Friday, November 4, 2011

What’s With All the Wine Bars?

Crostini at 'inoteca liquori

When last I lived here, I was lucky that my little loft space in the East Village of New York was around the corner from one of the only true wine bars in that area at the time- Bar Veloce, a small, sleek space to grab a glass of vino Italiano.  Flash-forward to 2011 and my return to NYC, something strange is going on… wine bars are everywhere. 

And I really do mean everywhere.  When Murray Hill- home of giant high-rises filled with recent Ivy League grads still partial to Miller Lite- can lay claim to not one but several respectable wine bars, you know that this wine bar thing is more than the latest food fad, it is becoming part of the fabric of the city.

One of my favorite additions to the wine bar scene is the new mini chain Terroir.  Whereas its fancy farm-to-table parent restaurant, Hearth, has never seemed to fully fit in with its corner on 1st Ave and 12th St., Terroir right next door fully embodies the ethos of the neighborhood.  Lots of wood, tattooed bartenders, menus in school binders, water served in mason jars, and a great Happy Hour- about all your wine interested (but not snobby) East Villager could hope for.  What’s more, the service (when it isn’t overly crowded) is on par with some of the best restaurants in the city.  On a recent night my boyfriend and I were given a dissertation on the Rhone Valley with a side thesis on emerging Austrian wines.  The wines would have been good either way but the effort from the bartender made our wines taste just that much better.

The owners of the ‘ino empire started small.  Really small (“ino” means “small” in Italian).  The diminutive name of their original West Village wine bar ‘ino was no reflection of the New York empire they have expanded into today.  ‘Inoteca on the Lower East Side came next, the perfect spot to people watch through the large glass windows and observe the slow influx of hipsters as that neighborhood transformed, Jewish tenements replaced by late night barber shops and vintage clothing stores. Today, the group has expanded its reach to the mid 60’s with Indie Food and Wine, to Brooklyn with Betto, and even to larger digs in the West Village with Corsino (‘ino is still there too).  It is the Murray Hill location, ‘inoteca liquori, that most surprised me.  It lacks the cool of the Lower East Side and the intimacy of the ‘ino, but for residents of Gramercy and Murray Hill, it is a place to have a reasonably priced delicious glass of wine and some crostini that did not exist in that neighborhood even five years ago.

Circling back to Bar Veloce, that space on Second Avenue was always my favorite.  I drank Barbera by the glass when the narrow room still had the Vespa parked outside.  I forced sherry on my friends when they expanded next door with a Spanish concept, Bar Carrera (now relocated to Houston Street).  This summer they shut down Second Avenue for a few weeks for a major overhaul.  The result is stunning.  What was once the sort of place so narrow you couldn’t walk to the bathroom without hitting several people on accident, is now so open you could do a pirouette and probably not break a single wine glass.  A big square bar, low tables for sharing paninis, high tops for splitting a few glasses of Aglianico and Valpolicella.  But service might have suffered in the expansion.  Bartenders were not so attentive on a recent night, nor helpful with selection.  Big can be beautiful but for my money I’ll take service over size. 

Who knows why now seems to be the Golden Age of wine bars in New York.  But I do know that it wouldn’t be happening if there wasn’t an interest from the people who live here.  So bravo New York City!  The only way to learn is to taste.  Keep on sipping. 

Is your city experiencing an explosion of wine bars?  Do you have a favorite wine bar in New York, or branch of one of the places listed above?  Leave a comment and let me know!

Terroir (East Village)- 413 E. 12th St., New York, NY

‘inoteca, cucina (Lower East Side)- 98 Rivington Street, New York, NY

Bar Veloce (East Village)- 175 Second Ave, New York, NY

Amy Powell is a food and travel writer based in New York City. She is a graduate of Cornell University's School of Hotel Administration and the French Culinary Institute. Follow her on Twitter @amymariepowell

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