Eateries from white-tablecloth restaurants to casual chains have been on a mission to improve their bar menus for several years, with new twists on familiar fried favorites and original exotic dishes designed to keep patrons sipping and spending from happy hour to late night.
Chains have been spicing up their offerings, with bar menus like Applebee’s new Apps & Bar Snacks menu, Bennigans’ Crowd Pleasers and Chili’s extensive appetizer list. But independent eateries have greater leeway to get even more creative and to change bar menus up on short notice.
“We love to eat, and we get bored easily,” said Kate Jacoby, co-owner of V Street in Philadelphia. “So we are always experimenting with new stuff. Just the other day, we ran a meaty South African sandwich called a Gatsby. We made ours with seitan. The beauty of it is stuffing it with some crispy french fries and a tangy sauce.” The sandwich was a hit, and now the team’s “looking for new inspiration — new ways to play,” she said.
At The Frog and The Peach in New Brunswick, N.J., the extensive bar menu includes old favorites like sandwiches and pizzas, comfort foods, creative originals like pork-belly tacos, and a few dishes that change with the seasons, like veal tartare with summer truffles, said General Manager Jim Mullen and chef/owner Bruce Lefebvre.
“We have a really kind of wide and changing cast of characters,” Mullen said.
The bar menu shares a few dishes with the restaurant’s lunch and dinner menus, but it also has several that are unique to the bar, including poutine, a plate of house-made french fries covered with cheese curds that’s uber-popular in Canada. The restaurant added the dish after finding a source for local cheddar curds early this year.
“We wouldn’t put it on our regular menu, but it’s nice to come up with things that are comfort[ing] and popular at the bar,” Lefebvre said.
Happy hour and late-night crowds are also often looking for smaller, snack-sized food than they expect at dinner.
“Little sandwiches are really popular,” said V Street’s Jacoby. “Anything from a taco, to a bun, to a traditional sandwich. At V Street we ran a carrot choripan with chimmichurri and smoked black bean puree — that was delicious.”
At V Street, a concept born of the success of the bar at Rich Landau and Kate Jacoby’s vegan restaurant Vedge, the vibe is street food bar. “The bar program at Vedge was so popular, riding off the fantastic happy hour program we have over there, we wanted to create a spin off where we could have bolder, spicier, more approachable food in a fun, more laid back atmosphere,” Jacoby said.
More than lunch and dinner menus, bar menus boast a long list of dishes made to be shared.
“We like to have a few food items people can share — like pickles or toasts, but we’ll also run things designed for individuals like our Korean seitan tacos or a maitake mushroom cheese steak wit rutabaga wiz,” Jacoby said.
Sharing multiple small plates can be festive but it can also mean a mix of cuisines that makes it hard to recommend ideal wines. Still, bartenders at both V Street and The Frog and The Peach are well-trained in wine and often have pairing suggestions at the ready, the owners said.
Each season the bar menu at The Frog and The Peach includes three composed cheese plates that are paired with the perfect wine and can be ordered with our without the wine. At V Street, servers make recommendations all the time but none are written on the menu.
“That step of service where a bartender or server can figure out what a customer likes to eat and drink and just how adventurous they’re feeling on a particular evening is huge,” Jacoby said.
Great bar menus require plenty of innovation, but they’re not always all about change. At The Frog and The Peach, new items get added to the menu and old ones often remain to keep regulars happy.
“In the bar in particular, lots of regulars come back time and again,” Lefebvre said. “They get really attached — to bar stools and people and food. But we do mix it up.”
Two tips from V Street’s Kate Jacoby on creating a better bar menu
– “The most attractive bar menus are ones that serve fun food featuring classic dishes regulars can love balanced with a few changing selections to keep things interesting.”
– “Size is important — people don’t want to get too full — they’re out socializing, so the food has to be ‘snackable.'”
Are you getting creative with the bar menu? Tell us about it in the comments.
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