If the phrase “bar menu” conjures up discouraging images of greasy nachos and the same old burgers and fries, prepare to be surprised at some of New York’s swankier watering holes. The city has a few bars where the snacks attain near haute-cuisine levels of artistry. If you need a quick bite before a movie or concert and would rather avoid the corner pizzeria, the bars below can make for a perfect evening meal.
The first thing that strikes you upon entering Artisanal is the briny, pungent aroma. It’s the smell of cheese — in fact, 300 cheeses, some of which are aging unseen in the special cave at the back of the bar/bistro, some of which are set out for tasting and purchase, and many of which are whipped into fabulous recipes. The long wooden bar has a menu that is unabashedly cheesy; among the best choices are paper cones of gougères — light, ping-pong ball-sized cheese puffs, flavored with Gruyère and nutmeg — and Parmesan-filled gnocchi, served in garlic butter and accompanied by seasonal veggies. The selection of wines by the glass (there are more than 160) is almost overwhelming, but there’s no reason why you should limit yourself to just one choice. 2 Park Avenue, at 32nd Street. 212/725–8585.
Foodies make reservations far in advance to dine at the semi-formal Etats-Unis restaurant, but slipping into the narrow, cheery Bar@Etats-Unis right across the street is like discovering a secret (and less pricey) entrance to the same place. The bar and restaurant share a wine list (with more than 250 labels, about a third of them French) and also a kitchen; many of the hearty comfort-food dishes on the bar menu are partly cooked in the restaurant and then hurried across the street to bar patrons. The rich beef and lamb stews, the chicken-and-white bean chili, and the divinely gooey mac-‘n’-cheese are all superbly satisfying. If you’re in the mood for something lighter and more refined, try the pheasant terrine or the crisp-skinned duck confit with a salad of mango, orange, and fennel. 247 East 81st Street, between Second and Third Avenues. 212/396–9928.
If the term “Malaysian street food” doesn’t ring any bells, don’t worry. Wunderkind chef Zak Pelaccio has made it his mission to educate the uninitiated. His cramped, red-walled Fatty Crab is always full, but the best way to get acquainted with the spicy, intense flavors is to grab one of the seats at the tiny bar (there are only four stools, but waiting for one is worth it). Here, you can try small-scale dishes like a crunchy salad of watermelon and crispy fried pork belly, or an assortment of Raja-Chulan pickles — sweetly sour marinated veggies whose heat index can go up to “where’s that fire extinguisher?” Slices of green mango come with a dipping powder of chili-sugar-salt; and elegant quail-egg shooters, topped with different spicy sambals, arrive lined up and ready to be tossed back right from their tiny shells. 643 Hudson Street, between Horatio and Gansevoort Streets. 212/352–3590.
The Lower East Side may be a far cry from Rome, but snagging a table at the utterly authentic ‘Inoteca can make you feel like you’re in a Fellini film. Italian wine is the draw here, with more than 620 labels (more than 20 of which are available by the glass). The bar menu, also quintessentially Italian, focuses on different breads — panini, tramezzini, and bruschetta — which come with an array of toppings and fillings. The addictive truffled egg bruschetta with Bottarga (dried caviar) is the perfect foil for a glass of Trebbiano (ask for a glass of the coveted Valentini, an artisanal label that you’ll be hard-pressed to find elsewhere). 98 Rivington Street, at Ludlow Street. 212/614–0473.
Stepping into the Pegu Club, a well-hidden, second-floor bar off the main thoroughfare of Houston Street, is like stepping into another time. Modeled after a British officers’ club in early 20th-century Rangoon, the space is a serene oasis of dark wood, woven rattan, and low lighting that makes the traffic outside feel a world away. Staffers working the gleaming bar are more than bartenders — they’re alchemists, who whip up seasonal menus of exotic elixirs, and sometimes (on request) custom creations. But while the libations tend to favor whiskeys and brandies in the winter and gin and pisco in the warmer months, the bar menu stays constant — and patrons wouldn’t have it any other way. In fact, a colonial-style coup might erupt if the deliciously light coconut shrimp or the fresh vegetable-filled spring rolls were to disappear from the menu. 77 West Houston Street, between West Broadway and Wooster Street. 212/473–7348.
Justifiably famous for its weekend brunch, the petite, shabby-chic downtown nook called Prune morphs into a cozy place for cocktails at night. The bar menu has a simple, country-style bent; almost all the dishes are perfect for a picnic or a tailgate party — devilled eggs, crepinettes (small, slightly flattened lamb sausages made with garlic and parsley), you’ll even find that old picnic-spread standby, raw radishes (served with sweet butter and salt for sprinkling). It’s exactly the sort of easy, snacky fare you want while lingering over your wine or cocktail. 54 East First Street, between First and Second Avenues. 212/677–6221.
Photos courtesy of Artisanal (top), Fatty Crab (middle), the Pegu Club (bottom).