Bar dining is the height of fashion, with many restaurants catching on. It’s a good look, but only if you get it right
Trendwatchers, particularly those who visit New York with any regularity, will be well aware of the trend for bar dining. From top end haute-cuisine establishments to spit and sawdust bars, New Yorkers are very happy to forego a table (and all the bother of securing a reservation) in favour of an informal seat at the counter. Full meals are served, the ambience is quick and lively, and the bartender's usually quick with the drinks – and the wisecracks.
Previously seen as second-class seating in the UK, bar seating finally seems to be catching on here, as shown by big names such as Caprice Holdings' Scott's restaurant, Gordon Ramsay's Maze and, of course, L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon, where seats at the bar are possibly even hotter tickets than at the oversubscribed tables.
Clearly, in the case of Scott's, a precedent was set long ago by the group's Le Caprice. "The only people in London who can get it right is basically Caprice Holdings," announces Martin Brudnizki, the designer behind Scott's recent refurbishment. "I love ‘eating bars', but they are a very specific phenomenon that only works in certain places like Mayfair and the West End. It's very cosmopolitan and glamorous. It wouldn't work in Wimbledon."
For Brudnizki, it wasn't the practical challenges of creating such a space that appealed to him; it was the fun of putting it in show-stealing centre stage along with the Future Systemsdesigned crustacea bar. "The piece itself is quite extravagant," he says modestly. It's made of green onyx, with polished brass and chrome details, countertop lighting and a stingray skin front. The eye-catching scallop-backed stools are, in fact, based on a standard issue pedestal.
Of course, it's not all about looking simply fabulous. There are sound business reasons for raising the bar. At contract furniture suppliers Andy Thornton, they're finding that restaurateurs are adapting their dining and drinking areas throughout the day to support demand. "People are combining tall tables and bar stools with regular dining furniture,"
explains Jerry Hodkinson, Marketing Manager, "so they can serve food at certain times of day and change them to drinks tables when needed."
Another advantage is that diners in bars feel less uncomfortable in among the drinkers when they're in an ‘elevated position'.
This mix-and-match approach has worked for Wright Bros Oyster and Porter Bar in Borough.
Co-owner Robin Hancock wanted a long bar area so that diners could enjoy the theatre of the cooking and shucking, but he also wanted informal standing and seating areas elsewhere.
He settled for two eight-seater bench tables, stand-up areas around barrels outside and one conventional table (to fulfil the requirements of the Disability Discrimination Act). "We kept most at counter height so those standing with a plate aren't towering over the tables," he says. "We're quite ‘spit and sawdust' so the informality of the whole thing suits us,"
Creating different elevations through furniture will suit the pub and casual-dining sector, but this will be less suitable in a higher end restaurant where the restaurant and bar areas – even where food is served – have to be clearly demarcated, particularly as different menus, waiting staff and reservations policies apply.
Setting up a couple of stools at the dispense bar sounds like the easy way to get set up but there are right ways and wrong ways. Take a stool and sit down at your bar for a plate of food and you'll see why. Firstly, it's likely that there's no knee room so you almost end up sitting ‘side saddle'; secondly, if the bar's even wide enough to support a plate, your plate will probably have to jostle for space with the bartenders' kit and the beer pumps. Don't even think about cramming wine and water glasses on there.
"If the ergonomics aren't right, it's all for nought," says David Rockwell, founder and CEO of Rockwell Group, designer of Gordon Ramsay's Maze in London. There are standards to adhere to, namely height, amount of knee space, width of the customer (honestly) and seat to counter heights. The countertop also needs to be wider than average.
Andy Martin of Andy Martin Associates, the design practice that created the Hart brothers'
100 per cent bar dining tapas bar, Barrafina in Soho, agrees that getting it spot on can be tricky. "I've made a few mistakes in the past," he admits. "Like choosing a stool with cushioning too soft so you're not at the right height. You need knee space and a foot rest, but you have to design these around the average person, not a little person or a big person."
He recommends doing something as simple as setting up a mock table and adjustable stool and moving it around to get the correct measurements. The foot rest is easy to compute: it's 420mm from the seat – "it's how you sit on a normal chair" – but the distance measured from the bar is the harder issue as "you tend to sit on the edge".
There also has to be ‘overhang', ie space for the diner's knees. "The bigger the overhang, the bigger the bar top, and people hate to lose space,"
says Martin. "At Barrafina, we could arguably have taken 150mm off it and given it back to the chef but I try and give any extra space to the public."
Martin allocated just 550mm of the bar per cover, rather than the usual 600mm. "We could probably have even got away with 500mm," he adds, "but then guests would literally have been rubbing shoulders."
Note that such neat spaces work with the service style at Barrafina, where tapas dishes are handed to the customers informally. Be more generous if your concept demands it. "In Spain it's the reality there, so they don't mind. It's hard to do it here because we're not as relaxed,'
says Martin. "And unless the weather changes dramatically, we never will be."
The Harts insisted on having fixed bar stools.
"I was slightly nervous about going with fixed stools for a larger person. Bigger people might say ‘no I'm not happy here', but this decision shows confidence. It stops people moving them and forming groups that stick out. In a place with just 23 covers you have to be disciplined."
Also on Frith Street in London, is Arbutus restaurant, another new venue that has made a success of its bar space. Manager Will Smith has found that the bar encourages walk-ins and single diners, and makes good use of the space.
"The bar area takes up about a third of our space in the dining room. I can't afford to lose that just on dispensing drinks and making coffee."
For Maze, Rockwell had bar stools customdesigned.
"They didn't need to be height adjustable, but we put them on swivel bases to make conversations with your dinner partner or new acquaintance easier." Obviously stools without backs can do that job without a swivel base, as the customer does the swivelling.
At Maze, the bar top, sides and framework at the back bar are made of rosewood "finished with a durable topcoat to prevent scratches and water stains". The centre bar top is made of white polished agglomerate stone for style and durability. The high end finish is not only practical, it enhances the status of the bar: it's not second best, it's as suitable a place to enjoy Jason Atherton's Michelin-starred cuisine as the table.
What makes a good bar a great bar? The small details. One overlooked detail – far too often – is the coat-hook. Sit down at that mock-up bar and stool and try fishing a bag off the floor. Not comfortable, is it? Knock a hook under the bar and you have somewhere to keep your bag safe from light-fingered visitors. Be sure to put hooks on the walls, too, so long coats have a home.
Hancock at Wright Bros knows the value of such details even in the rough and ready environment of the oyster bar. There are the nifty spinning fruit de mers holders – brass attachments to the bar that can hold ice buckets and platters, or ‘the romantic option', a candle.
The idea is to raise clutter above the bar and free up the counter. Their other innovation is to make a foot rest of a pipe joined into the hot water system. "You can slip off your shoes and warm your feet," says Hancock. Now who said the bar was second best?
Andy Martin Associates, 020 7229 2425 Rockwell Group, +1 212 463 0334 Inature, 020 7223 8100 Martin Brudnizki, 020 7376 7555