Anyone who’s taken a transatlantic flight in coach recently knows about the indignities of shrinking personal space. I can just about deal with being cramped for seven or eight hours at the beginning of vacation. But now that same level of close-quarters seating is spreading to neighborhood bars, and a line must be drawn.
I stopped in at the Hank’s Oyster Bar happy hour recently for a cocktail and a few oysters, and found myself having to become very good friends with the couples on either side of me, whether I wanted to or not.
There was less than an inch and a half between the seats of the bar stools, which meant that, unless you’re a member of Cirque du Soleil, getting into an open seat requires a customer to pull the stool out beyond its neighbors completely, get on and then try to scoot forward. (I used a ruler app on my iPhone, measuring from the widest part of the seats.) When the bar is crowded, as it frequently is, and people are standing behind the row of seats, getting up to go to the bathroom becomes an uncomfortable game of Operation.
The other problem comes when you’re ordering food. The unwritten rules of dining at the bar mean that each customer occupies the section of bar directly in front of their seat, so that you don’t wind up with your neighbor’s drink in front of you, or vice versa. When the seats are crammed together and you’re trying to eat, you have to do an awkward chicken dance with your neighbors to avoid bumping elbows. There’s also the consideration of whether your order involves numerous small plates that may or may not need to be piled on top of each other.
In my travels covering the city’s bars over the past 14 years, I’ve seen this situation get worse, not better. All too often, I think: This bar would be a much better experience if the owners would just take out one or two bar stools and redistribute a couple of feet of space along the length of the bar.
That won’t happen, because the owners know their customers want to be seated, even if they’re in cramped conditions with a sliver of bar counter, because it’s impossible to eat when you’re standing up.
But I’d like to sit some restaurateurs down and show them the “Manifest Destiny” episode of “Schoolhouse Rock,” which opens with the immortal words:
One thing you will discover
When you get next to one another
Is everybody needs some elbow room.
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