Cheers for Bar Dining
Leave it to apocryphal trendsetters to have made bar dining the fashionable practice that it is today--raising the bar, if you will, on fine dining with a difference.
My first encounter with it occurred in the mid-eighties. There was a popular restaurant in New York that I favored, and getting a table required considerable advance booking. Then one evening I saw a couple go to the bar, place settings arranged for them and their dinner order taken by the bartender. How facile and smooth it seemed--away from the fray of the busy, boisterous dining room and its den of daunting denizens dining en masse.
Fast forward nearly 30 years and bar dining is as de rigueur as food mavens and locovores.
A Portland couple I know who eat out most nights only dine at bar seatings--and they’re not even drinkers! But they do it because it’s cozy and familiar; as regulars they’re fussed over and served well. One advantage is you never have to worry about finding your waiter because he or she is right in front of you behind the bar.
Greater Portland restaurants offer plenty of options mixing and matching fine dining with a polished bar at which to eat.
What follows are my favorites. Note, however, it’s not standard practice to reserve a bar seat for dinner, though regulars, it’s rumored, can and often do call ahead to scope availability.
Caiola’s. This 7-seat bar is packed with a steady clientele who love Chef Abby Harmon’s haute home-style cooking. Go early (6 pm) or late (after 8 pm) for the best chance of instant seating. The last time I was there I had a wonderful dinner of chicken liver pate served with apples and perfect crostini followed by a main course of grilled daurade with a sauce of mussels and fennel.
Back Bay Grill. Still the reigning king of 4-star dining, their 7 to 8-seat bar attracts a steady clientele who love Chef Larry Matthew’s indomitably fine fare. Eating at the bar has an added attraction. You get a bird’s eye view of the chefs in action from the open kitchen. My most recent meal included an incredible savory fritter filled with head cheese and topped with a pristine poached egg (coppa di testa). My main course exceeded all expectations too—classic red wine reduction paired with a confit of prunes as the underpinnings of a succulent roasted breast of pheasant.
Five Fifty-Five. This bar room is a separate space from the main dining room offering a prescribed menu of lighter bites. But you can order off the regular menu, too, which I did, along with about 10 other diners enjoying their dinner at the bar. Nibble first on the fried olives with blue cheese and go for one of Chef Steve Corry’s silken soup purees and glazed double pork chop with collards and celery root puree.
Fore Street. This renowned eatery has one of the most popular dining bars in town. The barroom itself has comfortable seating for small bites and drinks if you’re waiting for a table. The bar is usually populated by regulars who almost never opt to eat in the dining room. Fore Street still keeps their martini glasses ready-chilled in the freezer so you get a perfect frosty glass. Bill, one of the long-time bartenders, knows his way around not just the drinks menu but the food as well. One night he steered me to Chef Sam Hayward’s Maine shrimp served over the most delicious preparation of grits ever. Sometimes bar dining here can be intriguing. One time I witnessed a tourist couple cancel their order of hangar steak after learning that the restaurant doesn’t serve ketchup.
Grace. Probably the most dramatic dining room and bar in Portland has to be at Grace Restaurant. Its renovation from a church into this massive, dramatic space is astounding. Unfortunately I’ve never found the food to live up to its interiors or the interior décor live up to its potential. Nonetheless, the bar is beautiful, worth going for a drink and a plate of local oysters.
Walter’s. I’ll often go here for lunch at the bar. The separate bar room is attractive and often filled with the area’s business people and Old Port shoppers. Every time I’ve eaten at the bar, the most popular sandwich is their signature Chicken Pita Tzatzika, a mouthful to pronounce and eat. I’m not sure if all the fuss is warranted but do try it if you like crispy panko coated chicken on grilled pita and the Greek yogurt sauce called tzatzika, which bathes the cucumbers, onions and tomatoes. Personally I prefer the grilled fish tacos entrée or a cup of soup and a plate of fried oysters.
If I’ve omitted some of Portland’s formidable restaurants and their bars it’s because either I haven’t experienced their bar seating or I’ve written about them before. Worth trying are The Front Room, et al., Sonny’s, Havana South, Hugo’s , Figa, and the newly opened Petite Jacqueline.
John Golden makes no bones about sharing his opinion. If you'd like to share yours, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.