It’s midnight on a Friday in Washington, D.C., and luckily, Bar Pilar is open. Located on the white hot 14th Street corridor, the two-story local favorite has earned a reputation as one of the best places in the city to grab a late-night bite.
Since last summer, patrons have been able to order from the full menu from 11 a.m. until 1 a.m. at both the downstairs and upstairs bars, as well as the dining room. (Before this move, guests could only order from a limited menu.) These expanded and constantly rotating offerings include everything from shareable small plates, such as roasted potatoes with malt aioli and beef empanadas, to entrées such as lard-fried buttermilk chicken. There’s a dual purpose behind the move: One, increase Bar Pilar’s overall dining receipts. Two, increase each check during an under-monetized daypart by enticing tipplers to become diners.
All across the country, full-service bars and restaurants are rolling out dining options for the midnight crowd. According to Technomic’s 2012 “Dinner and Late-Night Consumer Trend Report,” operators are developing “craveable” food options that might include smaller portions, shareable dishes, or mix ‘n’ match selections. All these tactics appeal to the Millennial customer base that congregates over food and drinks.
New York City’s A.G. Kitchen has fired up a late night “Five & Dime” menu that entices late-night, weekend traffic passing through the neighborhood, including concert-goers from nearby Beacon Theatre or the summertime show series in Central Park.
A selection of American and Latin comfort foods from executive chef Alex Garcia are priced either $5 or $10. Crab cake sliders, a Cubano sandwich, guacamole, and guava barbecue ribs are smaller portions or discounted versions of existing menu items. “It’s our greatest hits,” explains partner Spencer Rothschild. “It’s not the time of day to sit down and have a full meal, but you want something that’s tasty and flavorful.”
Now night owls frequently order at least one food item to complement their drink order. Before this new menu was available, the restaurant frequently had to forfeit late-night business. “It’s nice to not have to say no to people,” says Rothschild “Now we never have to tell a guest that the kitchen is closed.”
Nearby in Harlem, Smoke Jazz and Supper-Club Lounge decided to amp up their late-night menu last fall. After offering a limited menu for the past three years, the restaurant made its entire menu available until 2 a.m. every night of the week so diners can enjoy the breadth and depth of executive chef Patricia Williams’ soulful American cooking.
The menu composition has changed, too. Big-ticket entrée items are starting to make a comeback, such as cedar plank steak ($34.95) and short ribs marinated in Gosling’s dark rum and ginger beer ($32.95). “We had them on the menu several years ago and wanted to keep them on there,” says co-owner Paul Stache. “But the price point wasn’t what people wanted.” Now they’re two of the most popular dishes.
Friday and Saturday are the lounge’s strongest nights for late-night dining, according to Stache, but it’s difficult to capitalize on that opportunity. “One of the challenges is that we’re an intimate room,” he says. “We can’t double capacities on weekend nights, because we simply don’t have the room. Instead, we expanded our hours across the board to increase our overall dining traffic.”
8407 Kitchen Bar in Silver Spring, Maryland, employs a similar tactic by offering a standard menu from open until close. “It was important for us to be a neighborhood restaurant,” says managing partner Nancy Hart. “This meant guests would have access to whatever they wanted—no matter where they sat, on what day, or at what time.”
The all-day menu includes house-made charcuterie, cheese flights, shareable plates, salads, and full-sized entrées. “Without trying to be everything to everybody, we wanted to do what we do well,” says Hart, “and present it in a way that people could mix and match the menu.”
On the West Coast, E&O Asian Kitchen in San Francisco’s Union Square has a “Double Happiness Happy Hour” program, available from 3–6 p.m. and again from 9 p.m. until close, Monday through Saturday nights. Along with $4 beers and $6 cocktails, there’s the option to order attractively priced bar bites such as $1 oysters with a kimchi cocktail sauce, $3.50 corn fritters, and a $4 beef short-rib slider.
National chains have taken note of the trend and begun catering to the midnight daypart as well. Both the Cheesecake Factory and T.G.I. Friday’s offer late-night dining options, and Applebee’s has experimented with expanded hours of operation, keeping the lights on until midnight or later.