The trend in bar bites and small plates shows no sign of abating. If anything, it’s growing, fundamentally changing the way consumers dine out and the way operators design their menus. But what to put on your bar bites menu? Clearly, a high mix is always a good idea—while being mindful of the different vibe needed in this space.
“Small plates are a cost-effective strategy for the operator,” says Eric Stangarone, executive chef and creative lead at The Culinary Edge, a San Francisco-based consultancy. “There’s a high value perception for the guest, especially if they fit the archetype of bar bites—handheld, craveable, satisfying.”
Do proteins fit into this archetype? A small-plates menu seems like a good place for bolder dishes, featuring more “exotic” proteins, or maybe venturing into global fusion territory. After all, the commitment is small, so the scene is set for adventurous ordering. For the back of house, it seems to slide nicely into a strategy of ensuring multiple SKUs—lamb burgers translate to lamb meatballs, for instance. And with its casual vibe, it takes the pressure off of carefully timed sequencing—a more relaxed flow of “serve when ready” applies at the bar.
But a smart menu strategy is needed for success—and profit. Margins are typically tighter on proteins than on other ingredients, so if you’re going with protein-forward bar bites, that’s a consideration. Stangarone agrees: “Anytime you’re selling more protein, the margins get harder.” That doesn’t make it any less valuable. Being strategic about which proteins you’re putting on the menu is important, but the payoff also comes from increasing the value perception for your guests while making your bar an added destination for new and exciting flavors.
Value-forward bar bites can drive trial and repeat business. “If you’ve got a thoughtful bar menu, you’re not cannibalizing sales, but creating a new occasion for your guests,” says Stangarone. “With that lower price point, plus the added value that protein brings, you’re giving your guests a great place to try new dishes and come back for those unique flavor experiences.”
Andrew Hunter, president of Chef Andrew Hunter, a culinary agency based in Los Angeles, agrees. “We can take a safe culinary adventure at $6.95 over a $20 commitment. We’re looking for impact and instant gratification. Small plates are where the opportunity is and where it will continue to be. Anything we can do here to stand out makes sense.”
“Pubs and taverns tend to celebrate meat—bacon, more pork, beef. Plays on these archetypes succeed in bar bites,” says Stangarone. We’ve seen charcuterie take off at the independent level, where in-house claims and a love of cured meats is thriving. We’re also seeing these meat and cheese boards move into multi units, where pride in sourcing helps sell. “This is the quintessential dish finding proliferation at the multi-unit level,” he adds. “It’s a smart move because of the value perception inherent in a protein-heavy dish.”
At 21-unit Brick House Tavern + Tap, the Meat & Cheese Board was put on the menu to cater to a growing demographic. “We’re trying to attract suburban sophisticates,” says Tim Griffin, director of culinary innovation for Ignite Restaurant Group, the Houston-based parent company of Brick House. “They normally go to the hip gastropubs in the city, but as the demand grows, they’re looking for it closer to home. We’re making sure our menu meets their needs.” The charcuterie plate features meats sliced in house, goat cheese rolled in pecans and smoked cheddar. “It’s perfect bar-centric food for the modern diner who wants to sit down with a friend, have a glass of wine or a local beer and share a plate or two,” says Griffin.
Another tavern favorite is wings—that classic American bar food that offers the textbook definition of craveable with its salt, fat and savory combination. But to stand out and add value, operators are taking a look at these star performers and tweaking them. Instead of chicken, how about duck wings? At Brick House, duck wings are tossed in “Man Cave Sauce,” (a sweet-spicy sauce with garlic and Sriracha) and served with a dipping sauce of ranch. “It was a good thing to throw at the wall to see if it sticks,” says Griffin. “This stuck really well. We took the idea of chicken wings and gave it an edge.”
Bar-favorite flavors and forms offer another sound entry point for protein innovation. Buffalo wings. Tacos. Dogs. Look to the Buffalo-Fried Oysters from Rx Boiler Room in Las Vegas, for example: Oysters are unexpected, but Buffalo sauce is recognizable and craveable.
