Fined & Filtered

Fine Dining, Sans Somm

Fine food and wine has landed in a new venue. Today, you don’t have to make a reservation months in advance nor don your best suit and tie. You don’t have to sit for three hours indulging in ten courses to enjoy a thoughtful, well-prepared and intriguing meal. Now you can walk into a restaurant, punch your order into a terminal, find your own seat and enjoy a meal prepared with the same care you would expect from a Michelin-starred place. It’s a style of dining that stretches from Souvla, on the West Coast, to Vital Root, in the mountains, to Manhattan’s Uncle Boon’s Sister. Each one of these restaurants is dedicated to showcasing fantastic food quickly. The question is: What about the drinks?

New “fine-casual” restaurants like Souvla offer distinctive wine selections without a complicated list. New “fine-casual” restaurants like Souvla offer distinctive wine selections without a complicated list.
High-end, fine-casual dining was born out of the staffing challenges in larger cities, where high rents collide with elevated labor and food costs. And when a restaurant is defined by fast, it’s completely inefficient to host a 400-bottle wine cellar, let alone hire people to guide diners through it. When was the last time you went out for fast casual and were tempted to enjoy a pairing with your burrito or pad thai?

“Due to the nature of ‘fast-casual,’ a lot of guests are surprised that we have a beverage program,” says Christine Hwangpo, general manager of Uncle Boon’s Sister. In fact, hers is pretty simple, with two beers (from Thailand and Laos), a cider, one white wine and one red (from small growers in France). And yet, with the right visual aids and a staff that’s as compact and versatile as a Swiss army knife, places like this are hitting beverage-sales numbers that are in line with their Michelin-starred counterparts, with wine, beer and cocktails making up about one-quarter of sales.

San Francisco’s Souvla was one of the first fine-casual restaurants to create a detailed beverage culture. They’re proud of their Greek heritage and only showcase wines from their homeland’s top producers. Charles Bililies, who opened Souvla five years ago, hoped to build what he describes as “a thoughtfully crafted, intensely focused list of delicious, food-friendly, affordable beverages.”

To make drinking Greek very approachable, he effectively forces guests to explore while keeping the prices down—a glass runs $11 to $13. He sells four wines on the menu itself—Greek Bubbles, Souvla Greek White, Souvla Greek Red and “Yes, We Have [Good] Retsina,” including details on the producers—all available as 250-, 500- or 750-ml pours. There’s also a list of eight wines by the bottle, with descriptions to help guests decide on their own.

At Vital Root in Denver, Colorado, each guest receives a feature card while they wait in line. Bar director Ky Belk writes up the cards to highlight a specific beverage that pairs well with the food that evening, whether it’s a rare bottle or a seasonal cocktail. The food menu is simple and pared down. The beverage selections are purposeful. Each of the five beers fits a style, and the eight organically farmed wines are listed generically, by variety, so guests can select based on familiarity. With the easy-to-read menu and feature cards, Belk communicates his ever-revolving program to guests in a way that helps them make a meaningful selection quickly.

When Jason Kirmse opened Corridor, a high-end fast-casual restaurant in San Francisco’s Mid-Market neighborhood, his menu offered asparagus risotto with truffle butter, and tempura soft-shell crab. Though he takes reservations and offers full table service, most of his guests walk in and order at the counter.

He wanted people to be able to have a drink without feeling the need for a sommelier, so kept he his bottle list tight, around 40 selections, all $40 to $60, and offered six wines on draft by the glass. It’s an ambitious list for a fine-casual restaurant, featuring wines from around the world at accessible prices. Kirmse hopes that the depth of the list will encourage guests to choose a wine they aren’t familiar with and feel good about the purchase. He keeps changing up the list, exposing guests to new wines, and training the staff to describe the Cantina Terlano Pinot Grigio as readily as the Pike’s Shiraz-Tempranillo blend.

This may be the future of dining in the gig economy: good food, good wine, fast. Three-star chef Matt Ladner is banking on it, having left NYC’s Del Posto to open Pasta Flyer. He recently asked Jeff Porter, wine director for B&BHG, to design a wine program for his $8 bowls of spaghetti and meatballs. Meanwhile, I’m headed to Uncle Boon’s Sister for a glass of Thierry Chardon Gamay and some khao kaa pet.


This feature appears in the print edition of the October 2018.
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