On the nights when Sebrenna Strickland goes out to a restaurant, she usually chooses to eat at the bar.
If she's eating by herself, sitting at the bar makes her feel less alone than sitting by herself at a table. And if she's on a first date, she always knows she can chat with the bartender if her companion goes quiet.
As a bartender at the eclectic South Tampa eatery Pane Rustica, Strickland knows firsthand that customers who eat lunch and dinner at her bar instead of in the adjacent dining room do so because they're served by someone who knows them and what they enjoy.
"We have a ton of regulars," she says. "They call me on the bar phone and say, 'I'm coming in.' I know immediately what they want to eat and drink, so I'll put the order in before they get here."
Restaurants in Tampa Bay and nationwide are finding that catering to customers with dinner in the bar can lead to bigger profits and a more intimate relationship with their patrons.
Richard Zingale, architect for the Tampa firm Urban Studio, which specializes in designing for hospitality businesses, says restaurants are being as flexible as possible with bar space. The days of using the bar only as a stopover for a table or just to serve alcohol are long gone.
Zingale says that about three years ago, design clients started asking for a larger percentage of their restaurants to be dedicated to bar space, including booths and surrounding tables. The trend started in New York and Los Angeles, he says, where restaurateurs discovered they could cycle customers in and out more efficiently in the bar than they could at traditional table settings.
Zingale tries to design bars with curves or angles to encourage interaction between customers. A U-shaped bar like that at Ocean Prime at International Plaza is a good example of a space that invites customers to talk to each other as well as with bar staff, he says.
"Since the bar generates the most revenue in the restaurant, getting the most out of that space is critical," Zingale says.
Pane Rustica's owners Kevin and Karyn Kruszewski expanded the restaurant in July with a 2,800-square-foot bar and meeting room extension after obtaining a license last year to serve alcohol. They knew that if they didn't do it, another competitor likely would. Plus, their landlord agreed to help with costs.
Kevin Kruszewski said they wanted an oval-shaped bar counter so customers could socialize and people-watch. There are about 20 seats at the oval, black marble-topped bar and another two dozen in booths and at tables around it.
Kruszewski didn't want the bar area to become "a total pickup space" but to give customers a place to feel more emotionally connected to the business. He created a special "boutique-y" bar menu, but customers have gravitated to the full lunch and dinner menus. They wanted the same food, just in a different setting. Bar customers often enter through a bar doorway instead of the main restaurant entrance.
"Sometimes they don't want to go out and take a table and do the whole spiel from start to finish," he says. "Eating at the bar is a more casual event and tends to be a little more intimate and convenient."
"It's all very interpersonally oriented," Kruszewski says. I have so many people who come back just for Sebrenna. During the holidays, she had to haul away gifts from regulars in a wheelbarrow."
The granddaddy of Tampa Bay bar dining can be found at Bern's Steak House, where Marco Neri has been the manager at the gothic-decorated bar for six of his 28 years as a bartender.
Dining at the bar changed in the early '80s after DUI arrests began bringing stiffer penalties, Neri says. With less drinking going on, restaurants had to make up the difference by being more flexible and serving more than just happy hour snacks.
Founder Bern Laxer intended the 12-seat counter and two dozen seats at cocktail couches and tables at Bern's to be a waiting area for customers to have a drink before going to tables. Five decades later, the bar is a destination for casual dining, attracting regulars the way the adjacent dining room and the Harry Waugh Dessert Room upstairs do.
"When you go into the bar, you can be more relaxed than in the dining room," Neri says. "You don't have to put on a suit and tie. It's the same service. It's just a little less formal and more jovial."
Regulars know they can order the steak sandwich, the chicken sandwich or the hamburger, none of which is on the menu. And they can establish a rapport with Neri and his staff that would be difficult - and more expensive - to do in the dining room.
The regulars become like family, Neri says. One woman comes in on Christmas Eve every year to have a meal in honor of her deceased husband. The couple used to dine together at Bern's.
