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Cocktails Before Dinner Becoming A Thing Of The Past In Boston (long)?

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Gabatta Jul 28, 2012 10:27 AM

We had dinner with friends at Del Frisco’s last night. It was overpriced, over seasoned and underwhelming. I haven’t been since soon after the opening and won’t be back. However that is beside the point here. We had an acute example of an experience that is becoming more and more common at local restaurants.

Our sitter arrived early, so we made it to the restaurant about 45 minutes before our reservation. Despite a large bar and lounge area it was nearly impossible to get a drink. Every seat at the circular main bar as well as bordering ledge area was occupied by people having dinner bar. There was not a free inch to get to the bar for a drink other than the service area, and the waitresses at DF would scratch your eyes out if you went near there. I like eating at a bar sometimes as well, but do try to accommodate people trying to get a cocktail. I find most people get as ‘wide’ as possible so you don’t invade their space. One couple noticed us looking for an opening and told us they were leaving in a minute, so we lucked out with two seats (after we fought off a few people who tried to rush into the seats before the couple was even standing up, and despite our clearly having been waiting for the seats).

Once seated, the first question the bartender has was if we would like menus (not if we wanted a drink). We politely said no thank you and ordered (a not inexpensive) round of cocktails. A bar back soon tried to put place settings in front of us. We again explained we were not eating at the bar. Almost immediately a different bartender asked if he should get us food menus (though he had clearly heard our conversation with the bar back). We politely told him that we had a reservation in the dining room, but were having a few drinks beforehand. He actually said not in a friendly manner “well you know that you’re taking up prime real estate”. I suggested that with such a large bar they should have at least a small area reserved for drink service only. He turned and walked away part way through my comment. I was in a bit of a mood already and felt like punching him in the face, however the original bartender intervened and apologized as our friends arrived and he probably realized that he was pushing a $100 tab for just the drinks over a 45 minute span, which is actually OK when they have about 3 dozen other people dining in the bar area.

The asshole Del Frisco’s bartender aside, this experience seems to be getting more and more common, and not just at steakhouses and the like. Recently, we were actually asked to vacate a seat by the bartender at Hammersley’s if we weren’t eating, as there were others waiting to eat. We almost walked out before dinner, but my wife had been wanting to go there for awhile. Gordon generally recognizes us, as a close friend previously cooked on his line. When he stopped by our table and I recounted the tale, he was mortified to say the least. I understand there is money to be made for the bartender and restaurant by serving full meals at the bar, however there really needs to be a happy medium. Does this trend drive anyone else insane?

There are a few places I can think offhand where it is always reasonably easy to get a drink (and even bar or lounge seat) before dinner (Via Matta, Sorellina, Rialto). These places are definitely exceptions to the trend. What other places am I missing where I can get a cocktail before dinner without feeling like in intruder? Is there anywhere which specifically reserves some bar space where dining is not allowed? It was notable on a recent visit to Peter Luger’s in NY that not one person was eating at the bar.

Also, as an aside, there was a concert at Harborlights (or whatever it is now called) last night and the outside tables were closed down at Del Frisco’s? I thought these outside tables would be a huge draw on concert nights. Is there some agreement with the concert venue? It seemed odd, but most things about that place are a bit off.

  1. n
    nickls Jul 29, 2012 08:27 AM

    Funniest experience I had regarding a restaurant bar was at Turner's Seafood in Melrose. The hostess gave us some kind of ticket we were supposed to take to the bar if ordering drinks while waiting. I absentmindedly allowed my wife to walk off with it while she went to make a phone call.

    When I tried to get a drink at the bar, they refused to serve me anything until I gave them the ticket. I found this a bit hilarious, as it ended up preventing me from getting a drink at all. I assume they are trying to keep the servers from losing tips to the bartenders, but the system still seems wacky.

    2 Replies
    1. re: nickls
      g
      Gordough Jul 30, 2012 06:34 AM

      nickls, I wonder if your experience was due to a town bylaw. Some suburban towns (I know my town is included) have laws prohibiting service of alcohol in restaurants unless you are also eating food in the restaurant. Perhaps the restaurant gave you the ticket so the bartender knew it was ok to serve you without you ordering any food from him/her because you were waiting for a table and were of course ordering food when you sat down.

      As for drinks before dinner, I typically don't like to have to fight my way to the bar only to enjoy my cocktail standing up in a very crowded place where I am getting bumped left and right (especially if it is something like a martini). To avoid this, we will often find a quiet spot before dinner and if we are concerned about the quality of the cocktail, will order a glass of wine or a beer and then save the cocktails for when we sit down elsewhere to dinner. Not ideal, but it beats wearing half of my $13 martini on my shirt while I try and scream so that we can hear each other.

