Opened in 2013, Le Caviste in downtown Seattle calls itself a bar à vin, modeled after the archetypal Parisian wine bar. As such, its focus is exclusively on French bottles, with a particular emphasis on cru Beaujolais, and examples of all ten crus are available at all times. Conceived and run by owner/proprietor David Butler, it has, in its near-decade-long run, acquired a faithful following of customers who enjoy the thoughtful selection of wines, cheeses and charcuterie and the genial neighborhood vibe. Unwilling to expose himself or his small staff to risk, Butler shuttered Le Caviste completely in spring of 2020 and didn’t reopen until May of 2021; but, with a few exceptions (the Delta and Omicron spikes), he’s maintained and even exceeded historical sales, and seen an overall increase in the amount of money folks are willing to shell out for really special bottles. According to Butler, this trend could be interpreted with optimism or cynicism, depending on your disposition: “[It’s] a celebration that [people] have come out of it and are more are less on the other side and ‘damn the torpedoes,’ or there’s a darker, nihilistic ‘fuck it, who cares, it’s all over anyway’ attitude.” When the ship is sinking, grab the best Champagne you can find.
Tell me what the last year or so has been like for you.
Right around the seventh of March 2020, I talked to my senior staff and said, “You know what? The science on social distancing is too compelling. I’m going to announce on Instagram that we’re going to close at the end of the week and go on hiatus for a bit.”
We were closed for fourteen months. Fully. I didn’t run a wine shop or a larder or anything like that. My real love is the bar à vin, and I didn’t want to open a bottle shop or run one. Plus, I’m a little bit older. I was taking this thing seriously. So, we stayed closed until May of 2021. I was very fortunate because my entire staff came back. We reopened our normal hours, Monday through Saturday, 4-midnight, and I thought it was gonna be slow, but it wasn’t. People came out for us, were super happy we were back and really supported us.
Business was good, much better than I anticipated it being. June was great, July was like a party—the whole country thought it was over, everyone was masks off, the place was packed. It was the most fun. It was definitely a window on what the future probably holds.
August kinda killed us. As soon as Delta hit the news, it slowed business down. In August, when New York and San Francisco and Paris were doing proof of vax to get into restaurants, there were a bunch of bars and restaurants in Seattle that took up the initiative as well without any backing from the government. Things were good until Omicron started spiking and dominating the news cycle and that made people throttle back again, and it’s been quiet, although now it feels like it’s starting to inch back.
So your clientele more or less stayed the same?
We’ve seen all of our chums, and they’re back to being regulars. But two things have benefited us. One is the dark benefit of so many restaurants in Downtown shuttering and staying shuttered. When people visited town, their options had winnowed down to very few. And even the restaurants that were reopening couldn’t staff their usual hours for a whole week anymore. So, we saw a lot of new people.
The way we do things here, it’s very provisional. You can pop in for a glass, you can stay for four hours at a table with your chums, you can do whatever you want to do. It’s first come–first served. In the immediate post-pandemic age, I don’t know if people felt comfortable making a reservation at a restaurant knowing that they were more or less expected to be there for two or three hours and have a four-course dinner. This is a spitballing theory, but maybe in the post-COVID era people understand the benefit of this looser, more casual, provisional dining over a stark-raving dinner.
Would you say that you’ve seen any shifts in the overall palate or tastes or what people are interested in trying?
No. I say no with the caveat that what we do is super niche. There’s no foothold if you walk in and say, “I want a really oaky buttery Chardonnay.” Then I tell you you gotta hit the streets because that’s not what we do. Or some big chocolatey Cabernet. I can’t do it.
We always move a lot of cru Beaujolais. It’s dynamic, there are always two to three on the chalkboards available at $9 a glass, and then we have all ten crus available [by the bottle], multiple makers, multiple vintages. Going into the fall, I decided it would be funny to run a little promotion and pour off a bunch of Côte de Brouilly. Like, “Grab a Côte!” So we ran this thing where I was selling Château Thivin ’16 at a ridiculously low price by the glass and we just blew through three or four cases in a matter of a week and a half. We try to have fun with it and not take ourselves too seriously but also not be too clowny because that gets on people’s nerves. Those wines were kinda special and for the cognoscenti—to be able to get a glass of Thivin six years on for $12 or $15 a carafe was way below what anyone else in town would pour it for. And it just vanished.
I will say this. There are a few bottle-only selections on our chalkboard, and I have a retail table where there’s a bunch of glamorous shit that’s marked retail that you can buy and we’ll pop for a pop fee, so you can drink some really steep stuff if you want to. People take advantage of those things more now than they used to. Whatever the motivation, I find that our higher-end, bottle-only offerings are doing more, and the per-head is up from pre-COVID times.
I have a 2013 Margaux on the board for bottle-only and a Châteauneuf-du-Pape bottle-only. In the past, those things would move, but at a bit of a loping pace. Now they’re more at a gamboling pace. I’ll come to work and go to restock some Margaux and look around and realize that the case I was pulling from is gone. Those things are moving at a clip where they once were a little sleepier. And I think it’s people’s moods, people wanting to take back the night a little bit.
Lauren Gitlin is an erstwhile wine professional, sometimes writer and full-time goat farmer. She makes skyr and hugs ruminants on Villa Villekulla Farm in the Delectable Mountains of Vermont, where she lives with her husband.
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