How to Plan Your Bar’s Food Menu 101

When you are starting out on your bar running journey, simplicity is essential when developing a food menu. Ninety-nine times out of 100, your patrons aren’t coming to you for the latest in avant-garde gastronomy. Instead, they want easy-to-understand, familiar items they can snack on while they’re enjoying the beverages you’re pouring.

Yours is a bar, not a restaurant. Your menu should reflect that difference.

You can take any of these menu ideas and match it with your bar to create synergy. For example, if your bar specializes in tequila, you can choose a menu with Mexican flavors that enhances your theme.

Bar appetizers

An appetizer is a dish that’s served before the main meal in a restaurant. In bars, sometimes the appetizer menu is the only menu. The owner chooses not to offer full-blown meals to patrons, instead giving them a choice of several appetizers to snack on.

Common bar appetizers include these tasty options:

  • Deep-fried jalapeño peppers stuffed with cream cheese

  • Beer-battered onion rings with a special sauce

  • Nachos slathered in cheese, refried beans, beef or chicken, black olives, tomatoes, and anything else that seems tempting to you

  • Chips and salsa

  • Fried vegetables, like mushrooms, zucchini, or even dill pickles

  • Buffalo wings

  • Fried mozzarella sticks

Pub grub

Pub grub is the affectionate term for typical bar food, such as wings, onion rings, cheese sticks, burgers, and so on. All things deep-fried (or high in saturated fat) usually fall into the pub grub category. If you’re interested in serving food, this is usually a good place to start. People expect bars to offer this kind of cuisine.

Pub grub menus can include these filling foods designed to please your patrons’ palates:

  • Hamburgers: You can create dozens of variations on the basic burger: the bacon cheeseburger, blue-cheese burger, or mushroom-and-Swiss burger, for example.

  • Sandwiches: Popular ones include the Reuben, grilled cheese, grilled chicken, and so on. Make your sandwiches big and thick and charge accordingly. Customers typically remember the size, not the price, except in college areas. Students typically want to spend as little as possible to eat a hearty portion.

  • Chili: Hearty soups and stews are game-day favorites with bar-goers.

  • French fries: Some barkeepers include onion rings and hand-cut chips on their menu.

  • Fried chicken tenders: You can list these as an appetizer, an entree, or both.

  • Pizza: This dish — deep, pan, or thin — is always a popular item and can make a great profit. Consider including a small, individual pizza on your menu.

Happy-hour fare

Some bars choose to only serve food during happy hour, a period of time designed to draw a crowd with special pricing and promotions. Sometimes the food is the happy-hour draw.

Maybe you set up a free buffet from 4 to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday but keep drinks at their regular price. Or maybe you sell two drinks for the price of one (assuming that’s legal in your state), and charge $3 per person for the buffet.

Bar tapas

Tapas are snacks or small plates in the Spanish tradition. Patrons can order several tapas to create their own meal or share them with friends. Often provided free in Spain with the purchase of alcoholic beverages, these small plates make an appearance in many bars in this country.

You can provide very simple tapas, like a few olives, complimentary to guests, and make more elaborate offerings, though still small in quantity, available for purchase.

Here are a few examples of tapas coauthor Heather recently sampled in bars across the country:

  • Fried new potatoes with chile pasilla aioli

  • Bleu cheese lamb sliders

  • Cajun shrimp sautéed in a spicy cream sauce

  • Crispy cod with potato cakes and lemon aioli

  • Manchego cheese croquettes

  • Plato de fiambres (plate of cured meats)

  • Curry fries

  • Pimientos fritos (fried green peppers and coarse salt)

Full-blown menus

Many “bar and grills” or “grill and taverns” or “grill and bars” have larger menus these days. Owners may start with a pub grub menu but expand their offerings further to include items such as salads, entrees (such as ribs, steaks, and pasta), desserts, and even kids’ menus.

Here are some familiar examples of bars with full-blown menus. Take a look at these websites to get a feel for the breadth and depth of the menu offerings:

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