8 Great U.S. “Bars à Vins”: Where to Drink Wine Like a Parisian Stateside
Wine lovers, rejoice: the French-style bar à vins, beloved especially in Paris as a casual, personality-driven neighborhood haunt for regular wine drinking, is staking a claim in the United States.
Directly translated, bar à vins means, quite simply, wine bar—but it’s a decided departure from any American inclination toward a more “fancy” interpretation of wine drinking.
“A bar à vins isn’t exactly a dive, but it’s the same ethos,” explains Zac Overman, beverage director and co-owner of Seattle’s three-year-old bar à vins L’Oursin. “It’s an anchor for the community, the third place [following home and work] where you hang out.”
Matt Cirne, beverage director and partner of San Francisco bar à vins Verjus notes that traditionally, in the United States, “Wine is treated like a luxury product. At a bar à vins, it’s more of a cultural product.”
That laid-back attitude toward wine is nothing new in France and Europe at large. The fun-for-everyone bar à vins format “unfusses everything,” says Lauren Friel, owner of Rebel Rebel in Somerville, Massachusetts. “The bar à vins makes wine more accessible to everyone, including folks who historically and socioeconomically were left out of the conversation.”
The establishment is generally differentiated from a typical wine bar by the size of the space (often very small), the layout (with communal seating arrangements), and the style of service (casual). In Paris, as in the United States, the currently trendy and constantly evolving concept of the bar à vins might serve as a more laid-back accompaniment to an otherwise formal dining experience—or it might stand on its own, with small plates on offer. It could also be a cave, or wine shop, that offers tastings, pours wines by the glass, and has take-home bottles for sale, too. But the movement is not limited to Paris, with the model spreading to other parts of Europe, and now the United States. Opened over the past decade, Bar Brutal in Barcelona and Ristorante Consorzio in Turin, Italy, for instance, are cited as inspirations for the minds behind U.S. bars à vins.
And much of the buzz around bars à vins, and their increasing U.S. presence, comes from the growing popularity of the natural wines they are inclined to pour. Natural wine—broadly, wine made with minimal intervention (with nothing or very little added or removed during the growing, fermentation, and aging processes)—is sourced from ancient winemaking and farming practices, a subset of the industry that’s been gaining traction among a new generation of winemakers. The influx of young energy around natural wine (bolstered by the often lower prices) and the new crop of bars à vins at which they’re frequently served are bringing a new breed of wine lovers into the fold, too.
Looking to explore this brave new world of wine drinking? Check out these eight standout bars à vins across the country.
Chef Nick Leahy opened Tin Tin as a more casual accompaniment to his Provencal restaurant, Aix, in November 2018. Leany was inspired by his time spent in Provence, where he enjoyed memorable meals at local caves à vins (wine cellars)—as well as by his great aunt Tin Tin. “She was always the queen of the party and loved to have large, long, lazy dinners, full of wine, conversation, cheese,” he recalls. “In short, all of the good things in life!” Tin Tin captures that Provencal feel with its regularly changing wine and food menus in a bright, modern space—standouts include charcuterie boards featuring a range of house-made products, and a classic coquilles Saint-Jacques, or scallops baked with béchamel and local mushrooms.
Since opening in January 2019, San Francisco’s Verjus, a combination cave and bar à vins, has exploded in popularity thanks to its comprehensive natural wine selection; hyper-seasonal, French-inspired food offerings; and its space, which manages to feel sleek and stylish while simultaneously laid-back and inviting. The by-the-glass wine list changes daily, and showcases “wines that might not be luxurious, but are incredibly well-made,” says Cirne. Cirne, who opened Verjus with Michael and Lindsay Tusk of nearby restaurants Quince and Cotogna, says the trio were inspired by the organic, convivial atmosphere of bars in Europe. “It’s been really nice to see it become a venue where people sit down, don’t necessarily know anyone, and an hour later are sharing a bottle of wine with someone,” he says.
