How to find good food in American bars

Jacob Grier has an excellent post on this topic (which I do not cover), here is just one part of a longer discussion:

Reading An Economist Gets Lunch inspired me to think explicitly about how to find good food in American bars. Here are a few general suggestions based on my own experience:

Avoid places with lots of vodka and light rum. These can be bought cheaply and are easy to dress up in crowd-pleasing ways with liqueurs, fruit, and herbs. If these are what the customers are demanding than the food may be equally designed for broad appeal.

In contrast, look for ingredients that signal a knowledgeable staff and consumers. Italian amari, herbal liqueurs, rhum agricole, quality mezcal, batavia arrack, and – lucky for me – genever are good indicators. If I see a bar stocked with these I’ll want to see the food menu.

Go into the city. The density of consumers with expendable income, knowledge of food and drinks, and access to transportation that doesn’t require them to drive is in urban areas.

Laws matter. In some states regulations require that places selling spirits also serve food. Where these laws don’t exist, many of the best cocktail destinations won’t bother much or at all with food, so one might plan to eat and drink separately. (These laws are bad news if you just want to drink, since your drink prices may be covering the cost of an under-utilized cook and kitchen or bars may simply close earlier to save on labor. Virginia’s law creates particularly perverse incentives.)

Comments

I'm American, and I've never been a real bar patron. My biggest problem with bars is that they're typically too loud and crowded to have an engaging conversation in.

I have that problem in a lot of trendy places, but it's never taken me too much effort to find a quiet little hole in the wall where I can grab beer with a few friends and just chat away. At least not in DC or NYC, anyway.

Can bars really be differentiated on the "vodka and light rum" criteria? Almost every bar certainly has both and I've never noticed more or less of them across bars.

I would guess that Tyler is recommending that you avoid bars that advertise a large number of drink specials whose main liquor is vodka or light rum. Presumably any bar that promotes as its major selling point cheap, broadly palatable alcoholic beverages will only accidentally attract clientele with a discerning taste for food.

I wish Tyler would talk a little more about the perverse incentives of Virginia's law. There are places that I know for a fact do not sell enough food to comply with law. I always figured they simply over-reported foods sales and paid any and all meals taxes as the price of doing business.

Why a nation that slurps sugar water at table should be expected to take an interest in food beats me. It's little short of a miracle that it has provided the world with two such delights as the hot dog and the burger, both - at their best - estimable.

I'm sure this was not your intent, but you come across as incredibly ignorant.

You forgot fried chicken and barbecue.

And cajun food.

Most things, but especially desserts, from the Pennsylvania Dutch.

Actually, dearieme, that's mostly the South you are referring to, not the entire nation, the the extent the South even is part of the nation, and the English in the South, both the white and the black ones, make the best English food in the world.

Whereas the English contribution to world cuisine is...the chip. Oh, and canned baked beans on toast. Delectable.

Nations don't slurp sugar water, people do.

You seem to have forgotten that the cocktail itself was born in America.

The cocktail is a US contribution to the world.

out of topic but interesting: shaming is supposed to be way to teach people how to park a car?

http://www.minyanville.com/dailyfeed/2012/05/22/park-like-a-jerk-this/?camp=syndication&medium=portals&from=yahoo

That last point is of particular importance if you're looking for the opposite: great drinks. Avoid places that serve food, if possible. The two best bars I've ever been to (The Cocktail Club in Charleston SC, and The Crunkleton in Chapel Hill, NC) don't serve any food, but the mixed drinks are spectacular.

I don't think I've ever been to a bar that doesn't serve food. Then again, I've never been to the Carolinas.

I heartily second the Cocktail Club recommendation!

So look for places that serve obscure, high-end liquors, are located in large urban centers, and cater to a discriminating clientele. In other words "avoid places that are cheap, go to places that are expensive."

Look at it this way: why buy a rum and coke or a Bud Light at a bar, when those cocktails can easily be made at home? If you are already going to pay through the nose for drinks, ask for drinks that you could not easily make at home. I'd rather pay $12 for one genever old-fashioned (genever, demerara, orange and Peychaud’s bitters, lemon peel, rocks) than $6 for two gin and tonics.