      1. re: Gordough
        n
        nickls Jul 30, 2012 08:42 AM

        Good point Gordough, you are right. I just looked up the Melrose alcohol licensing laws, and only patrons who are intending to dine are allowed to get drinks at a restaurant bar. This was my first time eating in Melrose, so I never would have guessed. Chalk up one more strange liquor law for MA.

    2. BostonZest Jul 29, 2012 05:36 AM

      My husband and I almost always dine at the bar. Most of the time I prefer to have an appetizer instead of an entree and figure that a small meal is a plus for a bartender but a loss of a full meal table for a waiter.

      We adore the dining bar at Island Creek Oyster Bar because it is oriented to the dining room and without the bustle of people behind you. This may be a solution as restaurant designers begin to address this issue. Adding a separate cocktail lounge with a special bar menu is another option.

      That being said, I'm happy to allow someone to order a drink and pay for it next to me. I am at a bar after all! And, in most cases we want the bartender to have a great night and make all the tips they can. They work hard for their money and in many cases were we are regulars, we consider them friends.

      I would like add a second issue that we have found with the popularity of craft cocktails. There are restaurant bars were it is made clear by the bartender that we are no not welcome since we order wine instead of cocktails. And, some craft cocktail experts have not taken the time to learn about the wines on their list, or if they have, they can't be bothered sharing what they know.

      Have any other wine drinkers found this?

      Penny
      http://www.bostonzest.com/

      5 Replies
      1. re: BostonZest
        k
        katzzz Jul 29, 2012 06:37 AM

        Re: Eastern Standard. I have had drinks only at the bar during very busy times, surrounded by diners, and the bartenders could not have been more accommodating -- happy to discuss drink choices, ingredients, etc.
        Re: Del Frisco's. The real mystery is why this place is why so many people are eager to blow big bucks on overpriced drinks and food in a cheesy, occasionally unfriendly setting. The harbor setting is splendid, but that's about the extent of DF's appeal.

        1. re: katzzz
          m
          mkfisher Jul 30, 2012 06:05 AM

          The mystery of the Del Frisco's popularity can easily be solved by taking a quick drive up to the North Shore

        2. re: BostonZest
          m
          marais Jul 29, 2012 06:03 PM

          You mentioned ICOB, and I must say that the bartenders there when I drink and eat at the bar (which, as a solo diner, I do in a lot of places) are just as enthusiastic about the wines as they are about the beers and cocktails. I really love the outstanding experiences I've had at Island Creek as a bar diner, I've been treated well there.

          1. re: marais
            MC Slim JB Jul 29, 2012 06:38 PM

            ICOB is an excellent counter-example to the wretched Del Frisco's: they treat me really well at the bar regardless of whether I'm having anything to eat, no matter how busy it is.

            http://mcslimjb.blogspot.com/

            1. re: marais
              BostonZest Jul 30, 2012 07:53 AM

              Another reason why I love ICOB. Everyone who is out to enjoy an evening of good food and drink is welcome and important to them.

          2. barleywino Jul 29, 2012 03:17 AM

            I would be curious to hear how a place like Eastern Standard, known for its impeccable hospitality as well as its crowds, manages such situations. I believe they give priority to bar diners over bar drinkers when both are waiting for seats to open up, but I don't think they ask bar drinkers to hurry up and leave, do they?

            1 Reply
            1. re: barleywino
              l
              LeoLioness Jul 29, 2012 12:50 PM

              They most certainly do not.

            2. C. Hamster Jul 28, 2012 07:29 PM

              I agree that it's more about people dining at the bar these days and less about the demise of the pre- dinner cocktail.

              We almost always sit at the bar unless it's L' Espalier or something. But just two of us.
              Four and six tops taking up bar space is annoying.

              1. m
                mvi Jul 28, 2012 02:30 PM

                We have experienced two similar evenings at Del Frisco's and were so appalled that we have never been back.

                We enjoy having a few drinks before dinner, depending on the circumstances, the company and the day of the week, but this spot failed big time for us. We were explicitly told that we were occupying trendy real estate when three of us ordered drinks at the bar. Before our drinks arrived, we were then told that if we were not having dinner we should leave the restaurant.

                When I said that we were having dinner and were meeting a group of eight people, and that we had reservations, I was told to go wait outside. As I was entertaining the visiting CEO of a large corporation, along with his wife and kids, who are dear old family friends, this really did not sit well. When I resisted, the bartender told us we could wait in the lobby, as it was raining. Needless to say, we canceled our plans and went elsewhere. Fortunately, our friends could not have been more accommodating. I will never go back there. Horrible.

                3 Replies
                1. re: mvi
                  l
                  LeoLioness Jul 29, 2012 12:49 PM

                  Wow, that is appalling. Screw Del Friscos, indeed. It would never be a place I would choose (steakhouse = boring, chain steakhouse in a tourist-oriented location seems 10x worse) but these experiences will make me actively avoid the place.

