New York wine bars are booming, with great new options proliferating and old standbys excelling.
They seem to be popping up all over. Yet, no matter how many have opened, and despite how warm and inviting some of them might be, I’m always faced with a nagging question: Exactly what is a wine bar, and what differentiates it from a restaurant?
Full-fledged restaurants like Claud, Contento and Chambers, where reservations are in high demand for superb food prepared by accomplished chefs, are habitually called wine bars. So are humble places where you might drop in on a whim for a drink and a bite that is served right out of the tin in which it was packaged.
Are they all wine bars? Or is the term so vague as to be meaningless? It might depend on who you ask.
“It’s something we wrestled with a lot,” said Chase Sinzer, an owner and wine director at Claud in the East Village, a place I love that feels strongly like a restaurant. “The answer is amorphous. We were very cognizant of people wanting to call places wine bars. I’m open to what people want to call us, but from what I see, Claud is more of a restaurant.”
I’ve gone to places I’ve considered wine bars for decades, from classic bars à vin in France, enoteche in Italy and bars de tapas in Spain that formed the templates for others around the world, to dozens over the years in New York, many of which have come and gone, often without a trace. Some are particularly fond memories, gone too soon.
Over the last month, as I’ve stopped in at wine bars all over Manhattan and Brooklyn, I’ve contemplated the evolution of the wine bar here in New York. Most focus on French, Italian or Spanish wines and foods, although some welcome variations pop up. The Lavaux in the West Village focuses on Swiss wines and dishes. South African wine and food are the specialty of Kaia on the Upper East Side. Casellula in Clinton focuses on cheese as much as wine.
Wine bars seem to evolve over decades, tracing the development of New York wine culture. Back in the late 1970s and early ’80s, when wine bars were novelties, they adopted an educational pose. Customers were to be educated by earnest servers newly versed in the intricacies of terroir and production and eager to share.
Not surprisingly, this model did not catch on. People go to bars to drink, eat and socialize, not generally to be edified.
A new generation of wine bars that rose in the mid-1990s were more closely modeled on European forebears, casual places to stop in for a drink and something to eat. The focus was on creating comfortable, welcoming environments, not seminars, whether you were there for 45 minutes or the rest of the night. This model persisted.
Many repeat a successful formula — simple, casual, inexpensive. What sets apart the best of the newer wine bars and the most enduring of the standbys is both their individuality and the intelligence of the wine lists. They often offer deep dives into great and sometimes rare bottles — but not always. Gem Wine on the Lower East Side, one of my favorites, offers roughly 150 selections with scarcely a bottle priced above $100, and many far lower.
A varied assortment by the glass is essential, though it doesn’t have to be voluminous.
Food can be simple, though it’s nice to supplement the time-honored repertory of charcuterie (or salumi) and cheeses with a few more substantial items and some vegetables. You ought to be able to come in for a snack or a meal, although some wine bars don’t even have stoves.
Good wine bars are informal neighborhood gathering places rather than destinations, with occasional exceptions, like when a wine list is so deep that it draws in the trophy and rare bottle hunters. But mostly, they are places to drop in near one’s home. They might take some reservations, but they always have room for walk-ins.
Wine bars mostly cater to young people. At almost every place I visited, I was by far the oldest patron there. With exceptions, they are situated in areas that support a thriving nightlife. The clientele tends not to be going home immediately to families at the end of a day.
For this reason, many of the best new wine bars focus on selections especially popular with younger wine drinkers: natural wines, skin-contact or orange wines, pétillant naturels, and the like. You won’t find a lot of places with classic Napa Valley cabernets or Bordeaux.
These sorts of places are distinct from restaurants like Claud or Chambers, where you would make a reservation with the idea of eating a memorable meal. A few people might come in to sit at the bar, as in almost any restaurant. But few come in just to have a glass of wine.
“The term wine bar lends itself to the casualizing of the restaurant experience,” said Mr. Sinzer, of Claud. “It gives you more ownership of the experience.”
That’s really the nub of it. Great wine bars are neighborhood joints, places you can call your own.