Restaurants, Wine

What A Wine Bar Should Be

Robert owns a wine bar. He’s wanted to since he was 19; he told his friends. Now nine years in and going strong, he’s learned a lot, and all restaurateurs could learn a lot from him. Let me tell you why.

Nestled in an alleyway off the main drag, his location is ideal, drawing a mixture of dedicated locals and wine-loving tourists. It is a destination; he does not rely on foot traffic. Approaching the glassed storefront, the deep and narrow, romantically lit space imparts a sense of tranquility. Conspicuously lacking any white linens or tables pre-adorned with glasses, you don’t feel the need to check your attire before entering. If any doubts remain, a friendly “Halloo” from Robert from behind the bar puts you at ease. It’s Tuesday and he’s holding down the fort solo, suggesting you make yourself comfortable wherever you see fit.

Your eyes are inevitably drawn to the 32 bottles on Enomatic (the pressurized preservation system preferred by restaurants looking to have a broad by-the-glass selection) behind the bar. Good start, you think. The choice between a row of modular tables leading to the entrance, a quaint high-top and “the wood” all seem appealing. As Sade provides the perfect volume-level of background seduction, you have the inescapable feeling that you’re in a wine bar. Which is good. In fact, I would argue, it is uncommonly good. Too often the first reaction from a new guest (whether conscious or otherwise) is: “Where am I?” or “What can I expect here?”

Most industry people will be familiar with the Holy Trinity of restaurant quality: food, service and ambiance. And of course, most value statements about a given restaurant are based on how success in each category relates to the little numbers on the menu with the $ beside them. However, there are several intangible elements that can have the greatest impact on your guests. They are immeasurable, invaluable and often unteachable. When lacking, they are the things that leave restaurateurs wondering why they aren’t successful. When abundant, they are the things that leave your guests raving about their experience – whether they know why or not, as they tend to have an unconsciously-positive effect.

Ok, I’ve built sufficient suspense. I would argue that the three most important (and most frequently absent) restaurant traits in this category are clarity of concept, attentiveness and genuineness.

Clarity of concept puts your guests intuitively at ease. They are comforted that they have found the place they were looking for. A well-conceptualized restaurant sets the stage for the experience the guest is about to have from the moment you walk in the door. The menu’s contents nor the prices should be a surprise when the concept is clear. Obviously, this strategy can limit your demographic. In fact, large and/or corporate restaurants deliberately create a concept of ambiguity allowing guests from all walks of life looking for radically varied dining experiences to infer that they are “in the right place”.

That said, most small-to-medium sized restaurants (i.e. 80 seats or less) are offering a niche-market product and/or environment which by definition requires a well-defined concept and therein a relatively-limited demographic. Trying to please everyone will most likely alienate your ideal diner and send you down the slippery slope of identity loss. If your guests can’t recommend you to their friends in two sentences, you’re not growing your business.

Lastly (in this category), I will dismiss another conceptualization that is sometimes (mistakenly) employed. Some restaurant owners desire to create an environment with high-end, fine dining style dishes/beverages and/or service juxtaposed in a very casual atmosphere. Naturally, the price-point is likely to reflect the haut-cuisine. Seems like a novel idea, for those that can afford it. For everyone else, it immediately creates a sense of discomfort. Any first-time diner opening the menu could get “sticker-shock” having made certain assumptions based on their aesthetic impression of the restaurant. As a great Sommelier once said: “Great service is the complete absence of discomfort.”

Attentiveness and genuineness are the two most undervalued aspects of service – by far. In fact, in many cases these traits can even compensate (to a point) for a lack of technical knowledge or ability. And remember, knowledge can be improved and skills learned.

To be genuinely friendly and accommodating is an innate ability; it absolutely cannot be taught. The subtle difference between a genuine smile and one that’s part of the uniform seems small, but the way this shapes your guest’s experience is infinitely large.

Similarly, at dozens of intervals during a dining experience, a guest needs (or would like) the attention of a staff member. An attentive service staff member will always be there when needed, without being overbearing. A master of attentiveness will anticipate your guest’s needs before they even realize it. Knowledge or experience or even friendliness of a server quickly becomes irrelevant if they are not tableside to exercise it.

Robert has a razor-sharp concept and he is infallibly friendly and attentive. These are the things that make his restaurant successful while his competitors are confounded. He admits that in the first year, he was tempted to stay open later or install draught beer and even experimented with small changes in an attempt to draw a wider audience. In the end he found that sticking to what he set out to do and focusing on the intangible elements of service and comfort, he has all the success he could ever ask for.

4 thoughts on “What A Wine Bar Should Be”

  1. I wanted to add, while traveling in Europe (mainly Italy and France) I have seen innumerable EMPTY restaurants with signs out front listing what they have to offer. The two best (read: worst) are (no exaggeration whatsoever):

    HOT DOG
    SUSHI
    BURGER
    SALAD
    BAGEL’S [sic]
    (seen in Paris)

    GELATERIA
    PASTICCERIA
    GRANITA
    TAVOLA CALDA
    COLLAZIONE
    PIZZA
    CAFFE
    (seen in Sicily)

    Now these places need to re-evaluate their concept and identity!

  2. Very interesting. I never recognized that my complete comfort and satisfaction in a restaurant had to do with the fact that I would be anticipating one thing (from the ambiance etc.) and, in some cases, receiving something entirely different….makes sense.

  3. Interesting article. I found myself wondering which is the greater restaurant sin – lack of attentiveness or over-attentiveness? Recently I’ve been to a number of very nice places where the staff were very enthusiastic and friendly, but honestly they wouldn’t leave us along for more than five minutes!

    1. Thanks for reading, Tim. One of the abilities of a great server is to assess each guest’s desire to be interacted with, and to only be present when necessary and/or desired by the guest. Not every table is looking for the same experience and it is up to the server to cater their style of service to suit the guest and the situation. Being over-bearing is definitely a restaurant sin, but I think there are worse offenses out there!

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