Setting the [Long] Bar

Lack of space, high rent prices and a cocktail renaissance in Edmonton have led to a new restaurant trend.

Illustration by Pop Winson

In 1903, the Windsor Hotel opened on the corner of Jasper Avenue and 101st Street. The hotel bar, the Mahogany Room, was a favourite watering hole of local politicians, businessmen and labourers who loved to indulge in libation and banter. But across Canada, the Mahogany Room was known for something else. The 50-foot counter, which ran almost the entire length of the saloon, was once the country’s longest bar. (A replica of this legendary bar counter can be found at the Selkirk Hotel at Fort Edmonton.)

Today, no one would blink an eye at a 50-foot counter in a drinking establishment. It’s pretty much standard in pubs and sports bars. But what is getting noticed these days is the arrival of the “long bar” in Edmonton’s newer restaurants, such as Canteen, North 53, Woodwork and RGE RD. And, the popularity of the long bar goes far beyond design. 

The most obvious factor driving the long bar is the revival of the cocktail. Moustached bartenders serving Tom Collins in tiny coupe glasses have arrived in Edmonton. Cocktail connoisseurs want to saddle up to a bar and sample an array of classic drinks, along with great food. “I’m trying to offer a restaurant that is balanced in its offerings,” says Kevin Cam, owner of North 53. The 54-seat restaurant fits 22 customers at its 35-feet long concrete bar — more than 40 per cent of the restaurant’s seating. 

Even after the last dessert plates have been cleared, North 53 patrons are still sitting at “The Wood,” as it’s called in bar circles, ordering drinks and socializing. The night is just getting started. “We get that late-night drinking crowd after 8 or 9. We’re not just relying on dinner service.”

The same story plays out at Woodwork, owned by Andrew Borley and chef Mike Scorgie. Twelve of the restaurant’s 56 seats are located at its 60-foot bar. “We made a conscious decision not to be a restaurant that was a bar, or not be a bar that was a restaurant,” says Borley, who designed the space. 

For restaurant patrons, one advantage of the long bar is that it’s more social than traditional table seating. Located across the street from the Westin Hotel, solo business travellers often stumble upon Woodwork. For many, dining alone can be an uncomfortable experience but, at the restaurant’s long bar, there’s an opportunity to strike up a conversation with the person sitting next to you. “Almost always, they’ll end up introducing themselves to their neighbour,” says Borley. “Nine times out of 10, they’ll have a good conversation. It’s pretty rare that someone will plant themselves at the bar and not be open to conversation. It’s just the nature of the bar.”

Financial necessity may be the strongest push for the long bar. In the restaurant industry, profit margins from food are considerably low in comparison to alcohol. “Overhead costs in this industry are atrociously high. You can’t get by on food sales alone. Liquor sales increase profits,” says North 53’s Cam. And in a market where the average downtown office lease rates are about $20 per square foot, the long bar is an attractive revenue source.

Chris Kourouniotis has been designing restaurants for 17 years. He’s the man responsible for the look of many Edmonton restaurants, such as North 53, Canteen, The Parlour, Mercer Tavern and MKT, and he has an interesting theory about the long bar restaurant trend. According to Kourouniotis, the footprint of the available retail space in downtown Edmonton dictates the proliferation of the long bar. If the main floor of commercial storefronts are divided into smaller spaces that are skinny and deep because rents are expensive, restaurant owners who move into those spaces will have no other option but to install a long bar. 

“If you were to look at 10 spaces in older properties downtown, all of them would be skinny.”

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