Monday, January 25, 2010

Passing the Bar

My Facebook profile lists "dining out" as one of my favorite activites, and indeed, it always has been. I can recall from my childhood many evenings dining with my parents at any of a number of family restaurants that dotted our Memphis and West Tennessee landscape. We spent countless evenings at Shoney's or Bonanza, feasting on hearty meals that by today's standards were simple, but overall were a great value. We ate fabulous barbecue from vintage restaurants with formica tables and spent late nights at classic grotto-like Italian establishments such as Pete and Sam's or Grisanti's. In fact, dining with my family at these places is collectively one of my favorite memories.

When I moved away to college to Chicago, I appeared to have landed in Gastronomia. I had never seen the likes of some of this food -- deep-dish pizza, mouth-watering kosher deli sandwiches, and authentic Czechoslovakian delicacies. My circle of friends and their families introduced me to a vast array of new food and broadened my eating horizons in a way that I had never anticipated. Suddenly, there was no better treat than a hand-scooped Italian ice from a corner grocery in Berwyn.

Atlanta is a dining mecca. We can go from country fried steak to foie gras to massaman curry to tandoori chicken to spaetzle all in the blink of an eye. It makes eating out quite an adventure, and many of the restaurants are surprisingly affordable. The diversity of the city's neighborhoods and ethnicities makes for a schooled palate, if you're willing to experiment a little.

But despite my affinity for dining out, there is one corner of this world that has never truly captured my affections, and that is the bar. Yes, I know -- bars are the places to meet people, hang out, do business, or whatever, but for some reason, I have trouble with them. I'm not saying that I don't think they have their place, but they're just not for me. I have no aversion to the concept of alcohol, as witnessed by many of my earlier posts regarding wine and spirits and the dubious stories related thereto, but I'm picky about the venue in which I libate.

For one thing, it is practically impossible to get a drink at some of our Atlanta bars unless you are eight feet tall and can tower over the crowd standing and sitting at the bar. Oh, by the way, sitting...did I say sitting? I actually landed a seat at the bar at a Decatur restaurant this past weekend and almost fainted from shock to find that I was actually seated close enough to the bartenders to talk to them without screaming. In a way, it was nice. Typically, one must speak at a level exceeding ninety decibels in order to be heard.

I have noticed some regional differences regarding bar habits and etiquette. For example, New Englanders tend to gravitate toward the bar at lunch, something which is not so common in the South. Californians seem to be pretty chilled about the whole bar thing and favor a lot of wine, and it's fairly easy to place your mixed drink order in Chicago or New Orleans -- bartenders in those places seem to be up to the task. New York, I don't know -- I don't recall that I've ever been to the bar there, but perhaps someday...after all, I do have a certain weird fascination with the Apple, and servers tend to be attentive there.

Maybe part of the whole aversion I have is this phrase "belly up to the bar". Something about that just doesn't sound appealing to me. It implies that I am going to have to haul myself up there and place my belly against the bar, where more likely than not, something will have just been spilled. Now, honestly...where is the fun in that? Not to mention that, owing to my limited beer consumption, I do not have a "beer belly" in any sense of the word, and that's just fine with me.

But please do not take my lack of bar enthusiasm as any kind of deterrent to your own enjoyment, because heaven knows, I would not expect everyone to frequent my kind of third world hangouts, where I order my volcanic food and wash it down with martinis or an IPA. We all have different tastes, and that's what makes it fun. Nevertheless, if you do have any pointers on how to get a drink in under five minutes at a Buckhead bar on a Saturday night without an illegal exchange of cash, I'd certainly be interested to know your secret.

Now excuse me while I try to get this bartender's attention. Ahem.