Guests are encouraged to lounge—or dine or snack—while quaffing the hand selected small production wines at Bin 38.
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Tectonic Plates

Carol M. Newman - April 2008

In a seismic shift, what comes out of the kitchen steps up to match what comes out of the bottle in the Bay Area's second coming of wine bars.

At Hayes & Vine, one of the first wine bars to debut in San Francisco, it was clear that wine came first, atmosphere second, and food a distant third. Rudimentary morsels of cheese smeared on toasted baguettes, bowls of warm olives, and thinly sliced saucisson sec supplemented the pioneering three-ounce pours. In 1994, the wine bar menu was a mere postscript, leaving little reason to employ a chef or a sommelier. Then came dot-com dining. Restaurants quickly adapted to their new role as "second homes" to techies who ate from ultrapremium china and chugged rare wines. The dot-com bust broke open the door to a gale of new affordable dining options. Small plates made for grazing were quickly embraced by those who slowly became accustomed to dining without a wallet full of stock options. The era of the anti-supersize had arrived.

Small-plate programs have endured and evolved. So, too, have congenial wine programs, some as comprehensive as a crash course, others global and almost the equivalent of a round-the-world plane ticket. The metamorphosis has made two things exceptionally apparent: food is now on a par with wine and formality, which, as Laïola restaurant co-owner Joe Hargrave says, "is saccharine." These hybrid restaurants defy easy stereotyping. Some are neighborhood hangouts (Rosso Pizzeria & Wine Bar) that give chefs the opportunity to get in on the ownership act. Others boast esoteric varietals from across the globe while employing wine know-it-alls (Bin 38). Some don't even call themselves wine bars but exhibit all the characteristics of one (Laïola), while others run counter to logic (Bar Bambino). Are these wine bars, enotecas, or restaurants? Pamela Busch, who returned to the local scene with Cav Wine Bar & Kitchen, says it all when she asserts that wine comes first. Everything after that is gravy.

Hargrave swears, "We are not a wine bar." But Laïola has all the markings of one. Situated in San Francisco's marina, Laïola fills a niche by tapping into the tapas market. A wine list with 115 quarter-liter carafes and individual bottles, half of them priced at $40 or under, pays exclusive homage to Spain. Hargrave (his business partner is Andrew McCormack of Frisson) does all the wine buying: "I have the credentials of a sommelier but would never refer to myself as one." The lingo just doesn't jive in this bustling "little church" (Laïola's parlance) where formality does not exist. Laïola attracts the likes of Rajat Parr, wine director for the Mina Group, just one industry regular who frequents the copper bar. Executive chef Mark Denham, formerly of 42 Degrees and Chez Panisse, goes beyond tortilla española and surtido quesos by reveling in nose-to-tail cooking. His charcuterie highlights salchichón, a dry-cured pork sausage seasoned with garlic, pimentón (Spanish paprika), chile powder, and cayenne. Among the other snacks are chickpea fritters, torta de la Serena (sheep's milk cheese with honeycomb, grapes, and walnuts), and pan con chocolate (a scoop of thick chocolate ganache sprinkled with sea salt and drizzled with Arbequina olive oil, meant for spreading on the accompanying toasted Acme bread). Laïola is small at 48 seats—18 at the bar—and the intimacy reinforces the air of authenticity.

Rosso Pizzeria & Wine Bar chef John Franchetti wanted to open his own restaurant, but, as he candidly admits, "things went haywire." So, he teamed up with Tra Vigne (St. Helena, CA) owner Kevin Cronin, and the duo looked for a space west of St. Helena and the Mayacamas mountains to Franchetti's hometown, Santa Rosa. Rosso Pizzeria & Wine Bar was born in August 2007, a child of the Slow Food movement, its grassroots approach appealing to those excited about ingredients sourced within a 100 mile radius and wines that are either biodynamic, organic, and/or sustainably produced listed at a low markup and available for retail sale. The kitchen turns out snacks like creamy high-fat house-made burrata cheese. Franchetti sources the curds from a local cheesemaker, forms the cheese by hand, and serves it with extra-virgin olive oil, salt, and pepper. There are puffy flatbreads, fancy wild mushroom piadines (a kind of flatbread from Italy's Romagna region), more piadines piled high with local arugula and Redwood Hill goat's milk cheese, and pizzas that show off Sonoma this and Sonoma that. All lend themselves to sharing. Because the Mugnaini wood-burning oven heats to 715°F, pizzas take approximately two and a half minutes to cook, so the order-and-serve imperative can be the focal point of the operation. The concrete bar--go ahead, touch it—also radiates heat. Chalkboard listings call out cellared wines—like a 1994 Silver Oak, a 1998 Opus One, and 1994 and 1996 Robert Mondavi Reserve Cabs—and the charitable $10 fee is donated to the Santa Rosa United Soccer Scholarship Fund, for furthering a sporting passion that Franchetti and Cronin share. About the resurgence of wine bars, Franchetti says, "Wine bars have always been here. They've just grown up."

