A brief history of the fine dining restaurants and bars, if you will. More often than not, a patron might easily drink a martini or two before eating, dare I say, somewhat bland 1970's continental style food such as onion soup or frog's legs. The next few decades of eating saw an increased focus on the quality and flavor combinations of food, a revolution led quietly at first by the likes of such chefs as Alice Waters, Wolfgang Puck and the incomparable Julia Child. Lo and behold, chefs became rock stars and from their culinary wombs sprung a very distinctive population of foodies who follow and swoon like groupies at the taste of Thomas Keller's salt-cured foie gras or Suzanne Goin's braised pork cheeks with horseradish gremolata. These trends have been, overall, very, very good. Though we've increased our knowledge of good food and wine and how the two complement one another, it is just true that as a stand-alone activity, Americans like to drink. Herein lies a definitive trend in dining-the evolution of the restaurant bar.
Ristra is the latest Santa Fe establishment to be on the cutting edge of this trend. The nine-year-old restaurant has, as of July 8th, a new addition. "Something was missing," said owner Eric Lamalle, "the acquisition of a liquor license and new bar make the space complete. Now I can offer guests a full bar, patio and main dining room experiences." He had originally proposed the idea about five years ago, but because liquor licenses are sometimes slippery items to obtain in this state, he had to put the notion on hold. Additionally, permits to renovate were difficult to obtain as Ristra is housed in a historic building. But with a bit of persistence, Lamalle waded through all the necessary bureaucracy to actualize his vision.
The new bar, which constitutes one-third the space of the whole restaurant, seats about thirty folks divided comfortably between bellying up and the matte leather banquettes that line the east wall. The look is modern and elegant-clean lines with uncomplicated and comfortable décor. "We wanted the bar to keep with the overall feeling of simplicity in the restaurant, but with a bit more of a contemporary feel," Lamalle explained. Three taupe walls complement the deeper, chocolate brown behind the bar and open up to the distinct angular, cream-colored ceiling. At first glance, the space might seem austere, but as evening unfolds, it becomes a study of light. The bar itself is illuminated and the glow softens all angles and, along with a few well-placed candles, creates a very inviting atmosphere. Lamalle noted that all the furniture had been custom made and the laminated copper tables and soft leather chairs are formidable but beckoning. The size and shape of the bar is such that a handful of people wouldn't feel lonely and thirty people wouldn't feel packed but downright cozy.
So what of this trend? In a very obvious manner, it's about money. It's a hard knocks world out there for restaurants and any owner will tell you that liquor is where the proverbial pot of profit is. But let's not talk cash-this is a food magazine and we eat our green rather than talk it. More importantly, it's about options (another thing Americans really like and if you don't believe me visit the toothpaste aisle at Target). Part of the implication of fine dining is, well, the fine part of it. There's something about white linen tablecloths and well-pressed servers that presupposes three courses, a bottle of wine, and also the time it takes to enjoy these things. It's not that diners want the quality of service, food and drinks to change, but perhaps just a more informal setting in which to experience them.
Bars are a nice option for walk-in customers, allowing space for those who want to stop in for a casual, impromptu dinner that may only consist of an appetizer. In a similar regard, the bar can be a litmus test of sorts for the "full dining experience," and guests who are impressed will appreciate the variety of ways to patronize a restaurant they really like.
Evolution is a tricky beast and however impeccably designed and intentioned, it's always unclear how exactly a new space will come to manifest itself. Just in the few days between when I first spoke to Eric and when I wrote the article he called with the newly made decision that yes there will be a bar menu (because customers kept asking for one!). And what about a happy hour, live music, or even how late will the bar stay open and if it is later than the main dining room, will food be served later as well? The process of creating a bar identity, when it involves a somewhat random group of people called customers, will be an organic one. It might be the hip, new hotspot that serves the best mojitos in town. It might be the place everyone thinks to go for a snack before a show at the Lensic or dessert after, the favorite neighborhood bar, or the perfect place for a margarita on the patio. Or, if you're Eric Lamalle and you've created a comfortable, elegant bar in your already well established restaurant, it just might be all of these things.
Ristra is located at 548 Agua Fria in Santa Fe. 505.982.8608. Open nightly for dinner at 5:30pm. Now serving the full menu at the bar.