When Riverfront Pizzeria opened in Milwaukee’s historic Third Ward a couple of years ago, its contemporary but gritty design reflected the character of its neighborhood. Its owners wanted the bar to reflect the restaurant’s character, too. That included the barstools — the most intimate connection that customers have to any bar. So it isn’t an accident that the stools at Riverfront Pizzeria’s bar mirror the space’s aesthetic: With elegant wooden seats and backs supported by legs made from black powder-coated steel, they’re both sleek and vaguely industrial.
If that sounds complicated, that’s because finding the right barstools can make your head hurt. There’s the cost: The majority of barstools are priced between $60 and $130, and domestically manufactured stools are often more expensive; custom built barstools go higher still. But even if you know how much you want to spend, the questions keep coming: What material? Do you need a back? Or a foot rest?
Here’s what you definitely need: Before you buy any barstool, make sure it was built for commercial use. A hip barstool designed for a home kitchen will fall apart in a restaurant. Commercial barstools won’t. “They’re made to take a lot of abuse,” says Diane Pipitone, a consultant at online furniture retailer Seating Expert. Commercial stools also have waterproof fabrics and stain-proof seals on wood.
“Metal barstools are going to hold up longer than wooden ones will,” says Brad Pelletto, the owner of Vision 360, a hospitality consulting fi rm. That said, wooden barstools are easier to repair: “You can always put on a little Guerilla Glue.” Metal barstools, on the other hand, may not be worth the trouble. “If you bought a $75 barstool and its seams are cracking, you might as well buy a new barstool,” Pelletto says. “By the time you take it to a welder, it’ll be the same amount of money.”
Metal bar stools are most often made from powder-coated steel. Wooden stools are typically beech wood. Harder woods are too precious, says Pelletto; they’d be unaffordable as a barstool. Many people think barstools should be metal, but wood is still a very popular choice, industry consultants say. Elegant and clean designs like the Biedermeier barstool, which has gentle curves and a rectangular back, have never gone away.
That said, they may be too fancy for a family pizzeria. “If a lot of children come to you, you might want to go with vinyl,” says Pipitone. That doesn’t mean settling for a cheap-looking covering. The top vinyl can now almost pass for leather. “I used to hate vinyl,” Pelletto says, “and now it’s just stunning.” Vinyl’s graded for its durability: Buy a grade that’s thick enough to withstand repeated wear.
For upper-end pizzerias, there’s actual leather, of course. But make it distinctive. At Frasca Pizzeria and Wine Bar in Chicago, the bar seating doesn’t come cheap: Frasca’s owner, Josh Rutherford, estimates the barstools cost $320 each. But the red oxblood leather cushions, set in a wooden frame, are striking. And they tie Frasca’s bar to the rest of the restaurant: Its booths were bought from a defunct Chicago restaurant and Rutherford liked the red leather so much he had the barstools built to match.
Frasca’s barstools were made domestically. In today’s industry, that’s the exception. “The majority of people who claim to be manufacturers (in the United States) aren’t,” says Pelletto. “They’re importers.” Not surprisingly, the vast majority of barstools come from China, and although Chinese-made restaurant furniture often lives down to its cheaper price tag, there are high-quality Chinese made chairs, too. “I buy a lot of chairs manufactured in China and they’re great, but you can’t get any chair manufactured in China,” Pelletto says. Stains can be wrong, he says, or the chairs chip too easily. An American-made barstool will almost always be more durable, but you’ll pay for the privilege. Nevertheless, if you need a simple metal reinforcement for a wobbly barstool, it’ll be easier to obtain for a domestically made brand.
If the ideal barstool should be elegant, durable, and affordable, that still leaves a big question: How comfortable should it be? This isn’t as obvious as it might seem. A pizzeria with an eat-and-run business model wants high turnover: It doesn’t want its barstools to be so comfortable that customers won’t leave. Conversely, a pizzeria that relies on its bar business wants customers to settle in for an hour.
Riverfront Pizzeria’s Brenda Regenfelder, an owner of the restaurant, understands this. Regenfelder has sat at her share of uncomfortable bars, she says, so she wanted the opposite for her pizzeria’s bar. That’s why she paid attention to the design and the seat: Wide with a slight indent. “I think they’re quite comfortable,” she says. In other words, like many seemingly small interior design decisions, choosing barstools sends a message to your customers: Make sure your barstools are sending the right one. ?
? Weight: Barstools typically weigh between 8 and 25 pounds, and the high end of that range can be cumbersome. If you want something light and easy to rearrange, consider the new aluminum models.
? Height: A barstool is approximately 31 inches high, roughly a foot shorter than the bar. Counter stools — think diner counters — are much shorter. Don’t mix and match.
? Spacing: Space barstools 18 inches apart. If you have 20 feet of bar space, you should be able to seat 11.
? Feet: If there’s no foot rail beneath your bar, consider adding a foot rest onto the chair, which can usually be done for an extra few dollars.
? Replacements: Unless you have extra space, there’s no need to buy replacement barstools. Retailers will ship any new stools on short notice. But confirm that the chair will stay in stock: You don’t want to be stuck with an ugly duckling stool.
? The Action: Swivel stools are cool. But they’re also unnecessary: No one will complain about a stationary barstool. And they’ll cost more and require more maintenance: After all, a swivel mechanism is just another part that can break down.
Nicholas Day is a freelance writer who covers food and drink for a variety of publications. He resides in New Haven, Connecticut.