What Is Bar Food?

Welcome to "Eating in Bars" a brand new semimonthly column celebrating bar food in all its incarnations, past and present, around the world. Up first, Regan Hofmann on the current state of the bar snack.

It used to be so simple: There were bars and there were restaurants, and you always knew exactly where you stood. Was there a menu with appetizers, entrees and desserts? You’re in a restaurant, my friend. Were you being served a drink by a person behind a bar? Bingo! Bar. You might be able to get something to eat, but it was bar food, plain and simple—small snacks and handheld bites engineered to be tasty yet forgettable, a pure sidekick to the night out.

But the rise of craft cocktail culture has had a worrying side effect: Bar food is suffering an identity crisis. We’re in the era of the Full-Kitchen Bar, where you come for the cocktails and stay for the raw bar and roast chicken for two. Meanwhile, every restaurant has a house cocktail list, an ambitiously stocked back bar, and a menu that poaches nuts, olives and housemade potato chips from the traditional bar snack repertoire. The black-and-white distinction has faded to a monochrome gray.

For the early craft cocktail bar owner, that shift made perfect sense. After putting in so much work to restore the cocktail as an art form after years of artificiality and gimmicks, the complete bar experience should be just as refined. Hand-hewn bars began shining in lovingly restored rooms, the better to hold up that perfectly stirred Old-Fashioned. Vintage rocks glasses carry it along; rough-and-rugged, chipped-by-hand ice cubes keep it chilled. Plunking down a bowl of peanuts or Cheez Balls next to it was a needle scratch, a hangover from the bad, boring days of cocktailing that threatened to ruin the picture. They were fighting a war for respect, and food became another weapon in the arsenal.

And so we’ve had a decade-plus of deviled eggs and foie-topped burgers, fried oysters and chicken pot pies, a motley crew of dishes cobbled together from the comfort-food end of restaurant trends as they’ve come and gone (remember the Great Tater Tot Moment of 2010?) and sized down in a vague nod to snackability. In so doing, we’ve taken a page from the British playbook, stealing the moves that led to the meteoric rise of the gastropub of the 1990s. The difference is that those first-wave gastropubs were doing something revolutionary that drew on centuries of pre-existing British pub tradition. Picking up the baton from the nascent British food revival led by chefs like Fergus Henderson, gastropub chefs saw the value in the workingman’s respite of the neighborhood pub, went into the kitchen and demanded respect for the shepherds pies and bangers and mash that had fueled generations of punters.

It’s tempting to try and define bar food, delineate its boundaries and make up rules to reinstate the old dichotomy. But such prescriptivism ignores the spirit of innovation and resourcefulness that has spawned some of the great bar food traditions in history. The hot dogs and processed cheese that mingle with rice cakes and kimchi in Korean anju, brought by American GIs in the 1950s; the curry powder-seasoned ketchup on currywurst, which took a long and winding road from India via the British to become a beloved late-night snack on the streets of Berlin. Culture is fluid, and the quickest way to kill something is to prevent it from evolving. Every Dorian Gray has a painting hidden somewhere.

Drinking and snacking is a perfectly symbiotic relationship—like lichen on an old-growth redwood. Drinkers need quick, satisfying sustenance to keep them coherent, while certain foods—most often the fattiest, saltiest, most indulgent—become infinitely more satisfying when enjoyed through a thin veneer of intoxication. It’s food that demands you not look at it too closely, often borne out of restricted circumstances and creativity, all the more alluring because it never demands the spotlight.

While a country’s fine-dining culture tells a tale of privilege and social strata, and home cooking traditions tell us about a people’s roots, bar food is a window directly into their soul. Do people sit down to communal platters when they’re plastered, or do they nibble away as the night wears in to the early morning? Does the food celebrate the best of a place’s resources, or does it elevate the most basic ingredients? Even within the same country, variations from region to region  speak volumes about the social structures at work; in the southern U.S., resourceful, waste-preventing foods like pickles reveal a history of agricultural hardship, while quick-meal staples like the hamburger reflect the northern industrial boom of the early-20th century and the role of bars in working-class life.

With such a rich history, our own bar food deserves better treatment than the current Full Kitchen confusion. What’s a fan to do? It’s tempting to try to define bar food, delineate its boundaries and make up rules to reinstate the old dichotomy. If it’s served in a dining room, it doesn’t qualify; if it can be eaten with one hand, it does. But such close-minded prescriptivism ignores the spirit of innovation and resourcefulness that has spawned some of the great bar food traditions in history. The hot dogs and processed cheese that mingle with rice cakes and kimchi in Korean anju (drinking snacks), brought by American GIs in the 1950s; the curry powder-seasoned ketchup on currywurst, which took a long and winding road from India via the British to become a beloved late-night snack on the streets of Berlin. Culture is fluid, and the quickest way to kill something is to prevent it from evolving. Every Dorian Gray has a painting hidden somewhere.

Instead, we’re going to celebrate bar food in all its incarnations, past and present, around the world. Here’s where we’ll shed light on its forgotten heroes and track down long-lost recipes, discover far-flung traditions and look more closely at the ones on our own doorstep. Most importantly, it’s where we’ll celebrate the truth that’s revealed when people drink and eat as a community. We’re all in this together—but we can have some fun along the way.

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