By many accounts the pre-cursor to the communal dining table was the eat-in bar. Danny Meyer one of the notable restaurant pioneers famously employed it upon opening the Union Square Café in 1985. Others followed and it has become a standard bier of urban dining.
Taking the bar
In the 1990’s my wife and I at the end of the week and BC (before children) would dine at our favorite place outside of Boston, Gargoyles in Davis Square. The bartender, 15 years our junior, would ask us “What’ll you kids have?.” He had us at hello. It opened a relationship with the person who would ultimately be our server for the night. We would stay on to eat at the bar. Chefs are also now telling me that their bars are selling out before tables for dining. People like being able to observe the scene and the service is right there for the entirety of the meal. Another of our favorite places in North End Boston, Giacomo’s, had these stool seats at an eating bar located at the end of the cooking line and they were often empty. But seated there (a way to beat the line outside) you were above the eyeline of table diners, sitting in the “power corner” (like the Sopranos) and you got a great view of the line cooks preparing the dishes. It was great food and a great show.
Which side are you on?
The rails that make up a bar are specific to the side of service. Behind the bar are speed rails, low racks mounted on the face of the bar equipment holding liquor and mixers for quick cocktail mixing, hence the name. These usually stick out into the working space of the back bar which puts more space between you and the bartender. The increase in reach length also increases the amount of back pain on the part of the barkeep. This is of course unless the planning is done to use shallow depth equipment where the speed rails are mounted. That and hoping the planner doesn’t go crazy on the amount of tiers.
You also have a bar rail at the serving side of the bar. A sculpted wood piece of molding that runs the length of the bar edge. There is an actual antique brass rail version of this that showed up during the “fern bar” years of the 1970’s. Norm at Cheers had to grapple with this version. Oddly that rail served only to keep Norm further away from his first love, sorry Vera. The front rails push the bar diner at least 6” away from the plate. Fine if you have a beard to catch the spilling soup on the way to your mouth but it makes dining more difficult in general. The wood rail also forces your arms and shoulders up so that everyone looks like they are shrugging as if they don’t know something. Ironic in that most think they develop a higher intellect sitting at the bar.
Size does matter
The planimetrics of the bar involve the incorporation and concealment of many parts. Bar equipment is about 24” deep and that tucks under the bartop behind the die wall. That effectively conceals the equipment from general view. The die wall is the wall that supports the bar top and can also contain plumbing, wiring. It is usually about 6”-8” thick. The part that touches you, the front bar, extends outward (cantilevered) from the die wall about 10”. More than that and you are getting farther from the bartender’s reach. The sum of these parts make about a 30” top that is like a dining table.
The bar stool works with the bartop in the dining experience. I like the stool as high as you can get it while still having about 9” clear for the relaxed thigh to fit under the front bar. This insures that diners can drop their elbows to the bartop, which is more comfortable. You’ll look more sure of yourself too. Some bar stools are adjustable which helps for people like football players with big thighs, but with a 42” high bar a 30.5” high seat should fit and feel right. Keeping the bartop material thin helps maintain the 9” of clearance. If you are limited to a 30” high stool that can work, but you don’t get the right amount of drop on the elbows for people of average dimensions. A 32” high stool can increase the drop of the elbows if the diner is of average dimensions, but you are starting to squeeze the thighs.
Eliminating the front rail and managing the speed rails at the back of bar can be a player in the making of a good event experience. At the very least it can bring the server and the served closer together. You may never hear someone say that the rails were horrible at a restaurant. But you know that if one has an unpleasant experience they usually don’t return to tell you. – Tom