As restaurants become more numerous in the Bay, it’s great to see expansion into different dining categories. Downtown Bristol’s Bar 31 fills a relatively unrepresented niche – the tapas bar. Tapas are a Spanish concept – small plates of hot or cold appetizers meant to be shared and combined into a meal – that’s a harmonious fit with the bar concept of socializing. The result is a unique ambiance of relaxed, jovial adventure as groups of diners explore a menu together.
Bar 31 is family-owned and operated, and led by Michael Mizrahi. Although tapas are generally associated with Spanish foods, Michael’s background is Middle Eastern and Egyptian, so the menu shows some traces of his heritage. The menu selection is quite broad, and focuses on locally grown and produced seasonal ingredients.
As we approached Bar 31, we immediately noticed one very welcome detail: sidewalk seating. While outdoor seating is fairly common in these parts, the sidewalk adds another people-watching dynamic that I miss from larger cities. However, with warm nights waning and cool evenings arriving earlier, we ventured inside. For those who remember British Beer Company – the previous tenant – the bar is in the same spot, but everything else is radically different. It’s simple, modern and cozy with more of a lounge feel than the "bar" in their name implies.
But it is a bar, and thirsty patrons will have an ample selection of craft beers (a dozen on tap), spirits, wines, martinis and mixed drinks to choose from. We tried the Adult Strawberry Lemonade made with muddled strawberry, Stoli Citron, triple sec and lemonade and the Open Mic made with Patron Silver, Grand Marnier, vanilla vodka, pineapple and cranberry juice. Both were good, light starts to the evening (much needed with all the food to come), although I wondered if the Open Mic cocktail was named for an alcohol content meant to help performers overcome their jitters.
The tapas menu is diverse, and having your group compose an order to share will be a fun test of democracy, negotiation and compromise. Our group of three decided that each person would pick one lighter appetizer dish and one heartier entrée dish, provided that the end result was reasonably diversified among meat, seafood and veggies. However their classification as appetizer and entrée is a bit of a misnomer, as most of the portions are fairly comparable.
The first round started with Roasted Figs ($8), stuffed with herbed cream cheese, wrapped in prosciutto and drizzled with local honey. These were hot out of the oven, and when our mouths cooled, we were overcome with saltiness. The Roasted Vegetables ($8) were served over delicious quinoa and made us feel healthy during an otherwise gluttonous evening. The standout was the Garlic Shrimp ($9) sautéed in fresh garlic, tomatoes, white wine and butter. Every last bit of the sauce was mopped up with whatever was available.
The unanimous choice for the second round was Filet Mignon ($12), and it proved to be an excellent call. Seared Black Angus encrusted with porcini mushrooms, served with Gorgonzola butter and oven-roasted fingerling potatoes delivered a melt-in-your-mouth concoction that was by far the table favorite. The Lobster Mac and Cheese ($13) – hunks of lobster in a homemade cheese sauce, served with Cavatappi pasta and panko crumbs – was also well executed. It had a generous amount of lobster but was light on cheese – just what you want when you’re eating a lot of food. Finally, the local pan-seared Striped Bass ($12) was accompanied by a sweet corn, leek and mascarpone risotto. It was tasty, but a little too much lemon made its way in somewhere.
If you have room for dessert, there are a selection of cakes from the nearby Cake Gallery on Hope Street. The Tiramisu ($5) and Cheesecake ($5) were some of the best you’ll find, and it’s great to see neighboring vendors working together to keep it local.
Friday and Saturday nights at Bar 31 feature live music. There’s never a cover and a schedule for the next two months is featured on their website, along with the current menu.
The overall menu changes periodically, so expect some seasonal modifications when you visit. If the summer lineup is any indication, fall will bring some great fare.
31 State Street, Bristol