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Dining: Counter culture

13 September 2007 by
Dining: Counter culture

Tapas restaurant Barrafina in Soho, London, which opened in January, offers counter dining only

Those of you with good memories might recall a Mel Smith and Griff Rhys Jones sketch in the early 1990s where a diner coyly enters a restaurant and, in hushed tones, requests a table for one. The maître d' smiles, faces the restaurant and emits a bellow over the general chit-chat: "Table for one!" As the other diners fall silent, a team of waiters scuttle out to seat him, remove all excess chairs and cutlery and, in a final act of indignity, saw the table in half.

Neatly sandwiched between the laughter tracks is a candid illustration of the British dining scene at the time, where white tablecloths and unashamed formality was very much a staple of the top end and, compared with today, eating out was a much rarer treat.

Slowly, this attitude to eating out has disappeared, caused in part by the rise of bar dining on the London restaurant scene. The reasons for this are diverse, but one major factor is the growing number of younger, more affluent diners who eat out numerous times a week and place a strong emphasis on informality.

Tapping into the bar-seating concept is not only a means of attracting this new demographic of customer but, as we shall see, also offers restaurateurs advantages over the traditional table-only set-up.

While some would maintain that the trend for eating at the bar has been established for almost a decade - Peter Harden, editor of Harden's London Restaurants, says he remembers arguing with his brother in 1997 that bar dining would be the next big thing following the opening of Chelsea tapas bar Albero & Grana - it's hard to ignore the fact that Barrafina, L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon and Scott's, three of the most celebrated London openings of the past 12 months, are all restaurants with a heavy, if not entire, emphasis on bar dining. Factor in some of this year's more recent openings - 36 Great Queen Street, Wild Honey and the relaunched One-O-One - all in London and all with bar eating, and it's clear that bar dining is taking a strong hold on the capital's restaurant scene.

Top-end restaurants

And while it was once largely a preserve of the midmarket sector, bar dining is now established in top-end restaurants. London's Arbutus, Maze and the aforementioned L'Atelier, which have all won Michelin stars in the past two years, are all split between counter and table dining, with 13 bar to 60 table seats at Arbutus, 20:80 at Maze and 43:58 at L'Atelier.

Sam and Eddie Hart, who in January launched Barrafina, a Soho tapas bar with counter-only dining, believe that four years ago the London scene wouldn't have been ready for their bar-only concept. "When we opened Finos [their tapas restaurant in Fitzrovia with bar and table eating] in 2003 we wanted to do a site with just a bar, but we didn't have the guts," says Sam. "It would have been too advanced for back then, I think."

Jason Atherton, executive chef at Maze, agrees that bar-dining concepts were more risky in the past. When asked if Maze would have worked 10 years ago, his reaction is quick. "No. But then again, maybe. We were all stuck in our ways, with fine dining and white tablecloths. Maybe if someone had had the balls and taken a gamble on a similar style of restaurant, it might have worked."

So what has changed in the past five years to make a concept such as Barrafina feasible? "In London at the turn of the millennium people were still caught up in fusion food," says Sam Hart. "But Londoners have grown up quite a lot in the past few years and want authentic food now, the real deal. They don't want an Italian restaurant dressed up as an English one they want authentic cuisine in an authentic setting."

"Yes," agrees his brother. "Londoners are getting more adventurous. They've all been to a sushi counter they've all been to Itsu - they're willing to try new things."

However, while true, this trend is symptomatic of a larger picture. In truth, the bar-dining scene in London has steadily been changing for the past decade.

Over the years there has, of course, been Bentley's Oyster Bar, in Piccadilly, which has served quality seafood over its counter for decades while the bar at London's popular Le Caprice restaurant has been a coveted spot since its acquisition by Caprice Holdings in 1981. But it wasn't until the late 1990s that the trend really gathered pace.

A major reason behind the lack of bar dining, says Harden, was the stranglehold breweries had over pubs during the 1970s and 1980s. "Bars and eating are an absolutely natural combination," he says. "British people have had difficulty getting their heads round it, because they have grown up in a culture where bars were associated with pubs, the majority of which were owned by three major breweries which controlled their pubs in much the same way as the Soviet Union controlled its countries. Landlords had little say over food, and it tended to be awful steak and kidney pies. If it wasn't for this stranglehold, I think we would have seen a more gradual evolution of bar eating."

