Action at the bar means more than just a crowd. It means a certain electricity. A bar with action is fun, and there's always the possibility of random conversation. You might sit next to a stranger, start talking, then find yourselves singing a J Lo/Ja Rule duet in K-Town at 3 am.
If that's what you're after, here's where you should go. Check out one of these places the next time you want to eat or drink in spot where you might make a new friend. Or maybe you just want to sit on a stool, drink something, and watch people be themselves (for better or worse). Go to one of these restaurants.
Maysville isn’t huge, but the bar’s pretty big. It takes up the whole right side of the restaurant, and the wall behind it is covered in whiskey. Sit here and drink your way through the bourbon list or try some fancy southern food (or do both). Get the whole trout or something off the “Smoked and Charred” section. After dark, there tends to be a good, mellow crowd sipping whiskey, and it feels sort of like a hotel bar (without the hotel).
The Four Horsemen is a either a wine bar that feels like a restaurant or a restaurant that feels like a wine bar. Either way, there’s good food, good wine, and the place to sit is at the bar. It's the first thing you see when you walk in, and it’s where you want to drink a glass of orange wine while you wonder how much the person sitting next you paid for their haircut. The Four Horsemen is in Williamsburg, so expect laid-back service and people who took their time getting dressed.
Gato is a big, kind-of-flashy Spanish restaurant in Noho from Bobby Flay, and the bar is a rectangular island in the middle of the dining room. It’s a unique set-up, and it’s a good choice for those who need the eyes of other people to confirm their existence. Go here with cool parents and hang at the bar while you eat some surprisingly good food in a space that feels like it should be in the Meatpacking District.
Estela is on the smaller side, and it gets crowded because the food is really good. It's also right above a classic dive bar (Botanica), and that somehow lends it some street cred. This is a good place to either have a full meal or just eat a few snacks while you drink (either of which you can do at the bar). Come here for small plates and people watching, but be aware that it will be busy, and competition is stiff for the ten-or-so bar seats.
This place doesn't take reservations, so you'll always find someone at the downstairs bar - because waiting for a table outside looks too desperate. Here’s a pro-tip, however: head upstairs. There’s a second-floor bar, and it’s still going to be crowded, but at least there are more seats. The vibes are also cozier up there, and the whole place that feels like the rural English home of a very cool grandmother.
Think Balthazar with less tourists. That's Cherche Midi. It's another upscale yet casual French restaurant where you can talk about how you'd like to live in Paris before ordering a burger. About that burger, it’s called the Black Label Burger (like the one at Minetta Tavern), it’s made with dry-aged beef, and it’ll run you $28. Grab a seat at the curved bar in the corner and eavesdrop on some creative professionals being passive aggressive with one another.
This place has been around since the 80s, when it was a legendary place to do drugs, drink martinis, and possibly see John Belushi or Basquiat hanging out at a corner table. Obviously, a lot has changed, and things, relatively speaking, are tame here now, - but there's still a certain energy any night of the week. Stop by the bar to have a burger and share your contact info with someone who definitely has a subscription to Vanity Fair.
It looks like whoever opened Lure couldn't decide whether to buy a boat or a restaurant, so they met halfway. This place is down a flight of steps on Mercer Street, and it feels like a cruise ship for venture capitalists. Stop by on a weeknight for a consistently vibey bar crowd. If you work in the area, the bar’s a good place for a drink and some oysters. Lure is a seafood spot for the most part, but they have great burger as well. Go for it, by all means.
The Clocktower is an English/American restaurant that puts you in the mood to spend money. Lobster, oysters, steak - you'll want it all. The restaurant is separated into a few different rooms, including one with a pool table and one with a bar. The pool table is purple (because green is too common), and the bar is covered in actual gold.
You don’t go to Acme for the food. But this isn't a list of restaurants with the best food - it's a list of restaurant bars where stuff goes down. At Acme’s bar, you can watch a mix downtown club-goers, foreigners in Prada sneakers, and artists who spend more time grooming their facial hair than they do smearing paint on canvas. The club downstairs is annoying to get into, but no there's no bouncer for the restaurant bar. Come here for a drink, some inoffensive food, and a scene worth a thousand words (in the New York Post).
Why’s there always a crowd at Gemma? It isn’t the best Italian, that's for sure. But it is located in a sceney hotel on a busy stretch of Bowery, and there’s plenty of sidewalk seating where people will see you. That’s why you go to Gemma. Come here to look at people while those same people look back, and maybe eat a pizza. If you grab a seat at the bar, you can see everyone coming in the front door.
There are two bars at the Breslin, but one of them is hard to find. The first is downstairs near the entrance, where there’s plenty of space to sit and have a drink. The second is up a flight of stairs on a the mezzanine, and it might get our vote for least likely restaurant bar. It’s tiny, and you won’t really be sure why it’s there - but it’s a good place for a low-key drink. The crowd gets a little thicker downstairs, however, so hang at the main bar if people watching is a priority. The vibes here are dark, intimate, and rowdy on weekends.
The bar is in the center of the dining room at Llama Inn, and that makes for some good action. Maybe it’s the high ceilings, the big windows, or the abundance of young people (Llama Inn is in Williamsburg), but there’s always a good energy to this place. If you’re dining solo or you’re with a few friends who prefer liquids over solids, get a stool at the bar. You can start a conversation with whatever Brooklynite or European tourist is sitting next to you, and they even serve the full (Peruvian) menu there.
This place is an interesting middle ground. It’s next to all the action in the Meatpacking District, but the food is just as good as the people watching. It’s fun, but it isn’t crazy, and you won’t feel like you’re dining at the center of a bachelorette party. The bar isn’t huge, but it’s a u-shaped island, with seats all around it, and the cocktails are excellent. Santina is also essentially just one big glass cube, so, on weekends, you can watch a parade of girls in tall heels stumble up Washington Street.