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No, you haven't had one too many: D.C. bars are getting bigger

Thursday - 6/19/2014, 2:21pm  ET

Urbana is just the latest in a string of D.C. restaurants either rejiggering space to create bigger bars or opening with much larger bars than they might have in the past.

The Dupont Circle restaurant said earlier this month it would close for a renovation to double the size of its bar. There’s also Joe’s Seafood, Prime Steak and Stone Crab, with its marble-clad, two-story bar and lounge taking up half of the restaurant’s ground floor, and Richard Sandoval’s Toro Toro, where 5,000 square feet on the lower level is devoted to a lounge.

Passion Food Hospitality added 45 lounge seats to the bar area at Latin-inspired Ceiba last year, after seeing the benefit of the bigger bar at its Foggy Bottom spot District Commons. Food and beverage sales at the bar have increased 30 percent, according to Passion Food partner David Wizenberg. At the group's next restaurant, Penn Commons in Chinatown, 40 percent of the seating is going to be devoted to the bar and lounge.

So why the uptick in the booze business? There are a few reasons:

1. It’s more casual: Restaurants are catering to an ever-growing number of guests who don’t want to “commit” to a sit-down, reservations-needed dinner, said Wizenberg, a partner in Passion Food Hospitality.

“The bar experience and dining has been blurred a little bit … no pun intended,” Wizenberg said. “There are more people looking for a more casual experience, which also speaks to the typical client we’re seeing. They’re younger, and that type of dining is a little more interesting to them.”

2. It’s not just the drinks: Food sales are becoming a growing part of the bar business, points out Eric Santiago, general manager of Urbana. So it’s not such a bad thing to take away from dining room seating to add bar seating, as they’ll do when they renovate Urbana’s lounge this summer.

“There’s a good case to be made that you can grow bar revenue while maintaining dining. When you have a finite amount of room, the question is how do I make more revenue per available seat,” Santiago said. “A bar guest maybe 10 years ago would have a beer and kind of leave. Now that real estate is worth more when you think about people being willing to have a meal at the bar.”

Added Wizenberg: “The bar has become its own dining experience than simply a drinking one.”

3. Bar/lounge space is more flexible:“If I’ve got a more casual style of seating and someone walks in for dinner, you’ve got a good chance that they’ll sit there,” said Santiago. “If someone walks in looking for a cocktail and you don’t have bar space, you have no chance of getting them to sit down in the dining room.”

© 2014 American City Business Journals, Inc.