Entrepreneurial leases

Things changed with the introduction of the Supply of Beer (Tied Estate) Order 1989, designed to break the monopoly breweries held over pubs. This heralded a new wave of entrepreneurial leases and resulted in the gastropub movement. With such sites springing up across the country, by the turn of the millennium the wider British public had a choice of places to go to eat well in informal settings.

Not only was quality fare now being served over bar counters, but the public were becoming accustomed to the informal nature of gastropubs and the opportunity to eat good food a couple of times a week at minimal cost and with little fuss.

It was not just the restructuring of the industry that precipitated the change, but consumer tastes have also altered in the past two decades. Increasing prosperity and the rise of London as a culinary destination means people are eating out more, and this has had a marked effect on the general attitude to dining. "The whole grazing thing is in force at the moment, because people eat out more and more and are happy to graze rather than have the formality of a three-course meal," says Harden.

The popularity of more informal dining is driven mostly by a younger crowd, who associate the white-tablecloth formality of fine-dining restaurants with generations past and like to fit food round a culture of evening drinking. Pascal Proyart, executive chef at One-O-One, says that his restaurant's new design, incorporating a bar for both drinking and eating, was prompted by a recognition of this demographic.

"Customers are so cosmopolitan nowadays, and when they finish in the office they don't necessarily want to go to a pub. They want somewhere smart, relaxing and informal where they can drink and maybe eat. It wouldn't have worked six, seven or eight years ago, as this scene wasn't there as much. But in London now, like in New York, people are loving going out."

Traditional food

The Hart brothers are by no means wide of the mark in saying that bar dining is linked to a desire for more authentic cuisine. It is a fair assessment that, since the turn of the millennium, Britons have slowly turned away from the fusion food of the late 1990s towards a more authentic style of cooking. The fusion-style cuisine of London restaurants such as Sugar Club, Osia and Vong has been replaced in their affections by more traditional food in the modern settings of Hakkasan, Amaya and Theo Randall.

In the late 1990s the popularity of bars was galvanised by an increase in the number of sushi outlets. While gastropubs brought good traditional food to the midmarket sector, sites such as Yo! Sushi and Itsu offered diners contemporary Japanese grab-and-go food in settings replicating modern Tokyo.

Gradually, new restaurants grew confident in bringing bar dining to the top end. Zuma, which opened in 2002, has 26 bar seats around an open kitchen serving modern Japanese cuisine, and is still to this day one of the most desirable restaurants among London's moneyed crowd.

It would be wrong to say that London's taste for ethnic cuisine is the sole reason why bar dining has mushroomed in popularity, but certainly the wealthier London crowd, who are flocking to the more informal, high-quality eateries, are also travelling more and acquiring a taste for the traditional cuisine they discover abroad. So there was little surprise when Barrafina, with authentic Spanish food and an informal setting, opened to such a fanfare.

Don't think, however, that a bar is a sure-fire way of improving custom. The trend has come on in leaps and bounds in the past few years and will doubtless continue to spread, both inside the capital and out. It is probably too soon to see the first casualties of an ill-advised bar concept, but there are bound to be some.

In theory, bar dining has huge advantages to offer the restaurateur. If based on an open kitchen, it will cut out the need for waiting staff. And an open kitchen can create a buzz that attracts not only customers but also, the Harts have found, staff, who regard such an atmosphere as the main appeal of the hospitality industry. Finally, in a more informal setting, diners won't stick around for so long, leading to a higher turnover of customers. Atherton finds that the 20 seats at his restaurant's eating bar turn over twice as often as the 80 table seats and, although the average spend is less - the Harts have found the average spend in Finos is £55 compared with £35 in Barrafina - bars can still be more profitable than tables.

However, there are pitfalls among these potential advantages. Rainer Becker, managing director of Zuma - and Roka, its midmarket sister, which also features a bar circling an open kitchen - says his restaurants tread a fine line. "The restaurant needs volumes of people to create a buzz because of the open kitchen. If it isn't full, then the chefs aren't busy and if the chefs aren't busy, then the place loses that feeling. But if they are busy, it has an unbelievable buzz that attracts more people."

Also, if there are tables as well as a bar, then the concept must be finely balanced or it can become muddled. "You have to tread much more carefully than with a straight eating bar or a restaurant of purely tables," says Sam Hart. "Things are much more difficult. The concept gets muddled: are you a bar or are you a restaurant? Diners will want to know where the best place to sit is." The Harts found that, while the 10-seat bar in Fino is their own favoured eating spot, customers tend to treat it as an overflow from the tables due to its small size and positioning near the rear of the restaurant. They admit that customers often treat it as a downgrade.