                  1. re: LeoLioness
                    m
                    mvi Jul 29, 2012 12:54 PM

                    Believe me, Del Friscos was not my choice each time I went. One time a family member had a $200 gift certificate. The other time, an out of town guest requested it. I don't eat meat of any kind, rarely go to a chain restaurant and am not a tourist....Never again.

                    1. re: mvi
                      l
                      LeoLioness Jul 29, 2012 01:37 PM

                      Oh, I hear you. Sometimes it's just not your call (I'm looking at you, dozens of business dinners I've had at Legal Seafood over the years). But the kind of experience you describe does raise my hackles, so I'll do my best to actively avoid this one.

                2. MC Slim JB Jul 28, 2012 10:55 AM

                  Del Frisco's is awful in just about every way I can think of, so this story is not surprising. But there's no question that dining at the bar has gotten more popular; I've long been an enthusiastic advocate and practitioner.

                  My custom nowadays is generally to go to a bar-bar for a pre-dinner cocktail, as many, many restaurant bars are too small and crowded, especially on weekend nights, for the comfortable enjoyment of a cocktail. I much prefer this to the common alternative, which is to have a drink at my table in the dining room once I've gotten seated; I like having that pre-dinner drink in a bar setting.

                  Certainly there are places that make it pretty clear by their configuration that they expect diners, not plain old drinkers, at their bar, like Rendezvous. But I agree that pressure by bar staff to order food or GTFO is distasteful, grounds for shunning, and richly deserving of an indignant post on Chowhound. Screw those idiots. Screw the Seaport and its cheesy, theme-y, chain-restaurant ethos in general.

                  http://mcslimjb.blogspot.com/

                  9 Replies
                  1. re: MC Slim JB
                    g
                    Gabatta Jul 28, 2012 11:00 AM

                    Agreed that the strategy of going to a dedicated bar pre dinner is a good one. One such combo that has been working for us is Lord Hobo before Bondir.

                    Yes, Del Frisco's is the pits. It wasn't our choice, and next time I will insist on an alternative.

                    1. re: Gabatta
                      k
                      kimfair1 Jul 29, 2012 11:33 AM

                      This has become our routine if we have reservations somewhere, and want a drink beforehand. The wife and I love eating at bars, however, since we do order cocktails, and it's so much easier (and quicker) to get one while sitting at the bar. Giving any patron a hard time for not ordering food at the bar is just poor business.

                    2. re: MC Slim JB
                      r
                      rozziegirl Jul 30, 2012 03:52 AM

                      So I'm curious, what are some "bar-bars"- by neighborhood: South End or Central Square, for example?

                      Thanks!

                      1. re: rozziegirl
                        g
                        Gabatta Jul 30, 2012 05:14 AM

                        It may not be a bar-bar I like the Franklin for a pre-dinner drink when in the South End. They have no problem with actually drinking at their bar and they know how to pour a good drink.

                        1. re: rozziegirl
                          barleywino Jul 30, 2012 05:55 AM

                          Brick & Mortar in Central Sq (next door to Central Kitchen, upstairs)

                          1. re: rozziegirl
                            MC Slim JB Jul 30, 2012 07:04 AM

                            The South End can be challenging just to get a drink on weekends at prime time, but my rotation includes the Franklin, South End Buttery, J.J. Foley's, Oishii Boston (an overlooked, often quiet option), Union, The Gallows, Stella (which has a second bar in the back that is often quieter), Estragon, Hamersley's, Aquitaine, Stephi's on Tremont, Tremont 647, The Delux, Anchovies, Petit Robert, Parish Cafe, Darryl's, Wally's, Coda and less often, Noche, Masa, and 28 Degrees. The good news is that you can generally walk around clusters of these places near to your destination and find a place to squeeze in. But if it's Friday or Saturday, we may start with a pop at home: I'm a pretty skilled amateur.

                            Central Square: Brick & Mortar and Green Street are my first choices. I like the bartending at Rendezvous, but it you have to be okay with standing on weekends. Craigie only works at very select windows, usually later. Central Kitchen, Moksa, River Gods, Middlesex, and Miracle are useful backups. Kendall Square has a lot of options these days, too, and as it's on the way, we may make a stop there. West Bridge, Hungry Mother, Abigail's, Bergamot, and the Blue Room (if Reggie is working the bar) have our preferred programs there.

                            http://mcslimjb.blogspot.com/

                            1. re: MC Slim JB
                              Veggo Jul 30, 2012 08:48 AM

                              Love it! Where do you have your shoes re-soled?

                              1. re: Veggo
                                MC Slim JB Jul 30, 2012 09:32 AM

                                I *do* have an excellent cobbler, actually. If I didn't walk everywhere, I would weigh 400 pounds.

                                http://mcslimjb.blogspot.com/

                                1. re: MC Slim JB
                                  Veggo Jul 30, 2012 09:49 AM

                                  Nice to have an excellent cobbler; peach is my favorite...:)

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