What Does a Four-Star Bar Look Like?

As more diners choose to eat at restaurant bars, and more restaurants offer top-notch drinks, how do fine dining establishments do the same? Leslie Pariseau visits a few of the country's four-star bars to find out what defines a fine-dining bar program today.

Fine dining is, by definition, a conscious effort to rise to the top. But the virtue of its elevation requires excellence in every detail: the hand soap in the bathroom, the petits fours at the end of the evening, the seamless transition of courses.

In the era when wolves roamed freely on Wall Street, this experience required a reservation, a dinner jacket, a love of first-growth Bordeaux and, often, a cozy relationship with the maître d’.

Furthermore, drinking in a four-star restaurant once revolved almost solely around wine, which has been part of fine dining as long as snails have been considered a delicacy. But cocktails? A Martini here and Old-Fashioned there, a nip of something strong or sweet at the end of a meal. They were less part of the experience and more trusty bookends to it.

Like fine dining in general, that has changed.

Today, as an everywoman with no reservation (or budget for high-end Bordeaux), it’s quite easy to stop into a four-star establishment and get a seat. I did so, in fact, three times in the last month. But instead of seeking out a table draped in white linen, I sat at the bar. Once the holding room for incomplete parties, the bars at these establishments have slowly undergone a transformation to become sidecars, rather than weigh stations, en route to the four-star experience.

True, some of the country’s finest restaurants have always maintained a progressive bar culture. A few have even long sought to elevate their cocktail programs above standard requests—places like the now-closed Cyrus in Sonoma, which helped define the West Coast cocktail, and Daniel, whose drink list has always felt clever and relevant, with drinks, like the White Cosmo, that wink at popular culture.

It’s not just good cocktails and available bar seats that set four-star bars apart. It’s that added layer of seamlessness—that je ne sais quoi quality these restaurants work so hard to cultivate, applied to cocktails and their context.

But it wasn’t until Will Guidara and Daniel Humm overhauled Eleven Madison Park beginning in 2006 that the notion of a bar program beyond single malts and premium vodkas truly took hold in New York. This shift from so-so to superlative was a matter of careful intention. “The world of fine dining had changed,” says co-owner Guidara, of the moment he arrived at Eleven Madison Park. “If we were going to call ourselves a real four-star restaurant, everything [the diner] touched needed to live up to that expectation. People know what a good cocktail tastes like. So, we wanted to have just as good a cocktail program as a [bar like] Milk and Honey.”

Milk and Honey was, in 2008, awarded the title “best bar in the world.”

As Eleven Madison Park forged ahead with its revamp, Manhattan’s older-school establishments followed. Le Bernardin retrofitted its 51st Street space to allow diners to eat at the bar, as did Del Posto in the Meatpacking District. Both cocktail programs got a makeover as well (Del Posto in 2010, and Le Bernardin in 2011), integrating rejiggered classics and their own lists of proprietary drinks. At seafood mecca Le Bernardin, these hinged on delicate flavors like herbs and fruits, while Del Posto’s sturdier fare was matched with classics with a backbone. Daniel offered its full menu in the bar’s upper lounge and continues to refine its seasonally-minded cocktail list, once under Xavier Herit (who went on to open the excellent Wallflower), and now Fabio Raffaelli.

It’s not just good cocktails and available bar seats that set four-star bars apart, though. It’s that added layer of seamlessness—that je ne sais quoi quality these restaurants work so hard to cultivate, applied to cocktails and their context. I found it in the unexpected gift of gratis bar snacks (so elevated, in most cases, they defy the moniker) that created such an ambience of generosity and abundance. Or the kind of measured, attentive service so old-fashioned in today’s harried bar scene that it felt downright new again. Or the drinks themselves—some presented with the same exacting flair as the food.

