Eating at the Bar: Why Forgoing the Reservation and Pulling Up a Stool Guarantees Great Eats

Get to know your food and your dining companions at this cozy and dynamic alternative to waiting for that booth to open up.



There are seven stools at the Bistro Rollin bar, plus another 18 seats at bar tables.

courtesy of Bistro Rollin

I love sitting at the bar. Not in the sense of downing shots and drinking like I did back in college, but in the have-a-glass-of-Pinot-and-enjoy-the-small-plates sort of evening. To me, it’s the best of both worlds—all the sense and personality of a restaurant without the linens-on-the-table formality.

Call it the Dining Experience 2.0: You still get the same top-notch service, the same ambience, and the same epicurean food (whether with the bar menu or the regular menu), but in a more intimate setting where you can get to know your neighbor, if you like. Sitting elbow-to-elbow at the bar often leads to a more convivial evening. It’s also a comfortable option for those dining alone. Best of all, it’s a great way to score a no-reservations seat at a place where tables are otherwise difficult to get. Here, a stool’s-eye-view of restaurants that cater specifically to bar dining (cocktails included). 

Burgers and house-made fries are among the dishes on Bistro Rollin’s R-Bar menu. Photo courtesty of Bistro Rollin

Benjamin Steakhouse (610 W Hartsdale Ave, White Plains 914-428-6868; benjaminsteakhouse.com) offers just what you’d expect from a proper steakhouse—handsome wood, comfortable seating, gentle lighting, and food that’s solid and drama-free. Sure, you’re here for the meat—delicate, decadent tenderloin; savory, flavor-packed rib-eye; formidable, juicy porterhouse—all cooked exactly to order and available in every imaginable cut. But it’s the 20-seat bar, with its abbreviated menu, Happy Hour specials, and banter of bartender extraordinaire Benny Martinaj that makes dining front and center such a delight. Try the mini filet mignon bites, served with the restaurant’s famous steak sauce; the ultra-flavorful steak tartare; or the gorgeously slippery bluepoint oysters.

Bistro Rollin (142 Fifth Ave, Pelham 914-633-0780; bistrorollin.com), which introduced the flavor and flair of a French bistro with an American accent to Pelham three and a half years ago, has expanded and renamed its bar area, making it the perfect spot for a quiet but enjoyable night on the town. The R-Bar, as it’s now called, with seven stools and six tables (three of which are cozy window seats), is ideal for those catching a movie at the nearby Picture House, or meeting a friend just off the train. The variety of menu options—a smorgasbord of “Little Plates,” such as house-made pâté; “Lighter Plates,” like baba ghanoush; and “Larger Plates,” e.g., half-pound burgers on brioche rolls—are nice complements to the artisanal small-batch cocktails like Comb 9 Gin from Port Chester.

The visually stunning Vegetables for the Greenhouse is a dish one may find on Blue  Hill at Stone Barns’ ever-changing seasonal bar menu. photo by Thomas SchauerThere’s a lot to love about the bar at Blue Hill at Stone Barns (630 Bedford Rd, Pocantico Hills 914-366-9600; bluehillfarm.com), beginning with the fact that you’ve just scored a no-reservations seat at a restaurant where tables are often hard to get. The other “get”? An inventive, ever-changing, seasonal menu, and some of Westchester’s most stunningly presented amuse-bouches, which come when you order the full bar menu. There are two menus to choose from: the bar snacks, which include an artful display of American cheeses or the Blue Hill charcuterie, or the bar menu, a three-course parade of some of the restaurant’s best dishes. Every farm-fresh ingredient is carefully thought out, making for easy chatting with the bartender when you coyly ask, “What’s this again?” before diving into the crispiest, most delicious kale chip you’ve ever had. But what really impresses—aside from the food­ and extensive list of fine beers, wines, and cocktails (including the restaurant’s own gin)—is the fact that, despite your bar perch, you’re still treated like a royal guest.