"You develop relationships," he says. "The customers all come to know us by name."
As at Bern's, bar servers at 717 South restaurant in South Tampa must be trained on the dining menu. Owner Michael Stewart requires bartenders to work the dining room for a year before they can get behind the bar.
"We have over 40 dinner items on the menu," Stewart says. "I don't want someone behind the bar not knowing what goes into our dishes."
To attract earlier diners to the bar, 717 South offers a "5 after 5" menu that has five martinis, five appetizers and five wines on it served from 4 to 7 p.m. But for all the mussels, escargot, baked brie and Havana short ribs, bar customers still want to choose from the extended menu.
The bartenders who make it through the dining room training like it when customers eat in the bar, Stewart says, because the per-check average tends to be much greater than if they're just sipping cocktails and beer.
"They tip on the gross, after all," he says.
YOU SAY ...
We asked readers on Facebook for their favorite places to eat at the bar:
Bill Presswood, Crystal River: "It is usually just my wife and I, and we are comfortable relaxing at the bar. Mellow Mushroom and The Bricks are a couple places we enjoy."
Joy Jensen Klockow, Tampa: "We love eating at the bar ... there is inevitably a conversation with the bartender(s), which is entertaining. Chili's in Lakeland (south) has had the same bartenders for years, and we love to eat at the bar there."
Ilene S. Pincus, Tampa: I prefer sitting at a sushi bar rather than eating at a table in a Japanese place. And I [like eating at the bar] at the Brick Oven Pizzaria in Trinity."
Cheryl Miller, Tampa: "I have to say my husband and I also like sitting at the bar due to faster service and ability to see the 'action' going on behind, as well as seeing whatever sports might be on TV. Cheesecake Factory, Outback Steakhouse and Square One Burgers are just a few of the ones where we love sitting at the bar."
Looking for a bar to try for dining?
TBOExtra.com dining editor Rommie Johnson passes along these suggestions:
Bella's (Tampa): The restaurant attracts diners from all around, but the bar/lounge area is essentially a neighborhood hangout. There's a relaxed vibe and great camaraderie among the regulars, and the bartenders (Larry and Jessica, in particular) are fantastic.
SideBern's (Tampa): The fact that you can get Chad Johnson's delicious, creative, fine-dining fare without the formality of sitting at a table is reason enough to belly up to the bar at SideBern's, but their exceptional wine list and selection of high-end liquors seal the deal. Great bartenders here, too (Brian and Robert).
Fly Bar & Restaurant (Tampa): This lively bar tends to be pretty bustling with a hipper-than-thou crowd, but their menu — consisting of mostly small-plate and sharing items — is ideally suited for bar dining. Of course, the nightly specials (my favorite is half-price bottles of wine on Monday) and the bartenders (Geoff and Josh, especially) are also tough to beat.
Z Grille (St. Petersburg): Great food, great beer, an awesome bar and a front-row seat to watch the kitchen at work.
Ella's Americana Folk Art Café (Tampa): There are few ways I'd rather spend a Sunday than sitting at this bar sipping quality beer and eating barbecue or chicken-and-waffles from their "Soul Food Sundays" menu. Seminole Heights boasts such a colorful cast of characters that you never know who you'll sit next to at this bar, but you're likely to enjoy it. The bartenders (especially Joe and Scott) are great, too.
The Bricks (Tampa): This is a super-casual, laid-back bar that feels like you're hanging out at a friend's place. Their menu is perfect for casual bar dining, featuring mostly sandwiches and appetizers. The bartenders (Durke and Haleigh) are two of the best.
*Other places to try:
* Cassis American Brasserie (St. Petersburg)
* Ceviche (St. Petersburg location)
* Café Alma (St. Petersburg)
* Tampa Bay Brewing Co. (Tampa)
* Red Mesa Cantina (St. Petersburg)
* Circles (Palma Ceia/South Tampa)
* Jolly (Sarasota)