“There’s a savvy that people of our generation have, growing to appreciate cocktails, beer, tea and coffee with just as much passion and intensity as they do food and wine,” says  Guidara. At a time when many restaurants tasked wine directors with curating everything that went into a cup or a glass (which Guidara likens to a chef who must also execute pastry) Eleven Madison Park delegated the specialties to their specialists. In the case of cocktails, Leo Robitschek re-stocked the bar with a library of superior ingredients from single-village mezcals to housemade syrups. Eventually, cocktails got folded into Eleven Madison’s dinner choreography; guests would be whisked into the kitchen for an unexpected, intimate cocktail presentation that resembled a smoking science experiment. In that moment, drinks were elevated to become just as exciting as Chef Daniel Humm’s avant-garde cooking.

In this way, a four-star bar program’s aims often mirror that of its kitchen’s, whether via the use of seasonal ingredients, culinary techniques or sharing the chef’s arsenal.

On a verdant hillside in Napa, The Restaurant at Meadowood operates in its own self-sustaining corner of wine country. Chef Christopher Kostow’s food is hyper-seasonal, his menu dedicated to crystallizing the new flavors of Napa Valley into dishes like poussin cooked in sourdough or rye porridge with chrysanthemum flowers. While it wasn’t always the case, the bar has quietly begun to take cues from the kitchen. 

When Sam Levy, who started as a food runner five years ago, took over the bar, he forged an ethos that was equally as attuned to Meadowood’s ecosystem as Chef Kostow’s food. The same Thai peppers that show up on a plate may make an appearance in a shrub; the same kumquats in a housemabe liqueur or infusion. Walnuts from Meadowood’s farm can be found in winter nocino and Meyer lemons in a limoncello. The resulting cocktails are as uncommon and provocative as the food itself, encapsulating the notion of time and place impossible to replicate with a standard arsenal of spirits and mixers.

This has become a common credo in California. At Saison in San Francisco, where fire-cooking is a common technique, cocktails are often infused with smoky or grilled flavors. In Los Gatos, the lounge at Manresa ultimately operates as a different way to experience Chef David Kinch’s food. Intensely flavored cocktails are laced with all the seasonal produce found in Manresa’s cuisine, from sorrel (in a Gimlet variation) to rabbit stock (in a Bloody Mary) to anise hyssop (in a homemade Chartreuse).

Of course, no amount of impeccable preparation, in both drinks and food, can make up for an atmosphere that lacks appeal—which is what truly sets the successful fine dining bar programs of today apart from those of yore. In the past, many of the bars in fine dining establishments have had all the charm of corporate hotel lobbies. Today’s four-star bars—beginning with Eleven Madison Park’s kinetic, stage-like mezzanine bar—have banished those hushed, purgatorial spaces in favor of an atmosphere that invites guests to linger.

Surely owing something to Chef Boulud’s personal brand of contagious enthusiasm, Daniel’s bar has always hummed with energy and near-perfect service. “We have bar regulars who come every week for dinner, and have been for twelve to fifteen years,” says head sommelier Raj Vaidya. Bartenders in white smoking jackets mix drinks with precision—an olive garnish here, a spray of orange essence there—and are a polished reflection of Boulud’s contemporary French cooking.

The Italian foil to Daniel, Del Posto’s plush bar seems straight out of old New York. While only ten years old, the rich, dark sitting room feels as if its burnish had been worn in by decades of celebrities, hedgefunders and well-to-do barflies. A tiny galaxy unto itself off the dining room, the bar doles out little trays of aperitivo bar snacks supplied alongside expertly mixed drinks and a bit of warm conversation from the black-tied bar staff.

“The neighborhood was developing,” says general manager Jeff Katz. “We were saying no to more and more people who wanted to eat dinner at the bar, so we decided to succumb to it.”

But the submission is an easy, pleasurable one. As more diners choose the bar’s spontaneity to the table’s definitive trail of twelve courses, fine dining establishments gain another facet of service to polish. From bespoke bar mats to alternative serving choreography to artful conversation, four-star bars and their bartenders are returning to a kind of tradition that has existed in barrooms for centuries—great drinks and intuitive, superlative hospitality, with a bit of that indescribable I-don’t-know-what quality tucked in between.