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Wine & Spirits

Veni, vidi, vici, vino

Coffeehouses? They're so last year. Now wine bars are conquering the city.

January 18, 2006|Leslie Brenner | Times Staff Writer

QUICKER than you can say "Cruvinet," Los Angeles has become quite the town for wine lovers looking for a little fun.

Consider the 5-month-old wine bar Vinoteca Farfalla in Los Feliz. A chalkboard over the long wooden bar lists some 45 wines by the glass. Friends huddle over plates of salumi and cheese, dipping breadsticks into tapenade and sipping Nero d'Avola from Sicily or Malbec from Argentina. It's Wednesday night, and the narrow little place is packed.

In Studio City, an exciting selection of sherry accompanies the bar snacks at Next Door, a stylish new tapas lounge attached to La Loggia Italian restaurant. Nothing could be better with that plate of 18-month-aged jamon serrano and Spanish cheeses than a little glass of "La Gitana" Manzanilla. Interested in an oloroso? The Bodegas Dios Baco is just the thing, hazelnutty and rich and deep burnished gold.

Restaurant openings may have slowed to a crawl in the last few months, but no fewer than nine wine bars have opened, with several more on the way.

Their range, stylistic and geographic, is striking. They include a cash-only, roughhewn Fairfax district hideaway that stays open till 2 a.m., and a sleek, Christopher Lowell-designed indoor-outdoor space in a Manhattan Beach boutique hotel. Even Fleming's, a nationwide chain of high-end steakhouses with a new location in Woodland Hills, calls itself not a bar and grill, but "prime steakhouse and wine bar."

The food is all over the map too -- a minimalist selection of cured meats, olives and cheese; Francophile crepes and croque monsieurs; futuristic tapas such as a "sundae" of potato and oranges; and even a New York strip steak.

For a certain type of enterprising wine lover, there's something irresistible about the idea of opening a wine bar. It's a relatively inexpensive way into the restaurant business, and the result can be terrifically personal.

On an unlikely block of Fairfax Avenue, Bodega de Cordova swings into action on the late side. Step into the narrow little candlelit room and you could be in a village in Spain -- or maybe on New York's Lower East Side.

"You have a tavern every 10 feet in Madrid," says owner Kenny Cordova, who opened the place three months ago. Returning to Los Angeles after living for a year in the Spanish capital, he brought with him a dream of opening a wine bar. "When I lived in Spain," he says, "one of my favorite things to do was to sit down in a nice environment that feels cozy and enjoy a nice bottle of wine with friends. Or alone."

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Personal vision

CORDOVA, whose wine list typically includes just 13 to 15 wines, all Spanish, is an anti-snob. "You can't drink a glass of wine and not enjoy it, even if it's mediocre." He serves wine in glasses small enough to make aficionados of a certain stripe bristle. In Europe, Cordova says, "it's customary to drink in small glasses. And no one goes into a tavern and asks for a particular wine. They ask for a glass of red." He purposely sought a long, narrow space, he says, "to mimic what the taverns look like in Europe."

Just as personal, but quite different, is 2-month-old La Maschera Ristorante's wine lounge in Old Town Pasadena, where a DJ spins chill-out music on Friday nights while Charlie Chaplin films are projected on a wall. Locals wash down wild mushroom bruschetta or mini smoked salmon pizza with glasses of Pinot Grigio or Barbera d'Asti.

Pasadena has become a hotbed of wine bars, with three new ones joining old standbys Bodega Wine Bar and E's Wine Bar and Restaurant. Beside La Maschera, there's 2-month-old Crepe Vine, also in Old Town, and Madeleine's Restaurant & Wine Bistro, on East Green Street.

"In Pasadena, it's easier to get a liquor license than it is in L.A. or Santa Monica or any other community," says Art Rodriguez, a Pasadena-based liquor license consultant who facilitates licensing throughout the state. The conditional permit process is simpler in Pasadena than it is in L.A., he says.

Whether slick or funky, with elaborate menus or just a few snacks, the new wine bars are eminently welcoming and laid-back. They're like coffeehouses for the enologically curious, or those who just like a glass of something interesting and a tasty bite. Arrive early, they're quiet and soothing; come late and they're hopping.

Clearly one reason for the wine bar boomlet is simply that Angelenos have fallen in love with wine.

"It could be an extension of a consumer trend where wine is now being seen as more casual and fun and less for special occasions; less for white-tablecloth French restaurants, more for going out for a bite," says John Gillespie, executive director of Wine Market Council, an industry group. "Just a couple of small plates and a really good wine, and that's the evening." A recent Wine Market Council study found that Americans' consumption of wine is rising in relation to beer and spirits.

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