Cuba Lounge @ Victor's Cafe

Dining at the Bar: 10 Great Choices

By Meryl Pearlstein on 01/31/14

There’s a reason New York City is a mecca for the food-obsessed: Its tens of thousands of restaurants offer up culinary experiences from the truly casual to the most elaborate. But on-the-go visitors often have no time or inclination for a full sit-down event. However, small plates, abbreviated menus and finger foods can all make for a great (and, frequently, more affordable) meal in a more relaxed setting. Read on for a selection of restaurants that boast a separate bar/lounge menu and dining area—a way to sample some of the city’s best in an easygoing manner.

Like Havana’s El Floridita, transported to the Theater District, the red-walled Cuba Lounge at Victor’s Cafe (236 W. 52nd St., btw Broadway & Eighth Ave., 212.586.7714) is home to authentic Cuban food, music and ambience. The menu highlights founder Victor del Corral’s original and updated family recipes: red snapper ceviche, a traditional pressed Cuban sandwich (hand-carved pork, Swiss cheese, pickle and mustard) and various cold and warm tapas. Specialty drinks like red, white or Champagne sangria or the signature dark-rum mojito encourage socializing. The 26-seat lounge surrounds you with historical photos and the sounds of Sol de Cuba, a live combo that plays most evenings. Open continuously from lunchtime till late, it’s a cozy spot, adjacent to the restaurant’s main dining room. Towards the end of the evening—around 10:30 p.m. or so—don’t be surprised if a spontaneous showcase of salsa dancing erupts on the floor. 

Discreetly tucked among Midtown’s Lexington Avenue hotels, The Sea Fire Grill (158 E. 48th St., btw Third & Lexington aves., 212.935.3785) constantly sparkles with a combination of travelers and local after-work types. With a more casual feel than the contempo swank supper club setting of the main dining room, the bar and lounge tempt with a creative menu of land-and-sea small plates starting at 4 p.m. (the regular menu is served at lunch and at night also). Share a daily changing sampler of West or East Coast oysters, beef sliders, the so-fresh-you-could-slap-it lobster roll trio or lollipop lamb chops. High-back stools are set around elevated tables as well as the bar, making this a convivial place to chat with other patrons and the friendly bartenders, as they whip up specialty cocktails or pour a variety of wines by the glass. 

A haven for Fifth Avenue shoppers and Empire State Building visitors, one of New York City’s oldest steak houses welcomes diners to revive and reward in the former town house of matinee idol/screen star John Barrymore. Below the clubby upstairs at Frankie & Johnnie’s Steakhouse (32 W. 37th St., btw Fifth & Sixth aves., 212.947.8940), there’s a chatty group watching TV at the bar seats or booths in the inviting pub room. A Lite Bites menu of smaller plates, including mini cheeseburgers, crabettes (bite-size crab cakes), blue cheese-drizzled cottage chips and BBQ chicken pizza creates a quick, satisfying meal—and a bargain, to boot. The pub is open for lunch and dinner and is also perfect for a pre-gaming or -concertizing nosh before heading off to Madison Square Garden, within easy walking distance. 

From a veteran haven to the newest kid on the bar stool block: In the softly lit 12-seat cocktail room—set apart from the formal restaurant by the lobby of the Hotel Chandler—Juni (12 E. 31st St., btw Madison & Fifth aves., 212.995.8599) presents a distinctive lounge experience. Two overhead screens show the action in the downstairs kitchen, a privilege usually reserved for those at a chef’s table. Award-winning, innovative Chef Shaun Hergatt has put together a menu of artistic plates and cocktails that change according to the season, along with constants like a Black Angus burger and chicken club sandwich for a simpler bite. It’s hard to label this pub grub when the presentation is so haute cuisine: What other bar serves you an amuse bouche as sculpted as a work of art?

