Grazing the bar
June 17th, 2010
01:00 PM ET
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Sometimes my friends are a little shocked, a little concerned maybe, when they find out how much time I spends sitting at bars by myself. Perhaps they imagine I'm just tossing back whiskey, crying into my drink, singing along to the jukebox. Well, sometimes, yes, I am doing precisely that. Most of the time, though, I am eating. I love eating alone at bars.

I eat at bars that serve food and restaurants that have bars. I eat shepherd's pie in Irish pubs and beef cheek ravioli in fancy Italian joints. I seek out odd little local spots in cities I'm visiting, looking for the perfect cup of gumbo, some regional burger variation I've never encountered before. I stroll into high-end restaurants that are booked up for the months and get wonderful meals without waiting.

Sometimes I nibble on an appetizer and call it a night; sometimes I go all out with a multicourse meal. Sometimes I get to eat dishes that people sitting at tables, out in the "real" restaurant don't know about. Sometimes I get little tastes of things for free. Often, I think to myself, I am having a better time than most of the other diners.

We all have to eat by ourselves sometimes. When traveling, when loved ones are busy. Many people think of it as something to get over with as soon as possible, and settle for fast food or room service. There's something a little disreputable about eating alone, goes the usual thinking, something a little sad.

When I'm at the bar, though, I don't really think of it as "eating alone." I chat with the bartender, sometimes exchange a few pleasant words with my neighbors, sometimes have long conversations. Those poor people out at the tables are stuck talking to whoever they came with.

Most restaurants, no matter how gracious they may be, don't love seating single diners. A two-top table occupied by one person is seen as a money-losing proposition. Some places will try a little upselling, recommending more dishes, and more expensive dishes, to make up the difference.

A bar stool is treated as less valuable real estate, so you have more freedom. You can do what you want, eat what, and how, you want.

And bartenders, I've found, make wonderful servers. They're always hovering just a few feet away, for one thing. You don't have to scan the room to find them. More than that, though, they tend to be on your side in a way the waitstaff out in the dining room rarely are.

Nothing against waitpeople; they work hard. But usually, they are team players. They have to be, with the manager watching over them all night, the restaurant's bottom line drilled into them at staff meetings.

In a restaurant's ecology, bartenders are more like freelancers, independent experts. They don't have to hustle in the same way, so I tend to trust their recommendations. They're not trying to sell me the stuff the kitchen wants to move.

Traditionally, there is a special relationship between the person at the bar and the cooks. Sending beers back into the hot kitchen as a shift winds down, offering up free drinks at the end of the night – that's a good way to get cooks to love you. The waitstaff don't get the same insider info the bartenders do, and they have probably tried less of the menu. When a waiter suggests special, I wonder what's so special about it, besides the price. Bartender tells me to order the pork chop, I order the pork chop.

Beyond all else, I love the ritual of eating at the bar, that moment when the cloth napkins and silverware come out, when a special place is created just for me. Even at a crowded bar, there is an intimacy to it, a graciousness. Would that all restaurant meals were so pleasant.

Get Steven's tips for eating alone at the bar.

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Filed under: Bars • Bite • Culture • Etiquette • Restaurants • Sip • Solo dining

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  1. Chris

    TOTALLY! I absolutely LOVE eating at the bar. You find out more about the restaurant that way. Plus, it's casual, usually a television, or interesting people nearby. If I'm dining alone, I'm at the bar.

    June 22, 2010 at 1:31 pm |
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