On a recent Friday night, I nearly rubbed my eyes in disbelief. Could it be — two vacant chairs at R. Bar?
In the bustling atmosphere of the Remington food hall R. House, spotting a couple of empty seats at its center bar can feel like discovering an oasis. Here, you don't second-guess reality — you rush to the source.
On the handful of visits I've made to R. House since it opened in December, this has been a familiar scene — a crowded square bar with 40 full seats, along with sort-of hovering patrons waiting to see if they can claim the next open spots.
It all can feel like a polite game of musical chairs. On the most recent visit, I watched two women repeatedly explain that the seats next to them were already taken, and that they were waiting for friends to return with food.
When R. House is busy, typically so is R. Bar, and vigilance is required to find seats and keep them. Add the fact that once patrons secure seats, they aren't eager to give them up, and a conundrum crystalizes.
This is an effect of popularity, and of having a bar that would benefit from expansion. In a 50,000-square-foot open area, especially one with 350 total seats, it's hard not to wish the bar in the heart of it had more places to sit.
That's because, for many of us, the main point of a bar is to relax and savor a drink. At R. Bar, that is not always a guarantee. Last month, a group of friends and I made a couple of laps, only to give up and walk to the nearby corner-bar The Dizz instead. (Still a gem, by the way.)
By the same token, the folks at R. Bar are clearly doing something right.
Led by beverage directors Amie Ward and Aaron Joseph (formerly of Aggio and Wit & Wisdom, respectively), R. Bar is already a trusted source for smartly constructed and finely executed cocktails.
The cocktail list — featuring seven seasonal options, along with two draft cocktails and two in bottles — is accessible, but also filled with variety and exciting components. Scanning the options, it became more understandable why visitors aren't in a rush to leave: There was plenty to try, and all of it sounded enticing.
Take, for example, the Hearts + Daggers ($14), with its recipe of Marolo Milla grappa, amaro, lemon juice and strawberry jam. I wondered if the chamomile-flavored grappa (an Italian brandy) and sugary jam would be too much on the sweet tooth, but no, the bitter amaro created a sublime equilibrium. Hearts + Daggers is a reminder that the most important aspect of a successful craft cocktail is that the pendulum swings both ways equally.
Other drinks clicked in similar ways. The Jalisco Madness ($12) only features three ingredients — Patron silver tequila, lime juice and passion fruit syrup — but its flavors pop, thanks to the high-quality alcohol base and the fragrant, tart syrup.
Even more adventurous was the Sexy Time Cocktail ($12), a mixture featuring El Silencio Espadin mezcal and amaro that beautifully play off the drink's banana notes (courtesy of a house-made banana cordial and a flamed banana garnish). Balsamic syrup and spearmint bitters smooth the fruitiness out with touches of sophistication.
For those looking for more familiar flavors, there's also the Charming Gentleman ($12), a Sagamore Spirit Straight Rye Whiskey-based drink with fresh lemon juice, orange juice and a touch of extra sweetness from maple syrup. It's a sturdy middle ground between experimentation and tried-and-true execution.
R. Bar also has six draft beer options (with an emphasis, at least on this night, on Hampden's Union Craft Brewing), and six selections of cans and bottles. Wine (sparkling, rose, white, red and sake) can be ordered by the glass ($8-$15) and bottle ($25-$58).
On this Friday night, our cocktails came quickly, especially considering the volume of customers surrounding the bar. The staff — which featured five bartenders, five servers for nearby tables and two barbacks — were in constant motion. Our bartenders, with their heads on constant swivels, took the time to provide thoughtful order recommendations. (Even for food at R. House's surrounding stalls, too.)
The servers, armed with iPads capable of taking drink orders and payment, do their best to accommodate patrons not seated at the bar. Still, even finding those open seats can prove difficult.
As R. Bar soon switches over to a spring menu (expect brighter and fruit-forward flavors), it also hopes the warmer weather will alleviate some of the cluster by the bar. Soon, the roll-up garage doors will give way to an outdoor dining area with a second bar and more seating, Ward said.
If spring is anything like R. Bar's winter, first-time visitors hoping for a leisurely exploration of the bar program should avoid weekend evenings, and opt for off-peak hours. Regardless of when you go, though, the cocktails should prove worth the wait.