Finding Solace at Restaurants’ Chummy Bars

Cheek to cheek

In his book The Hidden Dimension, anthropologist Edward T. Hall defined the concept of proxemics—the cultural relevance of the spatial distances that individuals maintain. It helped me understand what felt so alienating about the United States when I moved here from Europe: I have a different sense of personal space. If I sit next to you on a sofa, I am practically in your lap. The rectangular two-tops in restaurants that put me at arm’s length from the person I’m dining with feel excruciating. I much prefer to eat at the bar, which fulfills my need for intimacy.

Some of the happiest meals of my career (Masa in New York, L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon in Paris, Bacchanalia after it moved to Atlanta’s Westside, Soto before it relocated to Manhattan) have been tête-à-têtes at the bar with people whom I knew could go the distance without becoming antsy. I can sit for three hours on a bar stool without so much as shifting. I also sometimes indulge my inner misanthrope by eating solo at the bar, free to pump the staff for information and order dishes one at a time. If I can see the kitchen, I keep my eyes glued on the chefs’ handiwork.

With the exception of Quinones, all the restaurants in the Anne Quatrano/Clifford Harrison empire—Bacchanalia, Floataway Cafe, and Abattoir —have comfortable bars suitable for a coursed meal, and they’re excellent options when you’re trying to slip in on busy weekends without a reservation. I adore the two sexy little bars leading up to a dining room at Top Flr. The sleek wooden counter—not the sushi bar—overlooking the shochu and sake bottles at Miso Izakaya helped me fall in love with chef-owner Guy Wong’s inspiring Asian bites.

When dining out, I frequently choose the bar to turn my back on what I consider an unfortunate or busy decor. A case in point is Sprig, a delightful if not especially cozy locavore restaurant in the Oak Grove area whose best feature is its neighborly, rustically handsome bar. I endure the tall stools at Empire State South, with their torturous metalwork, because the atmosphere around the winding counter is so energetic and friendly.

I can’t stand it when a restaurant doesn’t have a bar (Tierra, Community Q BBQ, and practically every Chinese place) or when the bar serves mostly as a place for people to get a rushed drink while their reserved table is being set (Ecco, Bistro Niko). I pity people who wait in line at Taqueria del Sol. I head straight for one of the tightly packed seats at the counter and dive into a meal of imaginative tacos and turnip greens. And privacy is overrated for celebrations. On a recent weeknight in Virginia-Highland, I saw an expensively dressed couple eating Maine lobster at the clamorous Goin’ Coastal, a sustainable seafood restaurant with a Southern accent. They sat close to one another and sent a round of shots to every stranger around the bar to help toast the husband’s birthday. They’d figured it out: Life is more fun at the bar.

Christiane Lauterbach is our restaurant columnist.
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