There’s a sense of privilege when dining in Chef Daniel Humm’s striking, coveted-reservation destination Eleven Madison Park (11 Madison Ave., at E. 24th St., 212.889.0905). But a 16-to-18-course prix fixe—the only option the restaurant offers—might not be your cup of foie gras. Happily, in the less formal lounge bar, you can sit at the 12 bar seats or in the five leather banquette tables that face the dining room and devise your own culinary feast from its separate, à la carte menu. Start with the splurgy caviar, smoked sturgeon and bagel plate, served under a dome filled with smoke, that speaks volumes about the restaurant’s creativity. After that, the seasonal choices and dessert selection will give you a sense of the provocative American cuisine without the ceremony. 

The choice for most romantic bar is BONDST (6 Bond St., btw Broadway & Lafayette St., 212.777.2500) in NoHo. A neighborhood fave on a cobblestoned street reminiscent of old New York, the two-story restaurant/bar serves up some of the most creative Asian dishes in the city. The downstairs lounge is the perfect date spot, with a sensuous 13-seat bar and individual seating nooks scattered along the wall. The vegetarian and non-veggie menu differs from that of the main restaurant in its focus on small plates, such as skewers, shumai and a tuna carpaccio tart with truffle oil that will banish any thoughts of asking for a pedestrian California roll. The bartenders create your new favorite drink: shishito jalapeño margarita or shiso cucumber cocktail, anyone?

At David Burke Townhouse (133 E. 61st St., btw Lexington & Park aves., 212.813.2121) , the welcoming bar, perched at the front of the restaurant, above the dining areas, offers Chef Burke’s playful American cuisine from 4 p.m. on. (the regular menu is available earlier). Diners fill bar seats and tables set around the narrow space to enjoy a special menu of small plates, some from the busy restaurant’s lunch and dinner choices, and others combined to create signatures of the bar’s own, like the benny (sea scallops)/pastrami salmon/ and crab cake trio, or the “angry prawns,” a smaller rendition of the dining room’s chili-oiled “crispy & angry lobster.” 

Downtown financiers, shoppers and visitors to the National September 11 Memorial look to the Bar 12-21 at Morton’s The Steakhouse (136 Washington St., at Albany St., 212.608.0171) for a welcoming meal and break. The space fills the entire first floor with 75 seats, a wall of backlit bottles adding color to the sleek black-and-white room. Sit at the cocktail-style tables, at the bar or in the generous booths and enjoy the Bar Bites menu any time of day. The iceberg wedge bites, sliced filet mignon with three sauces and a crab, spinach and artichoke dip compose a well-rounded dinner. Toast the celebrity photos on the walls with a signature gin or vodka Mortini, garnished with hand-stuffed blue cheese olives. 

Café Español’s adjoining Salon de Tapas (190 Sullivan St., btw Bleecker & W. Houston sts., .212.505.0657) offers the namesake nibbles in a youthful, inviting room. Connected by an outdoor garden, both the traditional café and the brick-walled salon highlight the best of Galicia. Margaritas, mojitos and sangrias accompany the enormous selection of hot and cold small plates. Select three or more to devise a meal that’s light and varied: perhaps a combo of grilled octopus, shrimp in garlic sauce and ham and chicken croquetas. For something heartier, one of the carefully composed paellas that are a Café Español hallmark is available, too.

Chef/owner Thomas Keller’s Per Se (Time Warner Center, 10 Columbus Circle, at W. 60th St., 212.823.9335) is the stuff that restaurant legends are made of. As a destination dining event (one that lasts for hours), it can be a difficult reservation to secure. But the Salon, seating diners on a first-come, first-served basis, is the ticket for a glimpse into this French-American culinary experience, without the investment of a multicourse meal. Snuggle around the six-seat glass table, or at one of the five couch set-ups in the restaurant’s plush, Adam Tihany-designed anteroom for an à la carte selection from the evening’s vegetable, chef’s and dessert tasting menus. The touchscreen wine list offers an expansive selection from around the globe. Ask to face Columbus Circle, if possible, for a magical view of Central Park and Central Park South.