Is the Standing Bar Doomed to Extinction in America?

standing bars punch brad thomas parsons

On June 19, 2013, my friend and Brooklyn neighbor Robert Simonson tweeted: “The days of the Prime Meats standing bar are over.” The photo accompanying this announcement showed a lineup of austere, unassuming, dark-wood barstools — a not uncommon sight at nearly every bar and restaurant across New York City. But since opening in 2009 in Carroll Gardens, Frank Falcinelli and Frank Castronovo’s restaurant Prime Meats was home to one of the few standing bars in the city outside of McSorley’s.

The original standing bar at Prime Meats was more than just a wine-by-the-glass purgatory while you passed the time on the wait list for a table. This bar was (and remains) a destination unto itself for expertly made cocktails, frequented by neighborhood locals and industry players alike. In early 2010, when I was still living in Seattle, a food writer friend encouraged me to make a pilgrimage to Prime Meats during a trip to New York. “Ask for Damon,” he said.

I walked through the door just before twilight and didn’t leave until six hours later, drinking and eating, watching the ebb and flow of the Friday night crowd, the whole time standing up at my perch at the bar. A few months later I moved to Brooklyn (I like to think that night had something to do with my decision) and when I walked back into Prime Meats, Damon was at his post behind the bar. “Hey, the bitters dude! Welcome to the neighborhood.”

This beloved bar on the corner of Court and Luquer Streets soon became my regular haunt. Getting used to hanging out at a bar with nowhere to sit felt awkward at first, but just as it takes a while to break in a pair of selvedge jeans, over time, leaning against that bar had its own lived-in charm. But even as a regular, the stool-less days of Prime Meats did pose some problems for eating at the bar. Knocking back a dozen Naked Cowboy oysters or tearing apart a warm Bavarian pretzel is perfectly fine with two feet on the ground, but tucking in to a double-cut pork chop or a platter of schnitzel with a knife and fork standing up wasn’t the most elegant endeavor. And where exactly do you put your napkin when you don’t have a lap? I adjusted, and there were many evenings when I just wanted to stop in for pilsner or an Old-Fashioned, but more often than not, I desired to extend my evening with food, and that meant eating standing up or switching over to a table in the dining room away from the friendly buzz of the bar.

“I think the cultural appeal to standing bars in the north of Italy where the aperitif or ombra tradition is more entrenched than elsewhere is related to the casual nature of grazing through a city and doing a sort of bar crawl (to use a decidedly un-Italian phrase) as a way to socialize,” says Katie Parla. “In places like Padua or Milan, the aperitivo culture is so strong that popular places need to offer standing room only to maximize attendance.”

Chris Harkness, the director of operations for Prime Meats (in addition to Frankies Spuntino and Café Pedlar) told me, “The idea for Prime Meats was that it was a narrow, railroad-style building, and that a standing bar was more conducive for the space, so the bar that is in the restaurant is a pre-Prohibition-style bar that was made for standing.” But it was the need for silverware (and in Prime Meats’ case, a hefty blade to slice through those steak frites) that had them bring in the stools. “Our customers wanted to eat at the bar, and most of our food requires a fork and knife. So that decision was for our guests: giving single diners somewhere to eat other than the tables.”

While American bars and their barstools — whether backless, with armrests, swivel-enabled or tall-backed captain’s chairs — encourage drinkers to have a seat and stay awhile, many bars abroad typically don’t expect, or even encourage, people to linger. This isn’t necessarily hostile hospitality, but equal parts culture and tradition. Real estate and the physical layout of more cramped spaces play a role in the lack of stools in many venues, and it’s also a way for more popular spots to keep people moving throughout the night to encourage plenty of turnover.

Tachinomi, the casual standing bars of Japan, are often located near train stations and packed with salarymen and students alike looking for quick, casual finger food to wash down with highballs and beer before heading home (or their next stop). And you won’t necessarily need a fork and knife to get your fill at standing bars in Spain. In San Sebastián, Madrid, Seville, Barcelona and across the country, stopping by a bar and standing for assorted tapas and pintxos — ranging from calamares, boquerones en vinagre, or patatas bravas — with your glass of sherry is customary for both locals and tourists.

On a recent trip to San Juan, Puerto Rico, I took a postprandial lap around Placita de Santurce and passed at least half a dozen tiny but boisterous bars that jutted right onto the sidewalk. There were likewise no stools, though some old-timers sat clustered in metal folding chairs smoking cigars. I settled upon El Paraiso La Frituras (The Fried Paradise) and leaned against the counter, gnawing away at a crispy, shingle-sized chicharrón and trading off buying rounds of Medalla Light with locals on their way home.

Much like its food, wine and amari, Italy’s standing and drinking traditions have their own regional influences. Katie Parla, the Rome-based journalist and author of the forthcoming book Tasting Rome, explains that Italy has a “tradition” of standing at bars to drink coffee, but “when it comes to wine and spirits, there are pretty dramatic differences in drinking rituals across the peninsula.” Parla adds, “I think the cultural appeal to standing bars in the north of Italy where the aperitif or ombra tradition is more entrenched than elsewhere is related to the casual nature of grazing through a city and doing a sort of bar crawl (to use a decidedly un-Italian phrase) as a way to socialize. In places like Padua or Milan, the aperitivo culture is so strong that popular places need to offer standing room only to maximize attendance.”

Yet whether it’s for coffee, cocktails or beer, American drinkers seem to want to take a seat and stay awhile. Unlike the drinking and dining customs abroad of standing and eating and moving along to the next stop, more often than not eating at the bar in the U.S. is making a commitment for the night. Oddly enough, at many offices standing desks are now replacing ergonomic chairs and oversize inflatable exercise balls at workstations, but at the end of the day, we want to sit and linger over a drink.

Back in Brooklyn, I was talking with Chris DeCrosta, one of Prime Meats’ most loyal local regulars, who you’ll find drinking from his custom PM Mug Club stein (being a founding member, his mug is emblazoned with “1”; I’m “24”). He reminisced about the time before barstools: “I like the stools, but I had some amazing nights standing at the bar. A standing bar promotes patron interaction, for better or worse. There was something very fantastic about sharing a massive ribeye and a bottle of wine standing up.” In the end, most of us will still be standing at Prime Meats, but more often than not it’s to wait for a seat at the bar.

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