Cooking in Tight Places—Creating a Small Bar Kitchen

One of my new Friday after work stop-for-a-meal venues is a neighborhood bar decorated in old worn wood and forged iron with ancient black and white pictures lining the wall. I’d been there a number of times for a quick craft beer, but never thought of taking a look at their menu. After all, the kitchen looked to be about 3-square-feet in size right behind the bar. Not enough space for much more than a quick hamburger and frozen French fries.

After one harder than usual week, I opted for a Friday night fish fry. I am, after all, a Wisconsinite, if only for a year.

It was some of the best fish that I’ve had in this state, and it was accompanied by a fresh coleslaw and beet salad with homemade waffle fries coated in parmesan and garlic. I suddenly understood why the seating area and bar were usually packed.

But, just how did they accomplish this feat in a cooking space the size of a closet?

I asked the chef. He suggested I widen my horizons and catch on to the cultural phenomenon known as the tiny house.

I wondered what that had to do with cooking for a restaurant/bar that seats close to 100 guests. The look on his face told me it would be better not to ask, so I opted to do my own research.

The Essentials of a Bar’s Kitchen

The good news is that cooking spaces that patrons can view is in, at least for now. You may not have the wide hearth and 20-foot grill, but you might have just enough space for the essentials, and you’ll need to make these essentials shiny, efficient, must-haves that have multiple uses. Here’s what you need to create outstanding bar food.

  1. Refrigerator—In order to keep injuries to a minimum, and refrain from knocking out one of your servers or bartenders while maintaining a steady flow among staff, it’s important to get a commercial refrigerator with sliding doors.
  2. Prep Table—Prep tables, these days, come in all different shapes and sizes. Some even offer cutting boards on top of handy refrigerated storage areas.
  3. Oven, Grill, and a Deep Fryer…or two—Fortunately, kitchen equipment now comes in a compact size. All-in-one combo kitchen units are streamlined and are designed to fit into tight spaces. Keep in mind that many bars supply their guests with quality meals without each of these pieces of equipment. Create a limited menu that will appeal to your clientele and then decide what equipment is mandatory. Leasing or buying used is an option for those on a tight budget.
  4. Storage—One of the greatest challenges with limited space is where to store the pots, pans, dishes, and utensils. At the bar I previously mentioned, they made use of a hanging pot rack where they placed their shiny copper and stainless-steel pans. On the wall was a hook for utensils and a magnetic strip for knives.

Other Options

There are also other options besides cooking in-house. These include the use of commissary kitchens and food technologies such as 2ndKitchen.

Commissary Kitchens

These commercial kitchens offer a space to prepare and store food. Usually, you are offered some assigned storage space and a certain time slot in which to create your meals. Just about any dish can be created and then kept hot at your establishment using chaffing dishes. Consider offering different specials on prime nights. Costs for the use of a commissary kitchen range from $15 to $35 an hour.


This food technology startup is hoping to be the go-to for bars that are kitchen challenged. Their solution is to provide an in-house kiosk that allows guests to order from nearby restaurants for delivery to your establishment. One caveat: you are limited to partnering with one restaurant per meal. The good news is that you can choose one restaurant that caters to late-night clientele and another that offers meals more aligned with your dinner crowd. According to 2ndKitchen, guests that have the opportunity to eat at your establishment stay for, on average, 40 to 45 minutes longer. Their services are free for bars while customers are charged a small convenience fee.

When guest’s walk into a bar for a cold one and find themselves enjoying a nice, quality meal, you can bet they’ll be returning. From classics such as nachos and sliders to inspired creations combining gouda cheese, chives, and fries, providing food for your guests is good for them and good for your bottom line.


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