Restaurant Briefing: Dining At the Bar

Promote Your Business Restaurant Industry By American Express January 23, 2015

Restaurants around the USA are discovering that customers are increasingly interested in dining at the bar, or at a counter, often for the entertainment value. Some are adding more seats at the bar to accommodate diners and others are creating counter seating around the bar and into the restaurant. While this type of seating often attracts a younger crowd, many are finding that it appeals to diners of all ages who want to feel part of the restaurant.

Kiley Efron, Proprietor, Taverna, Jacksonville, FL, says their 15-seat bar is very popular at dinner, especially on weekends with singles and couples, and sometimes even groups. “Our bartenders have to be extremely knowledgeable about food because we want dining at the bar to be a great experience,” she says. Kiley adds that the bar is a cozy space, and in order to give the bar guests a feeling of the restaurant, they hung a huge mirror behind the bar that allows guests to see what’s happening all around them. At lunch placemats line the bar to signal to customers that they can eat lunch there. Kiley says, “In the middle of the day some people feel they shouldn’t be sitting at the bar, but having placemats gives them permission to sit there.”

“We created counter seating for over half the restaurant because it’s fun – guests sit facing an open kitchen or looking at other parts of the restaurant. And the same menu is available no matter where you sit,” says GM Mike Donaldson, Little Cleo’s, Scottsdale, AZ. He says at some point all the chefs on the line have some interaction with guests sitting at the counter. “Our chefs like putting on a show and interacting with guests – it instills a sense of pride.” He says all ages like sitting at the counter, including some families with kids who enjoy the entertainment value. Many counter guests remark that they are surprised seeing all that happens in a kitchen, as they’ve never worked in a restaurant. He cautions, “The kitchen is on display 100% of the time, therefore, you have to have the cleanest, most professional sparkling kitchen. Chefs need to be polished professionals and be comfortable working in front of guests and talking to them.”

More of our guests are interested in dining at our bars, rather than sitting at tables in our dining rooms. So we’ve added additional seats, which has resulted in a significant increase in revenue.”
– James Lin, Senior Vice President, Kimpton Hotels & Restaurants, hq, San Francisco, CA

“Our owner and chef wanted our small seafood restaurant to have an open kitchen with counter seating in order to mimic a sushi counter – with an emphasis on interaction between chefs and guests,” says Kristin Walker, GM, Bergen Hill, Brooklyn, NY. Kristin says that while younger couples are more open to counter seating, there are some older couples that frequently come in to sit at the counter because they love the experience. “Our chefs are so welcoming that guests feel free to chat and ask questions. It’s sort of a show and we’ve found the average check is higher because when guests see a dish being prepared that they didn’t order, they’ll ask about it, and then often add it to their order.” Kristin adds that due to the restaurant’s popularity, the bar, which was originally meant as a place to have drinks only, is now preset with table settings.

“We’ve been refreshing our restaurant bars and adding a few more seats to give more options to guests and, as a result, both beverage and food sales are up 34%,” says James Lin, Senior Vice President, Kimpton Hotels & Restaurants, hq, San Francisco, CA. “Dining at the bar means guests don’t have to commit to a full dinner and many like the informality and energy as well as the opportunity to engage with the personalities behind the bar.” James says that while millennials are probably driving the trend of dining at the bar, all demographics are enjoying it. “Be sure to hone in on hospitality and service behind the bar as well as to have the right personalities,” James advises. “Bartenders need to become part of the sales team and they need to be educated about food. Our chefs are working closely with our bartenders, often using some of the same ingredients.” Operationally, the more bar business you can do the better, he says. “We know that people tend to drink more when they eat.”