Protein adds value to the on-trend tater tot at The SIX15 Room in Minneapolis, where executive chef Kris Koch serves Walleye Tater Tots. A casual interpretation of walleye “brandade,” he thought the familiar tot profile would resonate with his guests. For these tots, he bakes walleye filets, mixes them with egg and mashed Yukon Gold potatoes, rolls the mixture in panko then deep fries them.
Other familiar dishes get re-imagined at the bar. Howells & Hood in Chicago serves Chicago Style Dogs, Vienna beef mini dogs wrapped in potato, tomato powder, poppy seeds, mustard relish, celery salt and sport peppers. At upscale Del Frisco’s Grille, cheesesteak transforms into a craveable snack in the Cheesesteak Eggrolls, served with a sweet chile-mustard sauce.
Pushing Comfort Levels
Bar bites almost demand bolder flavor combinations and more “eccentric” proteins. “The bar bite is the place to make something like a confit more approachable,” says The Culinary Edge’s Stangarone. “The buy-in is so much lower than the entrée and people are willing to experiment with small plates.” Indeed, one or two-deep into cocktails helps loosen inhibitions, encouraging a little adventure. So, where lamb might be a step too far for some (though less exotic than it used to be), operators are reporting success with it at the bar. Andrew Hunter points to the lamb ribs and the lamb quesadillas served at MacCool’s Public House in Salt Lake City as examples of creative introductions to less-embraced proteins. Three Degrees in Portland, Ore., sells Spiced Lamb Riblets with chile caramel and pickled watermelon rind.
Back at the Brick House Tavern + Tap, lamb meatballs are one of four meatballs offered on the snack menu. They sport scratch-made lamb and beef meatballs served with mint-cucumber tzatziki on crostini with basil pesto, goat cheese and baby arugula dressed in creamy balsamic. Notice a through line here: Familiar forms like ribs and meatballs offer guardrails for your guests, reminding them that they’re not stepping too far away from their tried-and-true.
BBQ Duck Pizza is another success story from Brick House. Following the familiar barbecue chicken pizza profile, its duck version did so well as an LTO, it’s now a feature on the pizza menu. For both the lamb and duck dishes featured on the bar menu, those proteins are run elsewhere, ensuring a multi-SKU approach for maximizing product use. “We don’t want single SKUs,” says Griffin. “If it is a single-use product, then it really has to help us stand out.”
Recipe ideation with leftover rock shrimp led chef Kevin Luzande of Acabar in Los Angeles to a popular bar bite called Crispy Shrimp Toast. It stars white country bread, rock shrimp mousse, sunny-side-up quail egg finished with sumac and a garnish of pickled Fresno peppers, cilantro and scallion. A dipping sauce of nam pla finishes the dish.
Apart from providing a great platform for exploration of proteins, bar bites open up the world of global flavors, one bite at a time. Again, it’s that safe culinary adventure we talk about—a consumer behavior that informs all aspects of menu development today. At Chapter One: The Modern Local in Santa Ana, Calif., beef filet tips are given an Asian spin with a five-spice marinade and a dipping sauce of cilantro-plum sauce. They push out into Filipino with crispy lumpia rolls featuring a marinated pork and beef blend and served with atchara, a pickled green papaya. For the truly adventurous, Sisig Fries beckon with pulled pork, pigs’ ears, pork belly, pig jowl, salsa criolla and a fried egg.
At Cantina La Veinte in Miami, chef Santiago Gomez gives crunchy soft-shell crab the bar treatment in the Dobladitas de Jaiba Suave, which features the crab served with jalapeño sauce in eye-catching cone containers.
Chicharrones—those salty, crunchy, porky morsels—seem destined for bar bites. The Culinary Edge’s Stangarone, who is also chef-owner of En Su Boca in Richmond, Va., agrees—his version at the restaurant features a dusting of Jalisco Five Spice.
“Bar bites can be great money makers,” he says. “Come up with a few items that you’re known for, and that are exclusive to your bar menu, and your guests will come back for them.”