The Good King Tavern & Le Caveau
Chloe Grigri and her father, Bernard, opened the Good King Tavern in 2013 as a love letter to Bernard’s French hometown of Aix-en-Provence. Specifically, to the neighborhood bistro, and the dives that they love drinking in when in France. The crowded, unpretentious space’s exposed brick, low lighting, and loud music—not to mention its outstanding wine list—strongly evoke bar à vins vibes, too. “Our house wine program has three categories for white and red: good, better, best. They change regularly. We like to explain this as ‘wine for drinking, not for thinking,’” says Grigri, who also acts as the establishment’s GM and wine director. More opportunities for drinking from Grigri’s sustainable winemaker picks will come this October when they open bar à vins Le Caveau upstairs—expect brick walls and French café tables; a selection of small plates (charcuterie, cheeses, and hot dogs on baguettes); and an expanded, shared wine list with the Good King Tavern, featuring over 130 bottles.
New York City
Opened in 2015 as an accompaniment to New American tasting menu restaurant Contra by chef-owners Jeremiah Stone and Fabian von Hauske Valtierra, Wildair set the standard for a new generation of American bar à vins. The goal: to make Wildair “a place that allows people to choose their own path,” says von Hauske Valtierra. “That includes loud music, loud wine made with integrity and love, and simple bar-menu dishes that stand on their own.” Stone adds, “It’s fun, interactive, loud. Often tables know each other; it’s a small room where people come and go.” The natural wine list and food menus change regularly (though the potato darphin, a potato cake topped with jalapeño relish and sea urchin, and the chocolate tart are mainstays). Stone and von Hauske Valtierra are going even further down the classic bar à vins path with Peoples, a casual, convivial wine shop and bar concept set to open this fall in NYC’s Essex Market.
Minutes outside of Boston, Friel’s pocket-sized wine bar opened in September 2018 in Sommerville’s foodie haven Bow Market, with the goal of democratizing wine culture. “I want it to feel like people are coming into my home!,” she says of the modern, 280-square-foot space. Rebel Rebel’s menu revolves around a blackboard that lists the day’s wines, which typically change multiple times a day. “It’s all about what I’m excited about. And it allows us to move through product in a way that makes sense,” she explains. In addition to making for a dynamic list for the regulars, the board has been known to be themed, to showcase a favorite producer, an all-beaujolais roundup, or a selection of chenins perhaps.
When Trey Smith, Blake Aguillard, and Drew Delaughter opened Saint-Germain in November 2018, they were inspired by the personality-driven, do-it-yourself aesthetic associated with their favorite bars à vins. “There’s a feeling of freedom at those places in Paris,” Smith says. “For us, freedom meant paving our own way and not being associated with a major restaurant group. And doing 95 percent of the construction ourselves!” The resulting space, housed in a 130-year-old building with exposed brick, high ceilings, and mismatched furnishings, includes both their reservations-only modern, seasonal, French tasting menu–driven restaurant and a bar à vins, making for two distinct, yet complementary experiences. At the bar (boasting a warm weather–ready back patio), this means a selection of snacks meant for sharing, often featuring specials that riff on the restaurant’s daily menu, plus staples like hand-cut fries served with an au poivre sauce (try them with a sparkling wine).
When Dana Frank opened Bar Norman in wine haven Oregon in July 2018, she knew exactly what she was trying to create above all else: a bar. “My ultimate goal was to open a bar, with a bar’s vibe—energetic, vibrant, and lively—that happened to be about wine, not cocktails or beer,” she says. “We only use one type of glass. We don’t open bottles tableside.” The result is a casual and lively space, but with a serious, regularly changing, by-the-glass list of 30 to 35 natural wines. Sip them alongside a selection of Japanese snacks from local Japanese convenience store Giraffe—“Salty, umami snacks are so good with natural wine!” Frank says—and enjoy the diverse, decidedly bumping soundtrack.
Overman opened L’Oursin with chef and co-owner JJ Proville in November 2016. Food can mean a full five- or seven-course tasting menu experience (Proville worked at NYC’s Gramercy Tavern before his move to Seattle) or light bites accompanied by a changing wine list at the zinc-top bar, led by wine director Kathryn Olson. “We get everyone from bartenders stopping in for a quick glass or cocktail on their day off to folks celebrating anniversaries,” Overman says of the casual, golden-hued space, accented with globe lights and brass fixtures. With 15 to 20 wines available by the glass, the selection is, for Overman, far more than the “gnarly, funky, chewy” side of natural wine. “We love that stuff, but that’s not all natural wine is,” he says. “We try to balance our list with clean, classic, beautiful natural wines that anyone can love.” All by-the-glass offerings, and then some, are also available to go as bottles, thanks to L’Oursin’s small retail component.