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Pretzels no more: Lowly bar snacks get a haute makeover

The complimentary maple-infused bacon strips at TOCA bar in Toronto are a feast for both the eyes and the stomach.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

At Toronto's new Ritz-Carlton, patrons imbibing in its elegant second-floor TOCA Bar have a lot to take in besides the deftly mixed cocktails: There's the smart decor, the parade of stylish clientele, the view overlooking Roy Thomson Hall. Best of all, though, there's the unusually haute array of complimentary bar snacks, including strips of crispy bacon infused with maple syrup.

In Europe, the tradition of offering substantive, gourmet-quality munchies is entrenched in the culture of bar-going. At the Ritz Bar in Paris, for instance, the sting of those €30 cocktails is eased by free bowlfuls of hand-cut housemade potato chips still warm from the fryer. In London's Mayfair district, Scott's serves up housemade pork scratchings to sate hungry sippers. And in Rome, Florence and Venice, drinkers in bars both posh and plebeian can expectlittle plates (called piattini) bearing everything from marinated olives to chickpea-topped crostini to cheeses and prosciutto with their Campari and sodas.

Here in North America, land of goldfish crackers and greasy peanuts, the custom of serving complimentary top-rate bar snacks has been slower to catch on. With the price of premium cocktails on the rise, however, savvy barflies with a growing choice of luxury saloons to choose from are demanding more value for their buck, prompting the operators of upmarket bars to up the bar-snack ante. At the Ritz Toronto, those bacon strips are served alongside deep-fried edamame in handsome hammered-silver cups. In Victoria, freebie nibbles in the Bengal Lounge at the Fairmont Empress are cocktail-specific: If you order one of its tea-infused 1908 cocktails, it comes with a perfectly puffed scone on the side. And at Desnuda Wine Bar & Cevicheria in New York, everyday popcorn is given a lift with a drizzle of fragrant truffle oil.

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This elevation of bar snacks from afterthought to featured attraction is a reflection of just how far bar cuisine - both complimentary and otherwise - has come. Once upon a time, eating at the bar was what lone businessmen or those who didn't make a reservation did, but now a bar stool is as coveted as a seat in the dining room. At Calgary's Charcut, the meat-heavy menu catering specifically to bar patrons includes such delicacies as pork croquettes, bone marrow au gratin and pig's-head mortadella. Burgers are still on offer, but in this case they're slow-roasted garlic-sausage patties topped with cheese curds. And when it comes to choosing a brewski to pair with the eats, customers can call in beer steward Kirk Bodnar to help navigate all the local craft offerings on tap and the bottles in the cellar.

At Herons West Coast Kitchen + Bar in Vancouver's Fairmont Waterfront, the burger has disappeared altogether from the bar menu, ho-hum beef patties replaced by plump B.C. oysters encased in potato dough. There were doubters when executive chef Patrick Dore put them on the menu, but he felt, he has said, they would make the "perfect bar snack." And he was right, although the chef didn't stop there. The pizza at Herons has also been transformed from bland bar staple to epicurean delight thanks to toppings such as chanterelle mushrooms, gorgonzola, caramelized onions, arugula and truffle oil.

In a nutshell - a gourmet, imported nutshell - bar patrons are starting to get the gastronomic respect they deserve, whether they're ordering a full meal or downing aperitifs. In either scenario, one thing is also certain: Those little bowls of peanuts just won't cut it any more.

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