To my knowledge, I only cried twice on the job in the years I was a waitress. The first time occurred when my closest girlfriend, a fellow server at a certain deli in my hometown, informed me that she was sleeping with my then-boyfriend, who also worked there as a waiter. I'm afraid the corned beef was a little saltier than usual that evening. The second time, at the same eatery, was when I was assigned to work the counter.
I wasn't the only one to dread the counter. The management usually only asked the most experienced waitresses to handle that area of the restaurant. The counter comprised about fifteen seats, and because it attracted mostly solo diners who wanted to eat quickly and leave, it was the equivalent of handling fifteen separate tables that constantly turned over -- simultaneously. By the time I was on the tenth round of I'll have a pizza burger, hold the cheese, substitute onion rings for French fries, no make that a baked potato with sour cream, and you might as well put the cheese back on the burger, actually hold the sour cream in that case and give me butter instead unless you have margarine, and I'll want skim milk in my coffee but if you don't have that I'll take two percent, but you better not give me half-and-half because I'm on a very strict diet, I was in tears. The kind you try so hard to hold back that your nose runs as if the tears want to come out of your nostrils and you hiccup and make strange, asthmatic noises in your chest. So much more obvious than if you had simply let loose a sob or two in the first place in the kitchen or somewhere else equally discreet.
Counters -- and one less reason for waitresses to sport puffy eyelids -- have largely gone the way of Woolworth's. A few types of restaurants, like diners and old-fashioned Cuban eateries such as Puerto Sagua and David's Café, still routinely construct them as a place for single diners and the smaller parties who would rather not wait for a table. But for the most part, counters have been replaced by those design elements that result in much higher revenue for the restaurateur: bars. Accordingly, diners who would normally have gravitated toward a counter now often wish to consume a meal at the bar, where people who pity them for eating alone can stare at their impervious, martini-stiffened backs. And the job requirements for "bartender" now include "serve from the left, remove from the right. And don't forget the skim milk. But if you don't have that I'll take two percent."
Needless to say, some bartenders rightly feel that their jobs have gotten harder. In the past they had to pour wine, open beer, mix cocktails, blend frozen concoctions, and brew cappuccinos and other specialty coffee drinks for their customers (and, if there's no service bartender, those of the waitstaff as well), a complicated enough multitasking system. Now, in addition, they have to set cutlery and napkins, deal with grumpy line cooks, refill water, deliver dinner, fetch condiments, fulfill special requests, correct cooking errors, offer dessert, and clear dishes. In short they have to do everything a regular server does in addition to their own job duties, which often include washing glasses and stocking liquor, many times without the singular benefit of a barback or busboy.
In fact if you want to make a bartender shed a few water-weight pounds of frustration, order an appetizer, too. And then forget to tip on the food.
Many restaurants, however, are encouraging the burgeoning trend by scripting complete guidelines for bartenders. At Joe Allen in Miami Beach, the bartenders are required to automatically ask drinkers whether they would also appreciate a menu. Many do -- manager Patricia Ferraro tells me that on a busy night, the bar seats could turn over three or four times. "We could do upwards of 50 dinners," she says, and that's not including the folks who just want a plate of fried calamari with a glass of wine.
And for the most part, the bartenders themselves like a customer with an appetite for a three-course meal. Alyse Goldberg, manager at the venerable Tobacco Road, confirms that the bar has always served meals for its entire 90 years of existence. Indeed, she adds, she hasn't seen the volume of bar-diners decrease "in the ten years since I've been here. Some people prefer the bar. And our bartenders prefer it, too -- it's better check average, rather than just serving a drink." That's the case even though, in addition to service responsibilities, bartenders at Tobacco Road rank higher on the food chain. "When there's no manager, the bartender takes over," Goldberg says. "They're considered in charge. They also have to answer all the phones and we rely on them to help sell the concerts. It's a very hard job. That's why we only hire [bartenders] from within. Most of our bartenders have already been waitresses or barbacks. Then they apply to become bartenders."
