Building a better bar space

Building a better bar space

Restaurant design expert Foster Frable shares some tips on tending to your bar space.

For many years, your average bar looked much like every other bar.

It would have parallel 2-foot-wide front and rear counters about 42-inches high, with stainless equipment underneath. The front, or customer side, of the bar would have an overhang and a foot rail in front of the stools. Liquor bottles and glasses were displayed on a decorative back bar in multiple tiers. Larger bars might have two counters in an oval shape, with a refrigerated island in the center. Tiered bottle displays often would be installed on top of the island.

But bar design has been evolving, and over the past decade, designers have sought to create bars that are less formal, with more of a “residential” feel.

Some of these new shapes and designs include:

The European-style bar. Instead of a series of stainless ice bins and drain boards sitting against a bar die — a 40-inch-high utility wall located under the bar top, separating the equipment from the customer — the bar and counter become one piece, more like a home kitchen counter. The front area where customers set their drinks is often stone or metal and is placed an inch or two above the work surface. While liquor bottles may still be displayed, they are often kept in elegant glass cases or displayed on one level just above the refrigeration.

The bar counter. Bars installed in some of the new Hyatt Andaz hotels have 40-inch- to 42-inch-high millwork or stainless counters similar to high-end residential casework, with an 8-inch to 12-inch overhang on the customer sides. Ice bins and refrigeration are built-in using under-counter drawers. The only visible items on the top may be a decorative sink with a built-in insulated well for open bottles of white and sparkling wines. Liquor bottles are set directly on top of the bar or stored in additional drawers under the bar. Beer or wine by-the-glass dispensers usually are built into a separate piece of casework between two of these stations or built into a niche in the back bar.

The coffee shop bar. Similar to the old-style coffee shop counters that are attached to a pantry or kitchen, this version is best represented by the lobby bar at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Las Vegas. The advantage of this design is that customers sit across from each other at two 24-inch-wide counters with built-in casework for glasses and dry storage on each side. A 36-inch service aisle runs down the middle. At the end of this long, narrow double bar is a frosted glass box that contains a complete service bar with equipment such as refrigerators, mix stations and sinks. Instead of a visible bottle display behind the bar, bottles can be displayed behind the frosted glass wall — with limited or full vision. During busy times, a bar runner takes drink orders at the counter and goes into the “box” to pick up the drinks. When traffic is slower, the bartender can handle both the service bar and the counter. This provides a very clean view without the visual clutter of a back bar filled with bottles and registers.

These and other new bar concepts provide a great opportunity for creative and unique bar layouts that facilitate intimate experiences for guests. Along with this out-of-the-box thinking, however, there is a responsibility to make certain a bar remains functional. The bar is the main profit driver of a hotel or restaurant, so the customer experience should ensure comfort and speed of service.

Some bars have become so unconventional that comfortable seating is impossible, and barriers are created between guests and servers. Awkward bar ergonomics with hard-to-access equipment and products can handicap a bartender. The result is customer dissatisfaction and loss of sales and profits.

Making it work

(Continued from page 1 [3])

Here are some guidelines for creating a guest- and bartender-friendly bar:

• Put the POS register, cash drawer and printer on the front of the bar so the bartender faces the guest. All bar equipment companies offer modular register stands that have side slashes to protect against water from a nearby sink. Placement at the front also avoids the distracting glow that emanates from POS screens and allows for a clean, clutter-free back bar.

• Bar tops need to be designed to stay within a 1 1/2-inch to 2-inch thickness and made with materials that allow the top to be supported on a standard 2-inch- to 4-inch-wide bar die. Since a bar top needs to be 42 inches high, any increase in thickness beyond 2 inches reduces the space under the bar for equipment. Access to handles on sinks or accessory rails above the ice chests are compromised when the clearance is less than 40 inches. Extra heavy bar tops sometimes require extra wide bar dies or additional supports that remove space for both equipment and customers’ legs.

• Avoid using marble for bar tops. Stains from alcohol will appear on both white and green marble. Trying to clean the marble often changes its color. A sealer on the bar top may be a temporary solution, but the sealer also will eventually discolor and crack from spilled alcohol and cleaning.

• Regardless of innovative equipment placement, the ergonomics of the work areas must follow industry standards. Wine and liquor bottle sizes are not going to change, nor will the reach of the average bar worker. Bar tops should not exceed 24 inches to 26 inches in width and should be no less than 42 inches high to accommodate equipment under the bar top, including sink faucets and blenders. Back bar refrigeration needs to be at least 26 inches deep for efficient bottle storage, and aisles in bars should not exceed 36 inches to reduce wasted steps for busy bartenders.

• Declutter the equipment and work areas. Upgraded under-bar equipment with options that eliminate joints between sinks and ice chests is available. Storage drawers can replace open legs under the equipment, providing valuable storage and a clean, one-piece appearance with no exposed piping. Some designs integrate European-style sinks and bottle wells into finished countertops like a home kitchen, with refrigerated drawers for bottle storage and ice under the work surface, providing quicker access to frequently used items for busy bartenders.  

• Provide purse hooks under the bar at each stool, and make sure there are no obstructions on the bar front that can bang into kneecaps. An elbow rail on the customer side makes the bar more comfortable and reduces spillage if a drink tips over. A scupper rail or drain trough on the bartender side provides a needed place to pour and garnish drinks. Designers like to eliminate them to gain a “clean look,” but it compromises efficiency and annoys bartenders. A good designer can integrate a scupper into a bar design without giving an awkward appearance.

• The server pickup station is a very important but often overlooked area. Minimum storage should be provided for supplies and service items, with a drainage pan on the bar top where service bar drinks are poured and garnished. If a lift gate is provided, it should have pneumatic cylinders to avoid a heavy bar top dropping down and causing injuries. An alternate option would be a curved section with wheels that opens out from the bar.

These guidelines represent a small sample of ideas and concepts that can be used to ensure that a new or renovated bar is customer and bartender friendly. Working with new bar concepts and layouts, a skilled designer can craft a highly efficient bar with clean lines that are beautiful as well as easy to maintain. The most profitable component of an enterprise deserves nothing less.

Foster Frable is a founding partner of Clevenger Frable LaVallee Inc., a foodservice consulting and design firm in White Plains, N.Y. He has designed more than 400 foodservice projects, including restaurants and operations in hotels, colleges and more. He can be reached at [email protected] [4].