Sure, but "more expensive usually equals higher quality" is (a) not exactly an earth-shattering revelation and (b) goes directly against the spirit of Prof. Cowen's book.

You missed the point. It's not about expensive = high quality. $6 for a Tanqueray and tonic is expensive, too. Also, you might hate a genever old-fashioned. It's about trying interesting things that would be difficult to recreate at home. You wouldn't intentionally pay $6 at a restaurant to eat Campbell's soup, either, for the same.

Bars with popcorn machines, Buck Hunt, Golden Tee, and/or peanuts/chips = crappy food. If they're drawing people who don't mind cheap entertainment, then they can also get by on serving cheap food.

Not necessarily true. My family has a bar in the Midwest with all those things AND they make good, old-fashioned comfort food. The open-faced turkey sandwich covered in gravy is awesome and they do all their soup from scratch. They don't serve chicken fingers.

That's different - of course they are going to serve good food because they probably have loyal local customers. And they are going to serve the other stuff too because there is a market for chips and popcorn if you're just grabbing a beer or two.

And I wouldn't expect chicken fingers, either. Those are more the kind of thing you find at dim sum places.

And I wouldn’t expect chicken fingers, either. Those are more the kind of thing you find at dim sum places.

No. That is chicken feet.
http://www.food.com/recipe/delicious-chicken-feet-3110

Fingers, toes - of course they are on chickens' feet - where else would they be?

And they are great with beer. You can spit the tiny bones at the waitress to get her attention.

Brewpubs generally make a good burger. (Thinking Bend Brewing Company at the moment.)

Do brewpubs count as bars? They usually have full sit-down service, and some of them have excellent, deep menus. I'm particularly fond of the Willimantic Brewing Company, myself.

Maybe the bar was an evolution of the pub/tavern that dropped the food?

I could be missing the point, but the first two suggestions are only things you will know once you are in the bar. If the whole point of this is to glean signals of good bar food, wouldn't signals before you are in the bar matter more (so you can save time by not going there in the first place)?

Once you are in the bar and can look at the ingredients in the drinks, why not just look at the food menu or the food itself that other patrons are eating?

It seems like "this place has batavia arrack - I bet the burgers are great" is much more roundabout than just looking at the burger the guy next to you is eating.

You're right of course, but you are overlooking the pretentiousness value of wondering about batavia arrack.

Besides, the correlation here seems awfully weak. Trendiness in alcohol - and that's a lot (not all) of what we're talking about here - doesn't imply a good burger. And if it's burgers we're talking about, why don't good ones have "broad appeal," which seems to be a negative in Grier's mind for some reason.

I actually like bars that are attached to good restaurants, which is very different than a bar that serves restaurant food. They tend to not have tvs and other distracting noise. They tend to have good wine, mostly bottled beer (=good selection), excellent liquors and if you get hungry you can order an appetizer off their regular menu.

Avoid places with lots of vodka and light rum. These can be bought cheaply and are easy to dress up in crowd-pleasing ways with liqueurs, fruit, and herbs. If these are what the customers are demanding than the food may be equally designed for broad appeal.

In contrast, look for ingredients that signal a knowledgeable staff and consumers. Italian amari, herbal liqueurs, rhum agricole, quality mezcal, batavia arrack, and – lucky for me – genever are good indicators. If I see a bar stocked with these I’ll want to see the food menu.

Hmm.

I think by "herbal liqueurs" he means stuff like Fernet, which is definately not "crowd pleasing" in the way that triple sec is.

Call one of the big law firms in town, tell the receptionist you've got a couple hours to kill before your next appointment, and ask where's a good place to eat. They will be very helpful.

Yeah and you might get a date!

You might. But lawyers pride themselves in knowing where all of the off-the-beaten-track quality restaurants are. People who charge $200+ per hour don't take/send clients to places where they won't be pleased. On the flip side, they don't want to give their clients the impression that they're spendthrifts -- so there will always be value for cost. An anonymous pretext call will get you the information you want.

Here's a novel idea. A guy walks into a bar. He asks the bartender for a menu. If the bartender says they don't have a food menu, then that's not a good place for dinner.

