The Art of Bar Food

Remember the days when going to bars meant full-on drinking with little or no regard to consuming anything but your next cocktail? Thankfully, this past approach has yielded to a more sensible and no less entertaining alternative. For my wife Paula and I, the focus has shifted to actually going to bars for the express purpose of having an informal but tasty dinner. Our decision is usually governed by a number of key attributes:

  1. First, is the food any good? We are not interested in nachos and stuffed potato skins. Instead, we look to the restaurateur to provide a full compliment of appetizers and main courses.
  2. Second, we want a complete wine by the glass list that expresses the proprietor’s interest in wine. Ideally, the selections run to at least twenty choices and range across a broad sampling of varietals and countries.
  3. Finally, we want to be entertained in some way. The entertainment might be a view, it might be stimulating people watching, it can be imaginative and compelling design, or in many cases it’s the personality of the bartender that captivates our attention.

I have listed below some of our favorite spots for that casual dinner at the bar. Give them a try and let me know if they lived up to their promise.

Stonehill Tavern

The new restaurant in the St. Regis in Dana Point replaces the old Michael Mina restaurant Acqua. The famous New York designer Tony Chee dressed the space and it’s obvious they were determined to rid the restaurant of the more formal “fine dining” atmosphere. The bar is three-sided with approximately 15 seats so you can discretely check out your fellow bar-mates. The choice of specialty cocktails is terrific! They use freshly squeezed juices and don’t stint on the alcohol. The wine by the glass list is extensive and features wines from across the spectrum: California, of course, but also Spain, Austria and Italy. For food, we chose the “Trio” selections for duck and tuna on the full bar menu. Michael Mina says he pioneered the trio concept – doing each protein three different ways on the same plate. While a bit pricey, St. Regis’ trio concept was beautifully presented and the flavors were clean and distinct. The only disconnect was the bartender’s personality, which leaned toward formal, surprising since they went to such great lengths to make the restaurant feel casual. 

The Hungry Cat

This Hollywood bistro on Vine Street is owned by David Lentz, husband of Suzanne Goin, the proprietor of Lucques and A.O.C. in Los Angeles. Trey, Mark and I had dinner there recently during a scouting trip to L.A. It is one of the hippest new places in town. The space is very casual and funky, but they are very serious about food, wine and cocktails. The first thing you notice upon being seated at the bar is the giant juicing contraption that is affixed to the bar. All cocktails are handmade to order and they are extraordinary. The wine list is small but interesting, with choices oriented toward Old World selections from France, Spain and Italy, and the wines reflect carefully chosen but unfamiliar small producers. The food is simple and flavorful in the extreme. Try the clams with chorizo and garbanzos, the crab legs and the best burger in LA. The bartenders are knowledgeable about all the products and will have you trying lots of fun things if you give them permission to go crazy, which we did!


Leslie Rudd, owner of Dean and DeLuca, has created an amazingly beautiful restaurant in St. Helena in the heart of California wine country. If you like urban chic environments even in the countryside, you will love Press. We ate at the bar and the tender, a former San Diegan named Ilene, was the entertainment for the evening. Combine the knowledge of a seasoned pro with the off-color personality of Bette Midler, and you have Ilene. The extensive wine list and wine by the glass choices are not only all California, but also all Napa. In my opinion, this is a flaw because it leaves out so many other terrific wines that are being made elsewhere in the state, not to mention Napa makes almost no quality pinot noir. The menu at Press focuses on hearty American fare with an emphasis on Prime beef. Many of the portions are designed to be for two and most are cooked over a wood-burning grill or rotisserie. The selections of fish, pork, chicken and lamb reflect an environmentally correct selection process (no hormones, antibiotics, etc.). The side items on the menu are particularly good – try the pomme frites deep-fried in duck fat!