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Wine Shops with Waiters

A new breed of restaurant sells great bottles of wine to stay or to go.

Some restaurants have pretty wine lists. Some have very long ones. Some specialize in wines by the glass. But now there's a new idea on the scene: more and more restaurants have their own wine shops. It's an appealing trend on several counts. You can mill around the shelves and pick up a bottle before dinner, paying a corkage fee instead of the full restaurant markup. Or you can try a few wines by the glass before deciding if you want to buy a bottle for your cellar. Sometimes you can even bring home boutique wines that are usually sold only at restaurants.

Of course, liquor laws vary, so some states will never get their own wine shop-restaurants. But where they're not banned, these hybrids are multiplying. There are several in the Bay Area, including the granddaddy, San Francisco's PlumpJack Cafe, which opened in 1994 and is still going strong, with its kitchen now under Keith Luce (a 1997 F&W Best New Chef). The Chicago area has at least four and will soon get Bin 36, a retail store, restaurant and wine-education center dreamed up by Dan Sachs, owner of the award-winning Spruce. Here are five more new outfits where you can have wine with your meal--or get it to go.

WATERSHED Decatur, Georgia
Watershed finally figured out what it wants to be. When it opened in October 1998 in suburban Atlanta, it was slightly schizophrenic, a slick 4,000-square-foot former auto garage with a gift shop, a wine bar, a bakery, a florist, a wine store and a specialty-foods department. Recently, though, the owners (one of whom is Emily Saliers of the folk duo the Indigo Girls) decided to focus on the wine and the food, hiring celebrity chef Scott Peacock. Now Watershed is packed at all hours. Is it Peacock's avant-garde sandwiches like white-truffle chicken salad with sultanas and piñones? The sweet-potato gnocchi so light they seem to float above the plate? The wines that co-owner Susan Owens coaxed from small West Coast producers like Husch and Foris? The smart money says: all of the above.

Most food-friendly wine 1995 Castello di Nipozzano Chianti Rufina Riserva ($34). Best find 1995 Kistler Vineyards Dutton Ranch Chardonnay ($39). Details 406 W. Ponce de Leon Ave., Decatur, GA; 404-378-4900.

MARTY'S Dallas
Marty's Food and Wine in Dallas is an epicurean ambush: there's gourmet takeout to the left, a full-service restaurant to the right and wine--2,000 different labels--straight ahead. The best news is that the bottles go for the same price whether you take them home or have them brought to your table. "Our wine prices are basically half the price of every other restaurant in Dallas," says Jasper Russo, wine manager. "And we have the largest list, too, including 150 half-bottles." Russo encourages diners to browse the aisles, which are loaded with vintages from Italy's Piedmont and with both red and white Burgundies, and then return to the table for what chef Mynetta Cockerell calls Dallas comfort food: Caesar salad with chicken, grilled meats and fish. It's straightforward cooking, but that doesn't mean it's ordinary. "I told the chef from The Mansion on Turtle Creek that our crème brûlée was better than his," Russo says. "He came in, ate it and agreed."

Most food-friendly wine 1991 Pierre Morey Pommards Les Epenots ($70). Best find 1996 Château de Chambolle-Musigny ($150). Details 3316 Oak Lawn Ave., Dallas; 214-526-4070.

THE DISH Tucson
After a few years, ringing up purchases at her liquor store in Tucson wasn't enough for Jennifer Elchuck. So she added a kitchen and some tables for good measure. The small dining room is minimally decorated, but it manages to be cozy and provides relief from the Arizona heat. Elchuck wanted to serve tapas at first, but hired an ambitious chef, Doug Levy, who describes his cooking as "seasonal with Italian influences." Translation: marinated mozzarella, vegetable napoleons, pappardelle with smoked tomato broth and Provençal-style brandade. The Dish charges twice the retail price on its wines, but if diners brown-bag one of the 2,000 bottles at the retail store, corkage is only $10. The restaurant's 250-bottle list is heavy on California Cabernet and Chardonnay, but The Dish also has wines from France, New Zealand, Spain and Italy.

Most food-friendly wine 1997 Hugel Gentil ($21). Best find 1995 Tollot-Beaut Chorey-lès-Beaune ($40). Details 3200 E. Speedway Blvd., Tucson; 520-326-1714.

ABSINTHE San Francisco
Like its namesake, the outlawed green liqueur beloved by fin de siècle poets, the Absinthe Brasserie and Bar is quite a party. From early in the morning until late at night, Francophiles crowd the copper-topped tables for brasserie-style foods: raw oysters, braised rabbit, fried cardoons, pissaladière, even croque-monsieurs. If that's not Gallic enough for you, Absinthe offers nearly 200 French wines--this in San Francisco, the epicenter of California wine culture. Last year, owner Billy Russell-Shapiro opened the Amphora Wine Merchant three doors down, stocking the same 450 wines sold at Absinthe. Smart move. Eric Vreede, the wine buyer and general manager, says the best thing about the setup is that he gets to store the restaurant's wines at the shop: "This is San Francisco and nobody's got room."

Best buy 1997 Umani Ronchi Medoro ($8). Best find 1997 Didier Dagueneau Pur Sang Pouilly-Fumé ($39). Details 398 Hayes St., San Francisco; 415-551-1590.

NAPA Las Vegas
The Rio Suite Hotel & Casino, a massive rainbow-striped tower set back from the Vegas Strip, is home to 16 restaurants. At Napa, the most upscale, a dramatic (although subdued by Vegas standards) decor is the background for chef Jean-Louis Palladin's Franco-Cal cuisine, which marries gaufrette potatoes with gazpacho coulis, for example, or California lamb with artichoke barigoule. And, oh, to have the checkbook given to master sommelier Barrie Larvin: he paid $6 million for the Rio's 120,000 bottles. They're displayed in The Wine Cellar, a basement retail shop and tasting room. The backlit windows and faux-stone walls make a suitably theatrical backdrop for a remarkable collection that runs from the world's most expensive Bordeaux to the bargain-basement specials sold on Saturdays for $3.

Most food-friendly wine 1997 Luna Vineyards Pinot Grigio ($19). Rarest 1924 Château Mouton Rothschild Pauillac ($200,000). Details Rio Suite Hotel & Casino, 3700 W. Flamingo Rd., Las Vegas; 702-252-7777.

Bill St. John is a Denver-based writer specializing in wine and food.

Published October 1999
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