The bar area is the lifeblood of many restaurants, and rightfully so. It’s one of the most profitable parts of the restaurant industry and can make or break your experience there. Bars also act as a good gauge of the restaurant’s care of clients.
Part of being a food critic is knowing what to watch out for when you hit the bar. Did you ever wonder what makes the difference between a good and great bar, or what makes a restaurant a total no-go? In this arc, I’ll reveal what a restaurant’s bar says about them.
The Bar Menu
A bar’s menu can speak volumes about the restaurant you’re at. Drinks set the tone for the night, and to a point, reflect the bar’s unique brand. That’s why I’m leery of bars that only serve beer, wine, classic drinks, and shots on tap. It’s a sign that they lack effort, and that they don’t want to stand out in a crowd.
A green light from me is seeing a bar menu that includes unique cocktails involving rare ingredients. Its proof that the restaurant is willing to go the extra mile to set themselves apart, and that they have a certain level of dedication to their craft.
For the life of me, I can’t name how many bars I’ve visited that had water stains (or other stains) on their glasses. This is not acceptable. If a bar can’t even get their glasses clean, how can you trust that the rest of the venue is clean?
This is one of the reasons I order beer at every venue I’m critiquing. Beer, when poured through a clean tap, will have suds that cling to the glass. No suds, or low suds, means that you are likely drinking booze from a tap that hasn’t been cleaned in ages.
Mixing a good drink is a skill that comes with time, and a good restaurant critic knows this. Most critics I’ve met have a go-to drink they order as a way to ensure the restaurant hires good staff. That being said, a highly unusual cocktail that has a great presentation can be proof enough of a bartender’s level of skill.
My personal go-to is a classic Manhattan. If it goes down smooth, has a minimal burn, and tastes refreshing, the bartender knows what he’s doing. If I’m not feeling a Manhattan, I’ll order a house drink to see what they can do.
Part of understanding the art of drink is knowing which drinks match well with food. I generally ask about wine pairings with my meal to see how well people understand wines. If a bartender or waiter just shrugs their shoulders or offers a random red or white wine without talking about flavor, chances are they really don’t know (or care to know) about pairings.
Bad Drink Practices
When I’m working, I make a point to watch the bar like a hawk. Bad bars and restaurants often use sketchy tactics to make their ends meet. Things like using cheap liquors instead of top shelf are a bad sign, as is the practice of mixing old bottles of wine with new ones as a way to save money.
Some of these practices, including wine mixing (or “marrying drinks”) are actually illegal. So, if you see this happen, it’s probably a sign you should bail from the restaurant.
My Bottom Line
The way a restaurant treats its bar will tell you volumes about how good (and safe) their food will be. Should you notice a lack of effort at the bar, it’s often best to just skip the food altogether.