"We call ourselves a cafe and wine bar, but when it boils down to it, we're a restaurant," confesses Bar Bambino owner Christopher Losa. The 51 seat Bar Bambino opened in mid-2007, influenced by the surrounding communal neighborhood of the Mission District and the enotecas of Italy. His vision is Italian, focused on the northern part of the boot. "You can't separate the experiences of food and wine," says Losa. "Wine bars that only expand on the strength of wine are fleeting. You have to be committed to both." Chef Elizabeth Binder, a protégée of Marco Pierre White, crafts courses—"We don't call them small plates," says Losa—as she would at a fully realized restaurant. A meal could progress from tuna and cannellini beans to a moderate-size pasta dish like trofie (thin tapered twists made without eggs) tossed with cream and sausage sauce, and then to maiale al latte, pork shoulder slowly braised in milk. An olive oil tasting appears midmenu. Choose it, and this exploratory "course" might begin with Ligurian oil (it's buttery and mild), then proceed to Sicilian (taste the grass and fruit and pepper, too) and Tuscan (fruity). Servers know the score. Says Losa, "We demand a deep knowledge of the 35 wines by the glass, which change frequently. That's a definitive requirement for working here."

Don Davis, one of four partners of Bin 38, has a wine, business, and marketing background. He also has a sense of humor. Order Bin 38's cheese plate, and you'll see it in play: the assortment includes Oregonzola cheese from Rogue Creamery. Glenn Christiansen, formerly of NOPA and Delfina, builds a small-plate menu inspired by California wine country. "We're a before or after or during dinner place," Davis notes. "An all-in-one restaurant. I'm offended by $12 small plates that offer virtually nothing. Bin 38 is a backlash against that movement." Davis' marketing side kicks in. "We're a snacking to a full dining experience with everything in between." Yes, Christiansen uses local, seasonal, and organic products, but, as Davis points out, "if you aren't doing local, seasonable, fresh, and organic, you're doing something wrong." The same philosophy applies to French fries: "If they're on the menu they'd better be good." Bin 38's are hot with harissa and accented by honey mustard aïoli and Heinz ketchup. He recommends the Tolenas Farms fried quail as "a great alternative for anyone who loves fried chicken." This "New World of wine" (the menu underscores suggested wine pairings) focuses on California, Oregon, and Washington, as well as South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Chile, and Argentina. Forty-five hand-selected, small-production wines by the glass star alongside 20 bottled beers. The experience encourages lounging, as is evidenced by the fire pit and the cushiony outdoor couches.

"What's different now is that we have a kitchen," says Busch, co-owner/wine director of Cav Wine Bar & Kitchen, which popped its cork in 2005. The former founding partner and wine buyer of Hayes & Vine says, "Back then, we didn't offer enough food—really just cheese and olives. People would come to the restaurant and have a few drinks, then spend their money on food elsewhere." At Cav, people stick around for Michael Lamina's menu of "nibblers" (escargots with hazelnuts, garlic, and parsley butter), "bites" (truffled leek terrine with crisp pig's ears), and "plates" (braised veal cheeks). "Michael has a sense of how to adjust the dishes to match the wine with impeccable balance," Busch says. Hayes & Vine, Busch points out, was the first wine bar in the city to carry "esoteric" selections from South Africa. Now, her list is heavier on those sorts of varietals, like the 2004 Agostinelli Fairview from the Western Cape of South Africa and a 2005 Grof Degenfeld Muscat Lunel from Hungary; she stocks 250 wines, 40 available by the glass--half the inventory that filled the bar at Hayes. "It's much more manageable now," Busch admits. "We've changed the format of what we do from then to now. But one thing remains: our focus is still and will always be on the wine."