The positioning of the bar is vital, says Linda Turner, director of architecture and design company Inature, which designed the interiors of both Arbutus and Wild Honey. "It will be the restaurant's focal point. If it is big and at the front, then people will give it a lot of importance. But people won't want to walk through other tables to get to the bar. It will make it feel like the second-best option."

Likewise, offering different menus at the bar and to the rest of the diners might cause aggravation. "If I go to a bar, I don't want to get secondary food I want to eat what everyone else is eating," says Atherton, who serves the same menu in both components at Maze.

Becker agrees. "In the old days you would get a bar menu. What the fuck is a bar menu? Some guy obviously thought people would want snacks. When I opened Zuma I wanted a bar where people could eat whatever they want."

Motivated staff

And while staff can be motivated by working in an open kitchen - especially as, in Eddie Hart's words, "Chefs get to see every smile and hear every yum" - it can also be far more exhausting. "Chefs at Barrafina will only do about six shifts a week," says Eddie. "There's a lot more pressure being in public view. There's nowhere to hide at Barrafina, either - no back of house, no office."

Finally, the restaurant's location can determine whether a dining bar will succeed or fail: the concept is more fitting to some areas than others. It's worth noting that the most successful of London's eating bars - Barrafina, Arbutus (both in Soho), Cantaloupe, (in Hoxton), Roka (in Fitzrovia) - are all in areas laden with businessmen and a younger crowd of evening drinkers. Plus, Soho caters for a theatre-going crowd with its proximity to the West End.

Despite the advantages, restaurateurs should approach the idea of a dining bar with a degree of caution. No concept ever guarantees custom.

So is bar-dining a trend that is here to stay? Will it continue to branch into the top end? Time will tell, but Atherton, for one, is certain that it is here for good. "I don't think it will be long before some young chef opens a restaurant purely as a bar, somewhere like Barrafina, and goes on to be a three-star chef. Why not?" Why not, indeed.

Upmarket London fish restaurant One-O-One reopened recently with individual seating at a freestanding counter alongside its table settings

Eddie (left) and Sam Hart, owners of Barrafina

Single diners in the midmarket sector

Eating trends are not changing just in the top sector, but midmarket and shopping-mall restaurants are also seeing a change as Britons become increasingly willing to eat alone.

According to Frazer Grimbleby, former director of Out of Town Restaurants, which specialises in shopping centre eateries, people are no longer interested in just visiting malls, buying something and heading home. "Most single diners having a retail experience are looking for more than one refuelling session during their trip. Gone are the days when they were just looking for a packaged sandwich. Without a doubt, single diners are on the increase." Grimbleby estimates that nowadays single diners make up about 15% of customers at such restaurants.

Ron Sutcliffe, financial director of Town Centre Restaurants, says that a targeted approach has made single diners feel welcome. "People have more confidence to eat out as individuals. The challenge for the restaurant is to note that when a single diner comes in they need to pay them more attention. The person needs to be made to feel that they are part of the restaurant."

He says that optional extras can help draw in people planning to eat alone. "You can attract single diners by providing newspapers, magazines and, these days, wireless internet. Those things can make it more attractive for someone thinking of eating alone."

Jonathan Doughty, group managing director of Coverpoint consultancy, says that the increase in single diners is down to a number of factors.

"Staff are being trained to make single diners feel more comfortable. I think a lot of people are being forced to eat by themselves due to their working patterns. It's also changing because there's a realisation that nowadays it is possible to bring single diners into your restaurant."

By Owen Hill

Adding a bar - things to consider

â- Get the balance right. Too big a bar might overpower table diners too small a bar and customers might treat it as merely an overspill from the tables.

â- Think about the placement of the bar. A large bar that's the first thing customers see upon entering will suggest more informality than a smaller one tucked away. If diners have to walk through tables to get to the bar, it will feel like it's the second-best option.

â- Don't vary the menu too much. Separate menus might confuse diners or annoy those wanting to stop in for a quick meal at the bar.

â- Staff the bar wisely. If the bar is round an open kitchen, their actions will be on constant display. If it is also a drinks bar, then staff might be more interested in serving cocktails but must be able to deal with questions about the food.

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