If the bartender gives you a food menu, ask him what's really good. If he says "everything is good," then there's a 50/50 chance everything is good and everything sucks. You can tilt the odds in your favor by paying attention to the vocal and nonverbal components of his reply.

If you decide to order food and you like it, eat there again. If you don't like it, say, "This sucks" and go somewhere else.

If I really want to get clever, I'll look up reviews on my smartphone or ask friends. Or I might ask other people in the bar or coming out how the food was.

Or is my Chicago gourmet sense too rational for an economist foodie. Why such an emphasis on signalling? Some of the worst dives have the best food, and vice versa. And people's tastes differ, so recommendations are fuzzy.

I thought the comment on cheap vodka and rum was pretty useless. As Rahul said, what bar doesn't have cheap vodka and rum?

The more I can't recognize the haughty French words on the menu, the less likely I am to enjoy the value of the meal. It might taste good, but not at what they charge. But I live in Chicago, and I can't swing a dead cat by the tail without hitting a good restaurant.

I look at the beer menu and If I see something interesting I'm much more willing to try it. There are a number of somewhat pricey restaurants in L.A. that still don't go beyond the Corona/ Sam Adams/ Bass for their premium offerings. There really isn't any excuse not to put in some effort on this front and it sends a signal to me that the owner/manager is at least thoughtful.

I have never seen jenever here in the U.S. except at Bevmo. Maybe, I should ask at some of the places that serve Belgium stuff. Is that where you find it ( yeah, I know it's Dutch but there aren't any places that specialize in that cuisine and half of Belgium is Dutch). I'm surprised Pimms hasn't caught on more here but it is available at a few places.

Funny you should mention genever. Jacob is actually a representative for one of the genever brands. Also, for those talking about light rum and cheap vodka, there are more and more bars popping up of the "craft" "speakeasy" whatever you want to call it sort that focus on anything but cheap vodka and overly sweet rum drinks.

A lot of people go to bars and restaurants to socialize, but I realize a lot of people go for the drinks and food. I myself can make my own drinks and know how to cook so I'm only interested in the former, not the latter. In fact, the more popular the bar, the better. But to each their own. As for foodies, you realize all restaurants that serve food that tastes good is basically doing something long term unhealthy with it: butter, lard, salt etc taste good and that's what will be served, since that hits 'center mass' (the mean plus one standard deviation). Same for drinks: how many people are willing to taste a rare single malt Scotch that tastes terrible but is a connoisseur's delight? Not many.

"As for foodies, you realize all restaurants that serve food that tastes good is basically doing something long term unhealthy with it ..."

No. Some of them are just like you, they're social and they know how to cook.

But I doubt it, if you know me. For starters, I use no salt. At all.

Must save you a fortune. And you say you know how to cook?

Here's my crazy unorthodox theory of how to find good food in American bars: ask a local.

But there's the obviously problem: who do you ask? and how do you decide that's the person? Or what about a larger sample? I think this just pushes the problem back.

You mean like pushing it back to making decisions based on obscure signals that may or may not have anything to do with food quality, and even if they do the signal might be very weak. And there might not be a consistent signal among all restaurants or even of similar types of restaurants.

The best predictor of food quality is EATING IT.

The second best predictor is getting recommendations from actual people, and not witch doctors looking at the way the restaurant folds its napkins.

Plenty of nice cocktail bars and restaurants have lots of vodka and light rum. I don't think the rest of these suggestions are all that insightful. They're rather obvious.

If these are what the customers are demanding than the food may be equally designed for broad appeal.

Which, God forbid.

Actually what you want to do is eat at bars in restaurants that have place settings for food, or will set you up quickly. These are great place for solo diners to eat, and you can talk to the bartender. Frequently you can also order off the bar menu as well. Your drink service will be faster, and frequently the food service will be as well. The bartender will be excited to have a large ticket.

The difference between a bar that serves food, and a restaurant that has a bar that serves food is a little technical.

I think Mr Grier's advice represents a metropolitan trend towards "craft" everything that has gotten pretty annoying. I myself don't like to eat around guys with magician beards wearing pork pie hats and sporting nuclear engineer glasses with non-corrective lenses.

I second the 'obvious' complaint.

Maybe it's a bad excerpt

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