Why is every restaurant a “wine bar”?

Photo: Rue Grub

A running list of everywhere I’ve been, week 14: 143. Blue Ribbon Brewery144. Cafe Fes145. party square146. Bully147. ten bells148. Wenwen149. Skin contact150. Rhodorus151. Cafe Paulette152. gem wine

The other night I stopped at a wine bar in Brooklyn that’s been open for a few years now, and while I can tell you the name, it wouldn’t really make a difference since it could have been any from the Paris themed bars to the drinking holes that started popping up a few years before the pandemic, and now there are too many of them. After choosing a glass of chilled natural red (served on tap, of course), I scanned the menu and quickly realized I didn’t really need it, because the menu of too many wine bars has become a painting by number of “small” “casual” bites that you might also find at a half-decent dinner: charcuterie with toast and pickles, three different textures of cheese and jam, walnuts, some $9 olives, about five anchovies fanned out on a saucer, some kind of tartar, and another big drop of burrata.

The wine that night was unremarkable and the waiters were so stretched that service was virtually non-existent. On the other hand, the space was inviting and moody, with a comfortable table layout that attracted large groups and many two-headed friends having intimate conversations over bottles of biodynamic Blaufränkisch. There was even a hot dad sitting at the bar, cradling a tiny baby while the family’s equally tiny dog ​​poked his head out of the bottom of their stroller.

Gem Wine, a new – and surprisingly – nice new wine bar in Manhattan.
Photo: Tammie Teclemariam

Wine bars that arrive early like ten bells may have pioneered the form in New York, but it seems that since wild air and the four horsemen made their mark around the same time in the mid-2010s, the city’s restaurateurs couldn’t resist the lure of European-style wine cellars: the small, cozy spaces and emphasis on selling alcohol rather than food are, after all, perfectly suited for New York’s particularly brutal restaurant real estate market.

The problem is that in the half-decade since the genre took off here, it’s been pretty much explored and streamlined. Even though I don’t expect a evil times in a wine bar, I also tend to know what to wait, which means it’s hard to get too excited when I hear about another new one, its owner inspired by any borough that hosted his Airbnb the last time he spent a weekend in the city of lights.

So I wasn’t expecting much when I sat down at the bar at party squarea newly opened Clinton Hill Wine Bar that has all the familiar trappings of a classic wine bar, from the chalkboards listing wines by the glass to the brick-lined chilled cellar.

Anyone with a liquor license can put pet-nat and palomino on a menu, but there were a few details that should have warned me that maybe this particular new wine bar wasn’t like all the others. For one thing, even on a drizzly Monday night, the room was full of well-employed artistic types, and I was given the only available seat at 7 p.m. On the other hand, I haven’t seen anyone without some sort of food, which would indicate that the kitchen produces more than the standard trio of olives, nuts, and charcuterie.

Plus, everything smelled really good. I timed some country ham, the aroma of which spread widely through the room thanks to the meat slicer in the open kitchen. And a crispy maitake mushroom, which I decided to order when I saw the woman sitting next to me cutting hers. When I asked about the sardine toast, I assumed the fish was canned – sorry, “canned” – like everywhere else, but I was pleasantly surprised to find that it arrived fresh from the west coast. In fact, most of the fish on the menu was fresh, like Maine mussels and Atlantic scallops served in their shells, sizzling in a pool of butter, tinted red by the addition of porky ‘nduja.

Place des Fêtes didn’t avoid all the classic wine bar annoyances, like charging $10 for a piece of bread, but I still had to order it to get the last drops of ‘nduja butter off my scallop. .

Very fresh fish from Place des Fêtes.
Photo: Tammie Teclemariam

The last time I had such a good time in a wine bar was also because of something that wasn’t on the wine list, but rather on the food menu, especially the spicy duck to the jerk to June at Cobble Hill. Two tipsy women at the bar had just befriended each other, a woman next to me was drinking cava and reading a book, and the couple on my side had just demolished three dishes, including the duck, which they also loved. In a way, I wish these places presented themselves as something other than a “wine bar” – maybe, I dunno, try something like “restaurant”? – so I can say there’s a real chef with a real point of view who wants to do more than put premade pâté on a plate.

One chef who has made it very clear over the years that he really, really wants to do more than just put some pâté on a plate is Flynn McGarry, but even opened up a nice wine concept to him last month: gem wine, a companion (and neighbor) to its flagship Gem in LES tasting menu spot. I arrived in the studio sized space around 9pm when the formal 16 seats were full, but the waiter was able to seat me in a chair against the remaining wall space where an overflow section of two couples unrelated holding up wine glasses had already formed, like a house party.

“We have a wine of each type: red, white, sparkling, skin contact,” my server said after bringing me a stool to use as a makeshift table. I went with the bubbly, a hazy Prosecco, and before I finished it I was seated at a bar stool by the window. I ordered cucumbers with “pine needle ranch” and tuna with rhubarb ponzu and dried citrus from the delicacy list. The only other employee at the time worked at the kitchen station in the corner of the room and delivered plates, while the only server served all the wine. Even with the bar packed, none of the chatting couples seemed rushed or anxious about it.

This is one of the more thoughtful wine bars to open in New York this year, but in its laid-back downtown manner it reminded me of the wine bar that was on the other end of the spectrum. : in sauce, in Williamsburg, which a hostess at another restaurant told me was a staff favorite because it had all the trappings of a dive, right down to the kissing couples and the door to the bathroom which had to be locked with a butter knife. At Sauced the food was mundane and the wine didn’t matter, given that there are no menus and you make your choice by telling the wandering sommelier what you like and hoping he serves you something. who tastes good. Maybe it was pretentious in a way, but I couldn’t tell you. Most of the time, I remember everyone around me having a good time, and because of that, me too.

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