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On March 14, 2020, while hearing murmurings of impending restaurant closures, I put on the last real outfit I’d wear for some time and took myself out to dinner at Annette, taking a seat at the bar rather than a table.
Next to me was a couple I had previously met, who owned another local restaurant. They were on a date before they couldn’t go on one again for a long while. But they also seemed happy to chat with me about the news and the virus, everything that was still unknown and what we could only imagine was coming.
By the end of the evening, our conversation had become so natural that when we heard there was just one special Paris-Brest left to order from the kitchen, the three of us agreed to split dessert.
We savored that cream-filled pastry and our after-dinner drinks for a suspended moment. And while I haven’t seen my impromptu dinner companions since then, it’s only a matter of time now before we run into each other, I figure.
The beauty of the bar seat is just that.
“As someone who’s always loved going to bars, I really miss the serendipitous meetings with people, of walking into your favorite bar (on a weekday) and it turning into meaningful conversations with people you don’t see that often,” agreed Stuart Jensen, a Denver bartender and co-owner of the bars Brass Tacks, Curio and Roger’s Liquid Oasis.
Like Jensen, I missed the unexpected experience at the bar, of interacting with bartenders and neighboring diners in a way that I couldn’t while sitting anywhere else in the restaurant. And the feeling is mostly mutual from the bartender’s perspective, Jensen told me.
After more than a year of indirect service through to-go drinks and distanced table seating, bartenders have their front-and-center guests back, and they say they’re ready to interact with us — with some caveats.
The loss of bars this past year as community gathering spaces “was really devastating,” Jensen said. “You lost the human interaction,” and instead gained a level of “conflict” between customers and staff that was unprecedented.
“All the things that we love about (the bar) were legally taken away from us,” he added. “And I think (bartenders) always put up with a little bit of unreasonable guest behavior, but that was really amplified (during the pandemic). Our staff took a lot of abuse from the public.”
Diners refusing to wear masks, or arriving in groups larger than the legal household limit, verbally abusing staff members who tried to explain the rules, and tipping poorly — the laundry list of bad bar behavior over the past year is long.
But Jensen hopes it stops now that hospitality workers and customers are returning to a more normal dynamic, and the worth of essential workers has (hopefully) become more apparent.
“This is a two-way street, and we are committed to giving you a special experience,” Jensen said. “We want to treat you like a guest, but you have to treat us like a host, not a servant.”
For many who work in restaurants and bars, the last year has been enough to deter them from the industry entirely. In April and May, more than 90% of Colorado restaurants reported having trouble hiring back staff as their dining room and bar restrictions lifted, according to the Colorado Restaurant Association.
“I’m not going to lie: There’s a lot of anxiety for me over the next three to four months,” said Alex Jump, head bartender at Death & Co Denver. She and Jensen also are in a relationship and live together. “Most bars and restaurants in Denver are operating with new staff … and that means that service is going to be hard. It’s kind of like reopening all over again,” Jump added.
Nonetheless, she and her staff had been looking forward to the day they could reopen Death & Co’s bar and its communal, living room-style seating inside The Ramble Hotel lobby. It finally happened at the end of May, and “was a pretty emotional moment for the team,” Jump said. “For all of the bartenders on our team, I know it was an amazing week.”
So her feeling about the state of bars starting out this summer is bittersweet, but hopeful.
“We weren’t going to live in this state forever of shitty experiences in bars and restaurants,” she said. “We have an opportunity now as we come back to reevaluate every part of our business. To be given the chance to take a step back, rethink, come back and hopefully be better … I want to be a part of that.”
Already both bartenders have noticed a slight shift in customer expectations from before the pandemic: “A lot of people used to go out just to go out,” Jensen said, “and now they’re going out for specific reasons. They got a taste of cooking or making drinks at home and see the skill involved, so they’re more inclined to pay for nice food and drinks when they go out now.”
And to bring some much-needed levity back into their business over the last few months, Jump and Jensen made a change in their home life akin to adding on a detached office space, clearing out an art studio or creating a kids’ learning annex.
Only they moved houses and designed and stocked a backyard shed to create a bar that rivals most professional setups.
“During lockdown, it was a place that we went to have dinner or find almost a bit of normalcy,” Jump said. “Giving it a place and a name … it’s intentional.”
They call it the Peach Crease Club, after a bar in the HBO series “The Outsider.” It’s stocked with plenty of American whiskeys and Scotches, beers on draft, in cans and in bottles, plus vodkas, non-alcoholic spirits and you name it.
“Stuart jokes that we have the best brandy selection of any bar in America,” Jump said. (“She’s literally wearing a shirt that says ‘eau de vie,’ ” Jensen laughed.)
They have date nights and invite friends over.
“If we’re out for dinner or something, we’ll have a nightcap there rather than going to a bar,” Jensen added. During the March blizzard, they tried to walk to have a drink in their neighborhood, but everything was closed: ” ‘I guess we’ll go home and shovel a path to the bar,’ ” he remembers offering.
At most establishments, a bar seat is fun for meeting strangers and interacting with them, but ultimately it’s there for intimacy, with yourself or a loved one, and also for more understanding and empathy between you and the person helping you across the counter.
Shortly after it reopened last month, I went back to sit at the bar where I had dined so memorably a year earlier, this time bringing my boyfriend, excited to introduce him to the staff and owners. And we chatted with them for the first time in as long as I can remember at eye level.
Throughout the course of the pandemic, Jensen said he realized too that spending time with acquaintances at bars is great, but “I should be more focused on spending meaningful time with the people I care about. One of the reasons we have a home bar is so we can have a space to come together.”