I’ve had three of the most remarkable meals of my eating life within the last year, and I’ve had them all while sitting on a barstool, elbow to elbow and knee to knee with my dining partner. I used to be intimidated when I walked into a crowded restaurant and was told it would be a 40-minute wait. I usually assented, declined my companion’s offer to get me a drink while we waited, and settled in to make idle chit-chat and play Angry Birds while checking the time on my phone every three minutes in the restaurant version of are-we-there-yet. I’d glance at the couples lingering over softly lit tables filled with beautiful dishes and wonder when it would be my turn. I wanted to be waited on. I wanted to linger. I wanted to have a capital-D Dining Experience.
That began to change last summer when, in the middle of a remarkable heatwave, my husband and I slouched into The Purple Pig in Chicago on the fourth of July. We were sweating after the short walk from our hotel (you try not to sweat walking any distance at all when it’s 107 out), the line was backed up way out the door, and our moods were rapidly approaching hangry. We were told the wait for a table would be, well, who knows how long, but it was longer than I was willing to wait. I glanced longingly at the couples lingering over the aforementioned softly lit tables littered with the remnants of an amazing small plates dinner. And then I heard, “Would you like to sit at the bar? We serve the full menu.”
The heavens opened up. Angels sang. The sun shone down upon us. We looked at each other, uncertain. We shrugged. And then we said yes. Sure, we’re on a “date night,” but let’s try this eating at the bar business. We strolled past a few dozen would-be diners waiting to hear their names called, and as I settled onto the barstool and took my first long sip of vinho verde (nothing better on a sweltering day, y’all), I cast a glance at them and thought, “Haha, suckers!”
At The Purple Pig, the kitchen is located right behind the bar, so we not only got to chat with the bartender and take advantage of her knowledge about the restaurant’s wine list and menu, we got something of a show. As we ate, exclaiming over the fried pig’s ear with crispy kale, the roasted bone marrow, and a handful of other oh-my-God-this-is-so-good dishes, the bartender heard us and jumped in, recommending her own favorites. She kept the drinks coming. We asked her to choose our dessert. Everything we tasted was amazing. And I realized that it wasn’t a Dining Experience I was after, but an Eating Experience.
Fast forward to late December. We’re out for my birthday, smack dab in the middle of the holiday season, at The Roosevelt here in Richmond. With just 36 seats in the house, and only half available for reservations, it’s a sought-after spot. When I called to make reservations, they were booked for the whole night. But, the hostess said, we could come in, see how long the wait was, and hang at the bar…or we could eat there. Going somewhere else wasn’t an option. I’d been looking at the menu online almost daily, doing the foodie version of midday fantasizing. I was going to ring in my 30th birthday at The Roosevelt.
So that’s what we did, clinking cocktails (a Manhattan for him, a Seersucker–Maker’s Mark, house-made sweet tea syrup, Angosturra bitters, and a charred lemon cube–for me) and then clinking forks as we dug into each other’s dishes. Which brings me to another thing I love about eating at the bar: in addition to getting the benefit of the bartender’s insider know-how, you get the casual intimacy of hanging out with a person you like rather than the formality of sitting across from each other. You can lean into the conversation, rest your head briefly on your companion’s shoulder, jab at them when they tease you, and get a bite of their dish without having to reach across the table. It might not be romance–at least, it’s not the white table cloth and candles kind–but it is closeness, and it is quite nice.
Now, you might be wondering if I’d have felt the same if my dining partner had been someone other than my husband. So I’ll tell you about the meal I had just last week at Traif, in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg neighborhood. I went with a Riot coworker who is also a close friend. We chose the bar over a potentially long wait. We ordered cocktails and got into the spirit of small plates by selecting several to try. Unbeknownst to us, the bartender picked up on what we liked and sent us a few extra dishes to taste. We progressed from talking about how good the food was to not talking much at all. We didn’t have to. The silent, wide-eyed, vigorous nodding, the pointing of our forks at the quickly emptying plates, and the deep sighs said everything. We were waited on. We lingered. It was lovely.
When I did finally manage to speak, what came out was, “I am deeply happy in my soul.” “That’s a good place to be,” replied the bartender, who I didn’t know was listening. And he was right. Because at the end of a long day, there’s no better place to be than sitting beside a person who knows you so well that you don’t have to talk while you share a good meal and who doesn’t object when you stick your fork onto their plate because they knew from the beginning that you were going to.
You can keep your Dining Experiences. I’ll be the cat by the bar toasting to the good life.