Table or bar?

One aspect of business travel I cultivated (largely out of necessity) is the fine art of dining alone. I've since come to accept, and often even prefer, dining at the bar as it offers a number of efficiency-boosting dining options.

1. When there are no open tables and a line of people out the door waiting for one (via reservations or on the list as walk-ins), there is often room at the bar. Unfortunately, the seating philosophy is a bit of a free-for-all that requires a delicate mixture of manners sufficient to avoid conflict and assertiveness to gain yourself a seat. I've found a drink in hand passes the time nicely while waiting for a spot to open up and also allows for a perusal of the menu and/or wine list.

2. Once seated, the entertainment value of a bar seat really begins. For one thing, bartenders don't usually remain “in character” the way servers do. They will be polite and helpful while tossing napkins in front of you like a seasoned blackjack dealer, but the moment they step away, they're more likely to bark directions at a busboy or berate another bartender for pouring the wrong whiskey. I've always found their interaction to be much more honest and organic with less pretense and political correctness; a refreshing change from table wait staff.

3. Your dining companions tend to turn over more quickly. Some are there just for a drink, others want a drink before dinner, and yet others are also fans of “bellying-up”. You can overhear snippets of conversation, the most recent events, etc. Also, identifying people who are on a blind (or first) date is hours of entertainment.

4. Another reason I choose a bar seat is that I'm cognizant of the profitability of any restaurant and feel badly taking up a table for two; especially when there are clearly people waiting for a table. Single diners don't tend to order an entire bottle of wine (not that I'm incapable of it, I just don't generally do it) and they spend about half as much overall as a table for two. If it's a restaurant I dearly want to thrive, I'll pass up a table in favor of the bar.

5. I'm sure there's potential for a much grander social experiment here but I find that, if I'm seated at a table, (with or without a companion) and there are people on either side of me, I'm much less likely to strike up a conversation with them should a topic of note be overheard. For whatever reason, the 12-inch gap between tables creates a psychological barrier few are bold enough to span. A bar, on the other hand, creates a continuous dining surface with implied, but much less rigid, boundaries giving it a much more communal feel.

6. There is much to be learned from bartenders about most any subject. Many bartenders and servers are in professional transition; this is a job to pay the bills while they go to school, an interim step once they're out of school, and for others, it's a position they've held in the past and circumstances have caused them to rely on those skills once again. There is no shortage of human conditions that can provide bartenders and the demand for them.

Bartenders also have more time to talk to you. Their “domain” is a 50-100 square foot waist-high cage restrained by a drawbridge at one end while servers dart around most of the restaurant. A server can't really talk to you while also monitoring other tables, but a good bartender can keep tabs (literally and figuratively) on 10 people from a single vantage point.

Sitting at the bar also allows for keeping an eye on the bartender making your drinks. Even the finest 'tender can be suffering from an evening of revelry the night before leaving him or her a tad inattentive. You might ask for one spirit and be served another, or they may use too much or too little of an ingredient allowing you to cite the mistake and have it corrected immediately.

The only real down-side to bar dining is the increasingly ubiquitous "television". Its proliferation is similar to the giant black pepper grinder, the yuppy salts, and bottled water. It's increasingly rare to find a bar at which a television isn't visually and/or audibly, blaring at you.

Ultimately, for a restaurant geek, bar dining is a far more interactive experience. Bartenders know what the buzz is in the kitchen, new stuff, bad stuff, clever stuff, wines they haven't put on the list yet (in which, if you show any interest, you'll likely get a taste), and somehow always seem to be the real hub of a restaurant. Even managers come to check in with the bartenders. If the butter is oxidized, if the 9-oz. Martini gets too warm and you're 1.5 ounces into the drink, if the fork is dirty, the knife is missing, and so on, a bartender will be there for you, front and center, long before a server would be.

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