I have decided to do my best Jim Rome (of ESPN's 'Jim Rome is Burning') impression for this week's rant as I 'burn' on my topic of the day that I'd like to call 'specialization wine bars.' Actually, there are thousands of names for them, such as; niche bar, theme restaurant, concept dining, cultural cuisine, or even pigeon-holed passion. You've seen them before, whether they take the shape of an Italian restaurant, an Australian theme bar, or even those cozy little establishments that specialize in their particular area's local food and beverage. They all provide a unique getaway from the shapeless decor, bland cuisine and humdrum monotony that plagues so many cash cow tired establishments. Specialization bars are a haven for those that seek out clever dining experiences, but don't provide much appeal to those that only desire a night in which someone else does their dishes and serves them souped up versions of Hungry Man's chicken fried steak. The latter crowd need not pay attention to my ensuing rant for it will offer them no joy nor understanding. You know the crowd I speak of, waltzing into an Indian restaurant and asking for a burger well done w/ a side of fries. No Budweiser on tap you say? Well give me the next closest thing. Nah, this is the anti-lame American dining crowd rant, a rant in which I am choosing to look at these specialization 'theme bars' with a critical microscope. Why am I doing this? Because, damnit, I ask a lot of my niche restaurants! I need a reprieve from the redundant, amorphous strip mall infused hell of corporate 'Craplebees' and T.G.I. Friday's that have overpopulated the world w/ their scripted menus of uniformity. If I'm ever sent to asylum, it will be in a Chili's lobby, sitting by the hostess and a bunch of middle-class families that are staring at their bright blue beepers for 45 minutes until they are buzzed away to a table, indistinguishable from the rest, amidst a proverbial mosh-pit of conservative tourists stuffing their overly bloated bellies w/ mass produced sludge. Well, at least the Coors Light is cold and they serve White Zinfandel in extra large glasses.
Anyways, where was I? Oh yes, I've chosen to unleash my critique of a particularly unique specialization tapas bar called 'Barcelona.' The name, which leaves little to the imagination, is appropriate in painting the picture of a Spanish-centric wine bar. The wine list begins w/ a refreshingly dramatic array of liquid Spanish flair. Native white wine varietals such as Albarino and Verdejo are included, as well as a Malvasia from Toro and a rare white Priorat. The Rioja list, although not exhaustive, offers a nice mixture of reds by the glass and include copious selections of tempranillo based wines from the watershed vintages of '94 and '95. Some Ribera Del Duero highlights include an '89 Vega Sicilia Unico, a '01 Pesquera and a '91 gran reserva from Bodegas Protos. The other regions, like Jumilla, Penedes and Priorat, are grouped into an 'other Spanish reds' category, supplemented by a nice tutorial on Spanish wine regions. There is a map of Spain, w/ particular wine regions of focus labeled and captioned w/ brief explanations offered on each region. Beneath the map is a set of definitions for Crianza, Reserva, and Gran Reserva. Now I find this to be a wonderful idea for a couple reasons:
- It provides the patron w/ background information on the varieties offered in the menu, as well as their points of origin (wine really is about place, isn't it?)
- It makes a menu, filled with foreign producers, verbiage, grapes and regions, far less intimidating to the uneducated consumer.
- It provides the diner w/ a learning experience. Having background knowledge to guide one's selections will always provide a more enjoyable and adventurous evening out.
- It stimulates conversation w/ the staff regarding the menu, the country of origin and wine in general. American's biggest hurdle in trying foreign wines is that of the wine labels themselves. Getting past the labels should enable patrons to branch out a bit, perhaps for the better.
Now up to this point in the menu, I'm sold. I see a wide variety of native wines accompanied nicely w/ background information that demystifies Spanish wine labels for the novice, but shouldn't totally bore a seasoned Spanish wine aficionado. Having said that, the next page brought me nothing but indigestion. Stag's Leap 2001?? What's that doing here; did I stumble onto a steakhouse restaurant wine list by accident? Duckhorn this, Duckhorn that, there's a whole damn Duckhorn vertical here! Is this a Smith and Wollensky rip-off w/ a Spanish sub plot or what?
It gets worse. Jordan 2000 (it's bad enough that it's Jordan, but c'mon at least they could have picked a decent vintage!), Chateau Montelena, Silver Oak, Caymus, Dominus....it goes on and on. Might as well stab me in the heart w/ an Opus One while you’re at it. Punctuated horribly w/ a list of Veuve Clicquot bottlings that exceeds the Cava selections by a long shot. After a smattering of '99 Tignanello and '03 Catena Malbec, I'm ready to crumple up the list and ask for bread and water. Where the hell is the Sherry? I'm blinded by the Bonny Doon Muscat!
Alright, alright, I'm a bit dramatic. Here's my bottom line. Theme bars are only good if they keep the theme. You can't compromise a theme bar w/ a couple of Joe Shmoe crowd pleasers just to spruce up business from the uninitiated. Don't get me wrong, I'd love a glass of Dominus but I wouldn't seek one out at a place called Barcelona. If you want to please everyone, you might as well open up another chain of Outback Steakhouses so all those hungry patrons can enjoy their milk shakes and New York strip. On the other hand, if you genuinely want to express the passion, pride and pleasure of Spain, don't dilute it w/ brand name dollars. Oaky American Chardonnay and brutish California Cabs muddled the entire message of Barcelona's menu, and because that pure vision was compromised, there is very little left to show for their individuality.
I, for one, go to my specialization bars to be swept away from the ordinary. It is a genuine experience, and a beautiful reprieve from the superficial sellout in the strip mall. Once that beautifully unique establishment becomes tainted w/ compromise, it's just a matter of time before it dominos into the mundane. You can't put a price tag on class because once you do, it's worthless.