Best Seats In The House
A spot at the bar used to mean dining purgatory. Now it’s a slice of heaven.
by Terrence Henry
Photographs by Jessica Attie
“We don’t have any tables open at the moment, but you can wait at the bar,” is a line every diner has heard at some point or another. It’s one met with disappointment or despair. Well, at least it used to be. As Austin restaurants and diners have embraced the unique benefits of bar and counter seating, these solo spots have morphed into some of the best seats in town.
Take Odd Duck on South Lamar, where there is no bar in the traditional sense. In its place is a large, open kitchen surrounded on three sides by counter seating, where diners can watch as their dishes and drinks are created. “We like putting the talent of our kitchen on showcase,” says Jason James, general manager of Odd Duck. “You sit at these seats and you say to yourself, ‘Damn, I can see everything!’”
The same is true across the river at modern Italian newcomer Juniper. Located on East Cesar Chavez, the restaurant’s open kitchen is flanked by an intimate line of counter seats distinctly set apart from the main dining room. “You see people sitting there who are having a blast just watching the action,” says Nicholas Yanes, executive chef and partner of Juniper.
The perks go beyond the free show. At the bar, your server is never hard to find, which translates to even better service for guests.
“I like having them available to me at all times,” says James, who always opts for the bar when dining out. “I like that personal touch.” Diners can strike up a conversation with their server or bartender and learn more about the ingredients or spirits at play. (And it’s not unheard of to have a query about an obscure liquer, for instance, lead to a complimentary tasting.)
“‘We always knew the kitchen would be integrated with the bar,” says Nicholas Yanes. “We wanted it to feel like home.'”
More and more in Austin, bar and counter seating offers the best opportunity to see Austin’s finest cooks and drink makers in action, whether it’s the counter seats at Sway that let you spy on the cooks flash-frying a whole fish, or the bar seats at Dai Due where you can watch the crew char local meats over an open flame on their custom indoor grill. At the aptly named Counter 3 Five VII downtown, there are no tables, just counter seat after counter seat surrounding the open kitchen, for an evening of “front row dining.”
And while a restaurant’s kitchen and bar operations used to be fairly separate entities, the two are increasingly being fused into one operation. At venues like Odd Duck, the cocktail menus are given the same amount of thought and prep that food menus are. “The ethic in our kitchen translates into our bar,” says James. “Our bartenders come in and do prep shifts just like a cook would in the kitchen.” This translates into drinks like Odd Duck’ s Cold Shoulder, which pairs scotch with kitchen-crafted ingredients like toasted almonds and espresso. Along with other local stalwarts like Contigo, Foreign & Domestic and Launderette, Odd Duck is helping to close the gap between dining and drinking, helping Austin’s culinary culture echo places like Barcelona and Madrid, where going out for drinks and tapas have been one and the same for centuries, or Tokyo, where Izakayas (a Japanese gastropub) have long offered the opportunity to simultaneously imbibe and ingest.
“Today, the bar seat is a crossover to get people more engaged in restaurants,” says Yanes of Juniper. That seat used to be easy to come by, but as more and more diners and restaurants catch on to the beauty of eating at the bar, best belly up while you can.
Read more from the Outdoors Issue | May 2016