Jan Jorgensen, co-owner of Two Chefs in South Miami, also depends on his bartenders to promote goods. "The bar is great for tastings. A bartender could be making a drink for a waiter and the customer he's servicing wants to know what it is. So he gives them a taste. Or he can pour four different vodkas for a customer to sample before he makes up his mind. I have an incredible collection of single-malts. Let him teach you."
Still, "I don't have a drinking bar; I have an eating bar," he notes, which may be a given considering that Two Chefs is one of our finest upscale establishments. "I do a kick-ass bar business when it comes to full-blown meals." He credits the relationship between bartender and diner. "A couple will sit in the bar, have a drink, fall in love with the bartender, and decide to sit there for dinner, then next time sit in the bar again. Now people call and ask if there's room to have dinner at the bar. The bartenders are steady employees in this place so they know so-and-so likes to have their glasses filled with ice before you pour the beer in. It's a personal relationship, more so than with a waiter who might have four or five tables per section," he admits, though he adds that he also has customers who request particular waiters' sections.
How can you tell a bar that's friendly for multicourse meal consumption, whether it's a salad-burger combo or a New World extravaganza? Look for accessible tidbits, designed to stimulate the full-blown appetite, right on the bar. And I'm not talking peanuts, pretzels, or that regrettable Chex mix that's now available in bulk sizes. Try the mixed olives and veritable vases of homemade breadsticks, up for grabs at Pacific Time. Or more inventive goodies: Joe Allen, for instance, routinely offers, within hand's reach, hard-boiled eggs that customers like to spike with hot sauce.
In addition, watch to see who does what. At bars like Barton G, servers and food-runners bring the food; ditto at Tobacco Road. When the bar is ultrabusy or has more than twenty seats, as Houston's in North Miami Beach does, the extra help portends that you'll get the correct food order in a reasonable amount of time. Also check out just how the bartender arranges the place setting. A fork and knife in a rolled-up napkin is fine, but the cheery place mat Dab Haus in Miami Beach puts on the bar under your schnitzel is a gigantic plus. As is the triangular napkin Joe Allen spreads on the counter, and the linens at Barton G.
The advantages to dining at a bar number more than just avoiding embarrassing implications about why one is supping alone. A meal can last as short or long as you like. Quality entertainment ranges from television sets to open-kitchen perusals such as the kind you can do from the bar at Two Chefs, where Jorgensen says the visibility is "good discipline" in keeping the floors clean. Personalized service is incipient: On two occasions, I've had bartenders bring me light -- a lamp at Dab Haus and a flashlight at Jake's Bar and Grill in South Miami -- to illuminate my reading matter. And there's always the option of making a new friend, if one is so inclined.
On the other hand, downsides for a solitary-by-nature diner include a singular lack of privacy. I was once eating a hamburger at the bar at Joe Allen, leafing through a favorite book, when the man next to me nudged his companion. "She's reading poetry!" he exclaimed. "Can you believe that? At a bar?"
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"I can hear you," I said without lifting my eyes from the page. "An appreciation of formal verse doesn't make you deaf." After which, of course, I received blessed, if a bit frigid, silence.
For bar diners, though, the biggest issue currently is secondhand smoke, since the bar is often a place where folks gather to puff while they sip. Not everyone likes to inhale carcinogens along with their grease and cholesterol. Not to mention that smoking has become such a sensitive issue that some owners wish to dodge phone calls completely. One restaurateur I spoke with -- and I use the phrase lightly -- wouldn't even tell me how many seats she had at the bar, let alone whether she served full dinners or turned those seats over during the evening. "How do I know you are who you say you are?" she asked suspiciously, her gravelly voice an obvious product of tobacco abuse. "How do I know you're not from the smoking-ban people?"
Pardon me while I take a drag of my Parliament and indulge in mixed metaphors, but that's another smoking gun entirely. One soon to hit the light, so to speak.