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Return to Babbo

Note: Click here for a more recent review of Babbo.

A friend suggested Babbo last night. I’d been there alone about a month ago, but Babbo’s one of those places that never wears out. We ate at the bar. At 7:00pm there were still several bar stools available, but they didn’t stay empty for long.

On a second visit, Babbo was even more impressive. I ordered the Three Goat Cheese Truffles ($12) to start. Three balls of cool goat cheese were covered lightly in colored spices, which the menu calls “Peperonata.” I could have eaten a dozen.

For my entrée, I tried another Babbo signature dish, the Mint Love Letters with Spicy Lamb Sausage ($18). These are squares of pasta, with mint and lamb pressed inside. It’s a wonderful explosion of contrasting flavors.

Apropos of my visit, this week’s NYTimes had an article about dining at the bar, a phenomenon that has practically deprived many restaurant bars of their original raison d’etre. In fact, the article featured the very bartender that has served me on both of my Babbo visits:

“I was told you were dining,” said John Giorno, the bartender at Babbo in Greenwich Village two weekends ago, snatching a menu away from me as I settled into my seat and explained I was drinking. Mr. Giorno’s smile vanished like the sun and his face went as dark as a sky before a storm. I asked to see the menu and contritely ordered food.

According to bartenders, managers and owners across New York, bar space at most restaurants has become de facto dining space. Even people with reservations for a table trying to enjoy a drink at the bar first, as an enjoyable prelude, have to fight the good fight as drinkers contending with diners at the bar.

For those involved, from the staff to the patrons, the new setup has its advantages and its disadvantages. And for every separate peace, there is a potential for awkwardness that requires diplomacy.

Mr. Giorno at Babbo, realizing his brusqueness in challenging me as a drinker, quickly served me a smile with my wine.

“I treat everyone the same,” Mr. Giorno said, “but that’s kind of what we do. We’re a dining bar.”

Babbo’s bar that night was solid eaters; the host’s station was taking reservations for the seats at the bar. Drinkers who had naïvely waited to sit at the bar were told by the bartenders that the seats were not available. They seated diners who had arrived later than the drinkers.

Tension was palpable. The manager spoke with one drinking couple about the seats they were about to take, because he was negotiating with another couple at his desk who had walked in to eat and couldn’t immediately get a table. We all held our breath. The other couple decided to wait for a table. The drinkers were allowed to stay, resting their red wine and beer on the bar with some relief.

“We don’t mind them, drinkers,” Mario Batali, Babbo’s creator and co-owner, said with generosity when I spoke to him last week. “But drinkers that don’t have dinner? That’s not what we’re about.”

It might be inconvenient for drinkers, but dining at the bar is win-win for restaurants and diners. You can walk into a place like Babbo on a whim, and although it’s booked solid, a seat is there waiting for you — as long as you don’t mind sitting at the bar. My companion last night said he does it all the time.

Babbo (110 Waverly Place between MacDougal St. & Sixth Ave., Greenwich Village) 

Food: ***
Service: **
Ambiance: **
Overall: ***

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