity to team bar foods with cocktails. At AGAINN, a European-style bistro that opened in Washington, DC last year, weeknight happy hour menus included $5 treats such as fried Brussels sprouts with curry mayonnaise, ale-battered fish fingers with English egg sauce and house-made pretzels served with sea salt and spicy mustard. “Our choices appeal to people's sense of nostalgia while being consistent with the quality of ingredients and techniques used for the more refined food of our dinner menu,” explains Mike Sindoni, executive chef.

Many upscale restaurants are paying more attention to their bar menus these days. Bergamot, Keith Pooler's progressive American neighborhood spot that opened about a year ago in Boston, offers fried calamari with wild rice, scallions, slivered water chestnuts and a sweet chili sauce. And a vague and changing selection described as “bacon and egg or egg and bacon” combines items like deep-fried pork belly served with a runny fried egg and spicy cabbage slaw. The lobster melt mixes big chunks of fresh seafood with cheddar, mayo and scallions on a brioche roll. Bar guests are welcome to order from the full dining room menu as well.

“To me, bar food has to be simple, small and, in most occasions, shareable,” says Jonathan Bennett, executive chef and v.p. of Red Restaurant Group. His Moxie restaurant in suburban Cleveland presents about 15 small plates well-matched to the restaurant's wine and bar offerings. “I love mushrooms, and there is nothing better to eat with a beer than something crispy,” says Bennett, describing a tempura mushroom dish that he serves with ponzu crème fraiche. “These little beech mushrooms are fun to pull apart and munch on and when paired with the ponzu dipping sauce, the flavor is light, yet really packs a punch.”

At Seattle's ART Restaurant & Lounge, a daily unlimited tapas and cheese table features six small plates of Pacific Northwest specialties, including snap peas and red onions with a drizzle of spicy herb vinaigrette and pheasant rillettes with black garlic toast. A separate happy hour menu includes two favorites, a miniburger trio and calamari.

Kerry Sear, ART's executive chef, thinks through the choices logically. “People are in the bar for a good time and to socialize. We chose ART's menu with this in mind. Our bar menu had to be social — something people can bond over, share and that introduces fun. ART's bar menu goes with everything and people relate to it. It's simple, great food for a great value.”

Washington, DC's 701 Restaurant offers lunch and dinner menus available only in the bar/lounge area; Lunch dishes include orecchiette with acorn squash, walnuts, ricotta salata and sage brown butter; or steak and arugula salad with cheddar ‘croutons,’ fennel and red pepper vinaigrette; they are paired with a glass of wine for $15. Bar dinner options include crispy duck confit with cannellini beans, rose gold potatoes and plum compote or house-smoked rainbow trout with caramelized fennel puree, oyster mushrooms and red wine candied peanuts. At dinner, guests can combine two courses from the tasting menu with two wines for a $35 package.

Most operators would agree it's not a bad problem to have when a bar seat becomes a hot commodity. At Bergamot, “the bar seats are the most coveted,” says Pooler. “People will wait to sit at the bar. We have a distinct bar menu filled with thoughtful items that appeal to different wants and needs.” The best seller in this New England spot? The Lobster Melt, naturally.

TAGS: Trends