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I love eating at bars. It suits my personality. No matter how many times I’ve supped in white-tablecloth dining rooms, I’ve never become completely comfortable with the role of the pampered diner, being waited on hand and foot by servers whose very performances I will soon judge with the stroke of my pen on a credit-card slip. I like the more casual relationship between bartender and diner. A bartender will ask how your day was. A waiter just wants to know how you’d like your salmon cooked.
I also revel in the simple comforts of the bar menu. The options are often limited, and what selections there are usually come battered, fried, and loaded down with beef and grease. The food’s easy to eat, too. You don’t need three different forks to cruise through a bar meal. Sometimes you can eat an entire dinner with your hands. And watch the ball game while you’re at it.
Lately, I’ve been particularly fascinated with a subset of the bar-food genre—those menus found at bars and lounges inside fine-dining restaurants. You might be surprised to know that many of the dishes at these tonier bars don’t stray far from the meat-and-grease orthodoxy of their down-market cousins. These finger foods, sandwiches, and burgers just express themselves differently. They’re often tricked out with artisanal ingredients and all the techniques that an education at the Culinary Institute of American can provide. They may even look to foreign cuisines for inspiration.
But these haute bar bites also tend to share a common trait: They have an agenda.
Take the skeletal bar menu at Inox, the luxe Tysons restaurant run by chefs Jonathan Krinn and Jon Mathieson. They offer exactly seven dishes, none of which are caloric enough to ruin dinner should a nearby office worker wander into the lounge before going home to eat. The dishes, you see, are conceived with goals other than stomach bloat in mind: namely, to pair with sommelier John Wabeck’s terrific wines and, even more important, to draw enough attention to themselves (and their creators) to entice a visit to the main dining room. It’s bar-menu planning as marketing.
The duo of duck at Inox, for instance, may sound too stuffy for an unrepentant barfly, but only a few bites in you realize these delicate pastrylike samosas and hearty rillettes are just variations on the standard finger-food-and-big-meat themes found on every pub menu. The french fries here conceal their pedigree even better. The skin-on pomme frites look fetching enough, I guess, but really no more so than, say, the fries at Five Guys. But then you taste them and the heavens open: No fried spud in recent memory matches the nasal-cavity crunch and soft, fluffy interior of Inox’s fries.
“We try to do something very familiar,” Mathieson tells me, “and then we try to put our spin on it.” No kidding. I’ll tell you what, I’ll lay the goddamn Tysons Metro track myself if it means easier access to these frites, which may be the strangest calling card for a restaurant of Inox’s stature.
Of course, almost everywhere you turn these days, you hear the whispery come-hither of some formally trained fine-dining toque trying to get you in the door with an affordable bar menu. Affordability, in some cases, can be relative, like with CityZen’s three-course bar tasting menu for $50. It’s a bargain only when compared to chef Eric Ziebold’s six-course tasting menu, which can run $100 a head, and that’s a Benjamin that won’t even get you a drop of wine. Then again, CityZen’s bar menu is in its own league, less a tool to market the Mandarin Oriental restaurant than a chance to sample Ziebold’s particular genius on a more modest scale.
Jeffrey Buben, however, will be the first to tell you that fear of economic calamity drove the radical makeover of Vidalia’s bar menu. The lawyers and telecom executives who once ruled the West End are no longer around to suck down scotch and puff on fat cigars; they’ve been replaced by idealistic nonprofit types who want to socialize in the lounge, fiddle with their Blackberries, and nibble on small, homey plates that won’t break their limited budgets.
Vidalia’s bar menu caters almost exclusively to their ilk with a menu of decidedly snackable plates, each of which has been given a sort of Southern Gothic spin by chef R.J. Cooper. It could be the lush fried bites of sugar toad, the Chesapeake’s non-lethal version of the puffer fish, or it could be a thin, crispy flatbread decked out with house-cured meats. Hell, it could even be Cooper’s curled puffs of salty homemade pork rinds, which may be his most eccentric move yet. Pork rinds as gourmet snacks.
The most eccentric lounge menu, though, has to be the one at PS 7’s, which is no accident. Gina Chersevani, the gregarious mixologist who worked previously at EatBar, has revamped the cocktail menu here, and her enthusiasm has infected the place. Her cocktails have definitely affected my ability to say no to a second drink, particularly to her rum-based take on tom kha gai soup, which she calls, with a pathological addiction to puns, Thai’s the Limit. It’s my new favorite summer cocktail.
But Peter Smith has also loosened the collar around his chef whites. His lounge menu at PS 7’s has a more relaxed tone, even comical should you order the towering Chef’s Choice burger, which comes with house-cured bacon, tomatoes, Gruyère, and a fried egg. No matter how hard you try to compact the sandwich, the beast will not bow to human pressure, which means that you practically need to unhinge your jaws to wrap your chops around this fatty, umami-rich burger. Fortunately, the oxtail tots require no such anatomical manipulations to savor their meaty, if chewy, delights. That’s right oxtail tots. Think that’s ironically haute? Smith also does a Chicago hot dog and a version of Pittsburgh’s Primanti Brothers’ sandwich, complete with fries on it.
If the lounge is now the portal through which younger (and poorer) diners start exploring the area’s best restaurants, then a few places still haven’t gotten the message. Or perhaps, more accurate, they can’t let go of their own antiquated notions of fine dining to fully absorb the message. The bar menu at Bourbon Steak in the Four Seasons Hotel reflects its ambience: desperately clinging to two-fisted Hemingway-esque macho classicism while trying to “modernize” with lobster corn dogs and duck-fat fries that sound better than they actually are. The tiny bar menu at Café du Parc is even more dogmatically affixed to its French country roots; with its tossed-off bistro staples, including a lifeless chicken baguette sandwich and a croque monsieur swimming in Gruyère, the menu all but screams “go away.” In a snotty accent.
Which I gladly will—to Inox or PS 7’s or any lounge that gives me a real taste of its creativity without committing to a full-service ordeal in the dining room. After all, sometimes I just want a Regular Joe bar experience—and a duck confit flatbread.
Eatery tips? Food pursuits? Send suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org. Or call (202) 332-2100, x 221.