The past decade has seen an unprecedented growth in the number of wine bars, so that currently, Yelp counts 524 in the city. For an owner, the appeal is obvious: It’s a restaurant category in which the emphasis is always on alcohol instead of food, offering a chance for pirate-like mark-ups on bottles that often run three to four times the retail price (restaurateurs pay half that). Moreover, the food can be perfunctory, often limited to cheeses, charcuterie, and bread—which can be prepared on a single counter with a sharp knife, with or without a chef.
Certain neighborhoods—such as the West Village, Williamsburg, and Carroll Gardens—have become riddled with wine bars. While some provide carefully focused wine lists with clever and delicious accompaniments, too many have lists haphazardly slapped together, alongside no-effort collections of viands. I decided to check out three new establishments in the neighborhoods mentioned above, to see where the genre is headed.
Aria sings in a pair of storefronts on tree-shaded Perry Street in the West Village. Press your nose against the glass and see an attractive room lined with rusticated woods and antique white tiles, with most of the seating at a long communal table and a Z-shaped bar. Step inside mid-evening when the place is crowded, and find the volume level set to “deafening roar.” As with many wine bars, the patrons are more often female, but here, there might be a specific reason: The bottles on the slender list are exclusively made by women vintners, a gimmick already successfully exploited at Annisa. Alas, Aria’s wine selection is wildly uneven, ranging from exciting (a rosé from Seven Sisters in South Africa) to awful (an Italian mixed-grape white from Castello delle Regine).
The place has other quirks, too: Wine is served in four-ounce shot glasses ($5 to $8), which means pours average just three ounces, an unsatisfying serving if you’re drinking rather than tasting. Moreover, the petulant waiters act annoyed if you try several wines in succession. One evening, when I switched from white to red, the waiter poured the new wine into the old glass as I sat there, astonished. The food, however, is surprisingly good. There’s a handful of cheeses and charcuterie ($4 and $5, respectively), thoughtfully served with pickled artichokes, nuts, or other fillips, and a few hot dishes ($9), the best of which were a vegetarian lasagna and a small plate of braised squid in tomato sauce. Offering 24 mixed drinks but only 16 wines, Aria might just be a cocktail lounge pretending to be a wine bar.
A back street in Williamsburg is home to Pinkerton, named after Weezer’s best album. The list of wines, said to showcase “New World” selections (mainly California, Oregon, and Australia), boasts a scant 12 bottles. And the only foods available are four cheeses. This is low-energy restaurateuring at its most extreme. Nevertheless, the tables are well-spaced, and the cheeses good, if predictable. (If I see Humboldt Fog in a wine bar one more time, I’ll scream!) I didn’t like many of the vintages my crew and I tasted, but I’d still be more likely to go there than Aria for two reasons: The place is quiet enough that you can carry on a conversation, and the mark-ups are low, so that you can get an entire bottle for $20, which is nothing short of amazing. Let’s call Pinkerton a discount wine bar.
While the name implies it, Enoteca on Court’s floor plan seems grandiose for a wine bar, consisting of two outdoor seating areas, a bar with lots of bar tables, and a rear dining room, with more seating scattered here and there. The menu sprawls over several pages, running from classic Italian and Italian-American fare, to wood-oven pizzas and calzones, to bruschette and panini, to a salad selection that will make dieters very happy.
But neither does the wine list lag, including dozens of interesting selections, most Italian, priced on average at 2.5 times retail, with some bottles less than $30. I particularly loved Poliziano’s Rosso di Montepulciano ($8 per glass), but also enjoyed a Rosenblum Cellars Zinfandel from California ($10), both served in unstinting pours. To accompany the wines, there’s a great seafood salad with plenty of conch ($9), or pick almost anything that flies from the wood-burning oven, especially the thin-crust margherita pizza. Still, my date and I couldn’t shake the impression that Enoteca on Court is really a full-service restaurant masquerading as a wine bar. Which isn’t such a bad thing, is it?