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Once just a waiting area for dining room guests, restaurant bars are becoming destinations in their own right as operators entice budget-conscious diners with high-end bar food and specialty cocktails.
When sales fell during the economic downturn, many restaurants began to offer designated bar menus featuring bite-sized burgers, finger foods and sharable appetizers to attract guests who wanted a nice evening out but couldn’t swallow the cost of a multicourse meal. These dishes also help to keep patrons settled on their bar stools ordering high-margin cocktails.
Morton’s The Steakhouse, for example, has been rebranding its bars under the name Bar 12-21, which offers a limited menu.
“It’s been part of our bar strategy since 2003 to really create exciting bars at Morton’s that provide another revenue center for us,” said Roger Drake, senior vice president of marketing and communications for Chicago-based Morton’s. “[Some guests] are coming directly to the bar to have dinner there or specialty cocktails with some ‘Bar Bites.’”
Drake said the Bar 12-21 concept and Morton’s overall beverage program have been a key area of focus, noting that wine and spirits sales make up 28 percent of annual revenues.
“Restaurants that feature our Bar 12-21 concept continue to outperform those that do not,” Drake added.
Currently, 48 of the 77 Morton’s have the concept, and the chain said last month 29 more units are scheduled to be remodeled to include Bar 12-21.
The Bar 12-21 menu, which offers items starting at $5 each, includes mini Prime cheeseburgers, mini crab cake BLTs, a smoked salmon pizza with capers and dill sour cream, and oysters on the half shell. Most locations offer specially priced dishes, between $5 and $7, from opening to 6:30 p.m. and from 9 p.m. to closing, Drake said.
The menu may be more casual, but maintaining a level of quality consistent with the rest of the Morton’s menu is essential, he added.
“It’s all about providing ... better value, but on the same level of what we do in our dining room,” he said.
The Orlando, Fla.-based Capital Grille chain, in a similar move, last year debuted a bar menu in all 40 of its locations.
“We wanted to make the bar and lounge area more of destination in itself,” Mike Bernstein, director of media and communications for parent company Darden Restaurants’ specialty restaurant group, said at the time. “This expands the type of dining occasion and use our guests have for the brand.”
The nine-item menu includes mini tenderloin sandwiches; lollipop lamb chops with herb oil and balsamic; and chilled seared tuna with wasabi oil, white soy and ginger vinegar. Prices vary by market.
Bars are expected to offer continued opportunity in 2011, as well. Alcohol sales at restaurants and bars are projected to rise 1.9 percent this year, a modest increase but still an improvement over the last few years, according to Chicago-based Technomic Inc.
The list of chains tapping into the potential of bar sales with happy hour menus also includes:
• P.F. Chang’s, which offers food and drink specials priced from $3 to $6 between 3 p.m. and 6 p.m. daily. Dishes include Chang’s Chicken Lettuce Wraps, Spring Rolls, Crab Wontons and Sichuan Chicken Flatbread.
• Bravo Italian Kitchen and sister concept Brio Tuscan Grille, which both offer $2.95 appetizers at the bar on weekdays. Dishes include flatbreads, bruschettas, carpaccio and burgers.
• Fleming’s Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar, which features a “5 For 6 ’Till 7” bar menu that consists of five appetizers, five cocktails and five glasses of wine, each priced at $6 and served between 5 p.m. and 7 p.m. daily. Dishes include Tenderloin Carpaccio, Sweet Chile Calamari and Wicked Cajun Barbecue Shrimp.
• McCormick & Schmick’s, which offers a happy hour menu of dishes priced from $1.95 to $4.95, including Kobe beef sliders, calamari and fish tacos.