The Passing of the Pure Breeds

Mike Cook

Once upon a time, bars were bars, restaurants were restaurants, and a man knew where he stood with things. There was none of this gastro-pub business. What's a gastro-pub anyway? Sounds like something the communists thought up.

If I sound like an old man, I mean to. The idea of bars and restaurants having distinctly different roles is a few generations old and fading fast. Bars have always served food and restaurants have always served alcohol, but until recently establishments clearly defined themselves as one or the other. Times have changed, but what does that mean for the modern diner?

There are very few pure bars out there. Take Federal Hill, a neighborhood most would consider bar central for Baltimore. All the mega-bars tout their food (rightly or wrongly) and many survive during the week on their dinner business. You may say No Way Jose's serves more beer than burritos, but you can't call it just a bar; a bar with food, perhaps. Examples of pure bars do still exist. Old corner dives, like Schaefers and Rayzers, oft ignored by the new yuppie residents of Fed Hill, and the occasional bar that manages to appeal to all, like Idle Hour or Mum’s.

Much more interesting than a bar adding a menu of sandwiches is the fact that there are so few pure restaurants left. Sticking to Federal Hill you have a few. Thai Arroy and Sobo Cafe come to mind, but both may be the way they are because liquor license limits, rather than choice. Regi's, perhaps, is the closest to a pure restaurant, one known for food alone and not for alcohol.

If being known for its food is the criteria for an establishment being a restaurant and not a bar, there are many more pure restaurants in the more expensive price bracket. Still, even the Baltimore granddaddy of them all, Charleston, leans more towards the bar than it did in times of old. Charleston has recently introduced a Wednesday happy hour with complimentary hors d’oeuvres and relatively inexpensive wines and cocktails.

Perhaps there are fewer pure restaurants because going out to eat is less of a special event. According to this report from the National Restaurant Association, only 25% of every dollar spent on food went to restaurants in 1955. In 2008, 48% of every food dollar went to restaurants, meaning we eat out almost twice as much. Restaurants have become more common, less special. Once upon a time, it was common to sit down to a ceremony: soup, salad, dinner, dessert. Restaurants even had “seatings”. You had to wait for a seating, and would take your table along with the rest of your guests all at once. As far as I know, the closest experience like that is up the road in Philly at Le Bec-Fin.

Another trend that seems to deflate the difference between bar and restaurant is the tapas fanaticism. Small plates are absolutely everywhere. They create the kind of atmosphere at the small cafes of Spain, where men would meet for drinks and snacks in the long afternoons, and whether you are in a bar or restaurant it does not matter.

Now, every restaurant in Baltimore seems to offer an expanded list of small plates and with it this blend of restaurant and bar atmosphere. It's perfect for the casual eater or drinker and in many ways perfect for Baltimore. The only thing I'd rather not see is the passing of the pure breeds. Let most places do both food and drink: but leave me a booze-only corner bar and a restaurant that focuses on dinner alone and I think Baltimore will have the best of both worlds.

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