Restaurant bars draw their own customers

At many restaurants, the bar area has traditionally been a place for diners to have a drink while waiting for a table or a spot used for spillover seating when the dining room was full. Now the bar is getting a new life as high-end restaurants have come to see it as a way to bring in budget- and time-conscious diners.

Fleming's Prime Steakhouse in Lincolnshire has had a special bar menu for almost two years, offering a choice of five full-sized appetizers for $6 at the bar until 7 p.m., plus a selection of $6 cocktails and glasses of wine. The goal was to appeal to diners who don't want to spend $65 to $75 a person on a meal.

“It's a great opportunity for them to try us, see the restaurant and get a small taste of what we offer,” said Kelly Beyer, operating partner at Fleming's. “Then they might make a reservation for a special occasion.”

A bar menu has been a staple of McCormick & Schmick's business plan since the first restaurant opened in Portland in 1979, said executive vice president of operations Mike Liedberg.

“Bill McCormick always felt that the bar was the gateway to the dining room,” Liedberg said. “The bar is always the most affordable opportunity to introduce someone to the restaurant.”

The company, which has locations in Rosemont, Schaumburg, Oak Brook and Chicago, has been reexamining what customers want during the last three years and has designed a menu of localized dishes for $1.95 to $4.95. While the dining room, where an average check comes to around $50, primarily draws travelers on expense accounts and adults celebrating special occasions, the bar draws a much wider clientele.

“We have everything from college students who have a meal and a beer while working on their laptop to business people who want to talk business in a more casual environment,” Liedberg said.

When Morton's The Steakhouse in Schaumburg had its grand reopening four years ago, the restaurant added Bar 12-21, which offers a menu of $5 to $6 bar bites from 5 p.m. to close Sunday through Friday.

“It's a way that people are getting their feet wet with Morton's,” said sales and marketing manager Sonia Hagopian. “We've had a lot of people coming in and trying it out. I'm starting to see a packed bar now.”

Hagopian said that the menu has allowed regulars to come even more often and attracted people who couldn't afford to eat in the dining room. It's been especially popular with couples on dates.

“You can pick more varieties and share and not walk out with an overwhelmed feeling of ‘I'm so stuffed,'” she said. “You can decide the exact right portion of what's going to fill you up. It's a perfect quick meal on the run.”

The same idea was behind the opening of Beijos Lounge this year at Texas de Brazil in Schaumburg. Diners at the Brazilian-style steakhouse, which serves up all-you-can-eat-meat, can now get appetizer-sized portions of garlic sirloin, rack of lamb, filet mignon and other offerings.

“Some people just want to sit at the bar and have a martini and they might not want to have a full, all-you-can-eat huge meal,” said general manager Michael Truax. “It's more like a sample for if somebody just wants to nibble on something.”

Liedberg said he expects the bars at McCormick & Schmick's will only get more popular in the coming year, when the company plans to upgrade all their TVs and sound systems and offer special menus to appeal to college football fans. Chicago is one of 40 locations that have already been outfitted with new big screen sets.

“Very quickly we got incredible feedback from people saying this is what we've been looking for,” he said. “I thought ‘Why didn't I do this 10 years ago?'”

  The bar area at Fleming’s Prime Steakhouse in Lincolnshire has proved popular for those who want to enjoy a drink or a little something to eat. Gilbert R. Boucher II/
  Mini burgers are among the bar bites at Morton’s Bar 12-21 in Rosemont. Mark Welsh/