Candles glow on the bar at BLT Steak (221 Main St, White Plains 914-467-5500; e2hospitality.com/blt-steak), where a mixture of hotel guests, Ritz-Carlton residents, regulars, and business travelers gather for what turns out to be a very busy bar scene. The long, sleek room, set a nice distance away from the dining area, is the perfect backdrop for nursing a cocktail and working your way through the bar menu (though wine is the big draw here, the new sommelier recently expanded the bar’s libations). Kudos for the salted almonds and seasoned popcorn placed strategically near votives—not a lot of places offer free munchies these days—but what really steal the show are the small plates: thoughtful flavor pairings that can be eaten as you sit on the comfortable leather bar chairs or in the adjacent lounge area. Not to be missed: the smoked salmon flatbread and the marinated goat cheese served in a jar with toasted country bread.

What more can be said about a place that’s been lauded, both locally and nationally? Crabtree’s Kittle House (11 Kittle Rd, Chappaqua, 914-666-8044; kittlehouse.com) may be known for its stellar wine list, winning food, impeccable service, historic charm, and occasional Clinton sighting, but it should also be noted for its Tap Room bar, a convivial space where you can score the same excellent food, but with less pomp and circumstance than in the main dining rooms. Renovated three and a half years ago, the new Tap Room retains its original character, but with a clubby, library-meets-elegant-pub feel. The dark wood bar is conversation enough—it’s 200 years old and was brought over from England by Fanny Brice, then used in a Bronx speakeasy before eventually being bought at auction and refurbished by the Kittle House’s original owner. But what makes the bar stand out is the man behind it: the hard-working, ever shaking and stirring Emilio Ugarte, who is always dreaming up and creating new cocktails (ask him about his Smoked New Fashioned, which is smoking—literally smoking). Add to the libations the restaurant’s rich truffled mac n’ cheese, Hudson Valley foie gras sauté, or infamous John Boy’s chicken and you have an evening to remember—all this, with no reservation required (though one may be necessary on most jam-packed nights)!

“Crowd-pleasing” is the term that comes to mind when describing eleven14 Kitchen at The JHouse (1114 E Putnam Ave, Greenwich, CT, 203-698-6999; eleven14kitchen.com), a former Howard Johnson’s turned mod hot spot. This plucky newcomer delivers the culinary goods with an ever-changing selection of locally sourced, seasonal American cuisine, some of which is prepared on a stunning wood-burning open hearth (you can even watch your meal being made on it from your post at the bar). There are seasonal flatbreads, roasted vegetables, and house-smoked and -cured sausage, among other mouthwatering choices. The tuna tartare is among the freshest I’ve ever tasted. The cocktails, too, focus on top-shelf classics, with a fine selection of craft beers and wine. Come warmer weather, there’s a vibrant outdoor bar/lounge to discover, complete with an outdoor fireplace and an overhead trellis. It’s South Beach meets LA meets Greenwich, and if the stream of patrons is any indication, it’s succeeding quite well in its mission to please.

Hungry corporate dwellers in the office park near Business Park Drive in Armonk have the perfect option for a light bite and a drink at Marc Charles Steakhouse (94 Business Park Dr, Armonk 914-273-2700; marc charlessteakhouse.com). The two distinct spaces—dining room on the left, bar on the right—offer a casual vibe ideal for winding down after work, either with a colleague, or with someone staying at the adjacent hotel (the restaurant’s located in La Quinta Inn & Suites). Bar-menu options are basic—Idaho potato skins, loaded nachos, and Buffalo wings—but, hey, sometimes that’s all you’re in the mood for. Plus, it all tastes especially good when combined with the impressive draft beer list, including the restaurant’s own Marc Charles Ale.

Maybe it’s the cozy “house-like” ambience. Or the “I’m here-to-listen-to-you” bartender, Chris Sayles. Whatever the reason, there’s some kind of bar magic going on at Plates (121 Myrtle Blvd, Larchmont 914-834-1244; platesonthepark.com), where socializing is a big part of the experience. Every time I plop myself down at the bar, I end up talking to someone (or someone to me). Sometimes, the discussion is about the cuisine—as in how committed Chef Matthew Karp is to locally sourced food—and sometimes it’s about the ultra-large (but I’m not sharing) local grass-fed beef burger, or the $1 oyster deal offered during the 5 to 7 pm “Commuter Special.” Other times, it’s simply about the kids, the weather, or how nice it is to chat with a stranger without feeling there’s any other agenda other than good ol’ neighborly friendliness, and a penchant for sitting at the bar and enjoying fine food and wine.

Jeanne Muchnick (jeannemuchnick.com) is a master at worming her way to a seat at the bar.