A couple months ago, Melinda Vaca did something kind of crazy: She put bone marrow on her menu. Vaca is a chef, and marrow's particularly trendy right now, so that may not sound like much of a risk — but Vaca doesn't work at a white-tablecloth restaurant or a chic, wood-paneled bistro. She works at a bar — specifically, Make Westing, which is casual, convivial, and consistently packed. And suffice it to say that bone marrow — messy to eat and sometimes complicated to cook, still obscure to the average diner and definitely requiring of a knife and fork — isn't exactly bar food. But Vaca loves it, so she went for it anyway — and customers loved it, too.
According to Chris Foote, this isn't exactly what he had in mind when he and Glenn Kaplan opened the place last year. Make Westing has a tiny kitchen — or, rather, it has a tiny space behind the bar that's been successfully jury-rigged for food preparation — and the original idea was to offer food like panini: "something bartenders could just kind of slap together and hand out." But instead, Vaca came along, and they got bone marrow and duck-liver mousse. Foote said they've never looked back.
This places Make Westing at the center of what's beginning to look like a major trend. In fact, the vast majority of bars — or are they something more than that? — that have opened in the East Bay in the last couple years have made food a central part of their mission. Some, like Plum Bar and the brand-new Fauna — an offshoot of the Uptown standby Flora, which many credit with starting the trend — are directly connected to existing restaurants; still more, including Bar Dogwood, Disco Volante, District, the New Easy, and Honor Bar, have hired chefs and developed menus all on their own, in tandem with their bar programs. They vary widely in their approach and their balance between restaurant and bar — some, like Disco Volante, consider themselves full-fledged restaurants with exceptional drinks, while others, like Bar Dogwood, just a few blocks away, are more like cocktail bars with the food quality ratcheted up. But they're all defined by their commitment to both sides of the bar-restaurant hyphen — and taken together, they're changing our expectations for and understanding of, nightlife.
"We were surprised at how many people expected food at a bar," said Foote. "It took us a couple months to [set up our kitchen] and people actually got kind of angry when we didn't have food. It's like, once somebody set the ball rolling people expect it from everyone now."
A lot of that expectation has grown out of the East Bay food culture at large, posited Kevin Cook of Disco Volante. "If you're going to serve food here, you're not going to do hot dogs," he said, with a knowing chuckle. "Even the bar patrons in flat-out drinking bars have higher standards than that. This is an increasingly sophisticated population. You're going to want to provide food that they want to eat, and also food that we're proud of making." And at the same time, as the local cocktail scene grows into itself, with an increasing focus on high-quality ingredients and thoughtful preparations, it makes sense that the food at these places follow that ethos. Or in Vaca's words: "At a lot of these places, French fries and peanuts aren't going to cut it. It's about stimulating the palate across the board."
When Kolin Better decided to remodel and revamp his Lakeshore Avenue bar, Easy Lounge, he knew he had space for either a dance floor or a kitchen — but not both. He chose the kitchen: "It was about prioritizing what we thought was more critical to our customers," he said. And, moreover, he said, "for us, if we're using all these fresh, seasonal ingredients in our cocktails, it wouldn't make any sense to use crappy bar food. It was just a natural extension of what we were doing with drinks."
At the New Easy, as it's now called, Better serves dishes like fresh apple crisp and black forest ham croque monsieur, served on local bread with mornay sauce. Disco Volante, meanwhile, has a full restaurant license and offers an extensive menu of entrées and small bites with ingredients like housemade sausage, artisan cheeses, and, yes, bone marrow. At Fauna, you can get fresh, crusty bread smothered in creamy burratta cheese, gray salt, and olive oil along with your cocktail or craft beer. Bar Dogwood has garnered a cult following almost nearly as much for its drinks as for its meat plates. At Plum Bar, the menu consists of classed-up versions of American standards like grilled cheese and garlic fries, prepared with the same attention to detail and ingredients as the adjoining restaurant's critically acclaimed modernist California cuisine. And at District, chef Bob Cina offers an extensive menu of Mediterranean-inflected small plates and makes all his charcuterie in house; the chicken-liver mousse prompted our food critic, Luke Tsai, to "practically [lick] the bowl clean."
All of this is of a piece with a couple larger trends in American dining, according to Ron Boyd of Plum Bar. "That kind of pub grub, Spotted Pig informal dining is huge right now," he said, referring to chef April Bloomfield's iconic, exalted, uber-popular West Village gastropub. "It's about having a drink, having a snack, having good food in maybe a less formal setting." If the Great Recession is to have a lasting effect on American dining, it'll surely be the idea that great food doesn't need to come with a white tablecloth and a bow-tied maître d' — and, in fact, that some of the best dining experiences happen in places that are a little less mannered and a little less expensive.
That casualness is good for chefs, too, as it allows them to experiment without some of limitations — or the pressure — presented by a standard, sit-down restaurant. "I have no real restrictions here," said Vaca, who cooked at Sea Salt before coming to Make Westing. "There's no real guidelines. There's no soups, no salad course, no set format." Because bar food is, in many ways, a new frontier, there are fewer expectations and fewer assumptions — bar chefs aren't necessarily required to have, say, a pastry chef on deck, or even to put out a menu that complies to the standard appetizer-entrée-dessert format. (They're also under less pressure to please critics — and kids.) And at the same time, when a venue's diversified in terms of revenue stream, there's less pressure on chefs to keep people coming in the door solely based on food — so though, for example, District has now come to be known in its own right as a dining destination (it even recently debuted a brunch menu), when whiskey and wine is bringing people through the door, too, some of the pressure's off Cina to create a complete dining experience.
All told, said Boyd, "some of the best food right now is coming out of bars. In the Bay Area, it's the new format. People are eating well in bars." Even bone marrow.
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