Once upon a time, in a world pre-COVID-19, a night out meant meeting friends at a bar — and not just in a bar, but sitting at the bar. The camaraderie between imbibers and bartenders is commonly part of what sets the evening’s tone.
The encounters one has while sitting at a bar are tough to compare to any other dining experience. Not only is bar seating a chance to watch the hustle and bustle of the cocktail menu being brought to life, but it allows for maximum interaction with the bartenders and the opportunity to a enjoy a different kind of ambience that is often a major highlight of the dining establishment.
In our current climate, sitting at the bar isn’t an option due to COVID-19-era mandates put in place to keep everyone safe. Restaurants may be slowly opening their doors and increasing capacities, but the opportunity to sit directly at the bar doesn’t seem to be as near of a possibility.
The term “bar” is short for barrier, as in the bar is the barrier between the bartender and the customer. Unfortunately, the bar doesn’t impose enough distance to ensure that both patrons and the bartenders who are serving them are far enough apart to keep things within COVID-19 safety guidelines. In order to create a similar kind of experience, many restaurants have opted to use a bar cart that’s pushed from table to table, allowing guests to interact with the bartenders as their beverages are made. At the Champagne Bar at Four Seasons Surf Club, diners are greeted by white-jacketed, tie-wearing bartenders who present a bevy of classic martinis and other thirst-quenching libations.
“Our guests are the main protagonist of the bar experience,” explains Jacopo Rosito, bar manager at the Champagne Bar. “The cocktail itself is just one element; with the bar cart, we are also able to provide a one-on-one experience, and it’s a wonderful way to interact with our guests, sharing our passion for what we do.”
At the Champagne Bar, the importance of connection is a primary pillar in what’s expected by its visitors. With a menu that’s typically created around the mentors and world travels of its creators, the ability to share these stories is paramount to the moments surrounding the making of these cocktails.
Little Havana’s Sala’o, a restaurant that promises a vibe as soulful as its Cuban-American menu, recently debuted a bar cart specializing in gin and tonics. “We wanted to give a modern and fun twist to a drink that represents a pillar of the classic history of mixology,” says Edoardo Di Iorio, the restaurant’s director of operations. “The tableside preparation adds a personalized experience that every guest can appreciate. They get to witness firsthand how their gin and tonic is made, what ingredients are being used, and be involved in the process from start to finish.”
The origin of the bar cart dates back to the early 1900s, when tea carts were a prominent part of the lives of women of leisure. When Prohibition ended, they became a staple of a good happy hour. Through World War II, bar carts were typically reserved for the rich and famous, often seen in many popular Hollywood films like The Awful Truth and The Seven-Year Itch. Then they transitioned to a must-have piece of home decor in the 1970s, when it was all the rage for house parties to include well-stocked home bar carts. Eventually, bar carts fell out of fashion, but they were most recently brought back to life thanks to AMC’s Mad Men, in which Don Draper’s office bar cart was a show staple.
These days, because of safety needs and social distancing, bar carts are finding their way back into the spotlight as diners still crave experience-driven interactions with bartenders while dining out. For the few minutes when a perfectly curated bar — even in cart form — is placed before thirsty restaurantgoers, there’s an intimate nature and value added through personal connection that can be an integral fixture in the guest’s evening.
On nightlife-friendly South Beach, those looking for a cocktail-centric interaction can find just that at Mila, a rooftop Mediterranean and Japanese restaurant. A highlight of the space is V by MILA (pronounced “five”), a theatrical and multisensory cocktail bar featuring tableside preparation. This elevated bar cart menu includes cocktails that are meant to evoke all five senses, while also giving guests the chance to be part of the show-like experience, with elements like smoke and fog that add a flair of dramatics.
“Keeping our guests entertained and interested is a big part of the cocktail program at Mila, with stunning presentations that we think really wow our guests,” says Ilan Chartor, head bartender at Mila. “By making these cocktails tableside, we’re creating an experience that can be enjoyed in an up-close and personal fashion.”
At Fi’lia inside the SLS Brickell, a bar cart featuring bloody marys and mimosas has been added to the mix during its brunch service. “Our goal is to provide guests with a memorable and fun experience by introducing them to the unique element of a bar cart,” says Marco Selva, area vice president for the hotel group SBE. “It’s also proven to be very helpful in ensuring that our guests receive cocktails and refills as timely as possible.”
Fi’lia chose a brunch-focused bar cart to emphasize the social hour aspect consumers have grown to associate with the favorite weekend pastime. The cart is mobile throughout the restaurant for all of brunch, serving several flavors of bottomless mimosas and signature or spicy bloody marys, and allowing for an interactive experience among diners and the bar staff, while keeping a safe and comfortable environment in mind for everyone involved.
For many, sitting at the bar and having a conversation with a bartender as they make that much-needed martini (or insert cocktail of choice here) after a long week is a form of therapy — or a religious experience that is severely missed due to the current state of the world. But thanks to the resurrection of bar carts, there’s still the chance to have that coveted, and socially distanced, interaction.