As the revelers celebrating the 150th anniversary of the great McSorley’s Old Ale House can attest, dining at the bar is an ancient New York custom. But what began as the preference of a few solitary gin hounds seems to have blossomed into a full-blown culinary fad. The highbrow simplicity of Craft gave birth to Craftbar, which, late last year, produced Hearth. Former Craft chef’s Marco Canora’s East Village restaurant has plenty of tables, but the best seats in the house are at the narrow three-seat bar overlooking the kitchen. All sorts of fine food (consistently good house gnocchi, braised pork, olive-oil cake) is available from the regular menu, but that’s where eager downtown gourmets gather each evening like seagulls on a wharf, jockeying for delicious scraps (pork ends, little morsels of monkfish wrapped in pancetta) thrown up from the stove by the busy cooks.
If you don’t feel like dropping a month’s wages at Masa Takayama’s flagship restaurant, you can take a seat next door at Bar Masa and order a bowl of truffle-and-uni-laced risotto for a mere $68. At the long bar at Alta, in Greenwich Village, you and your friends can order the entire menu for $300 (called “The Whole Shebang”) and receive a tsunami of tapas-style dishes like sweet dates wrapped in bacon, lamb meatballs with yogurt sauce, and tender little pieces of hanger steak rolled in a spicy mix of crushed chilies from Aleppo. The whole menu at the superior noodle bar Momofuko, in the East Village, costs around $130, and whenever I repair there I like to blow another $20 on a nice bottle of sake, followed by plate after plate of the deliciously steamy Chinese buns stuffed with crisp chicken (with shredded cucumbers and greens), or deposits of sugary Cantonese braised pork.
Ham, in all its thinly sliced, multitudinous Eurocentric forms, is the main theme at Bar Jamón, where the Lilliputian-sized, fourteen-stool room gets so crowded on weekend nights that plates of Serrano ham or wedges of the excellent Tortilla Catalan get passed around over the heads of the diners, like at some raucous frat-house event. And if you want to expand on this Iberian-bar-food experience, the place is Tia Pol, in Chelsea, where on any given evening you’ll find legions of artsy-looking eaters balanced on little bar stools, taking prim bites of pork-loin sandwiches, perfectly tender calamari simmered in their own salty black ink, golden croquettes laced with slices of ham, and thin coins of red-hot chorizo served on slices of bread spread with chocolate.