At its core, a wine bar is a place where you can walk in and explore a curated selection of wines, have a few small snacks, and maybe learn a little bit about what you’re drinking. However, the range of spaces popping up across New York City described as “wine bars” calls the definition of what a wine bar is into question.

It’s no secret the city has seen an onslaught of new openings hop on the wine bar trend in recent years, with each space offering its own allure — the buzz of a Parisian tabac at Le Dive, tapas reminiscent of a seaside vacation in Basque country at Place des Fêtes, or the comfort of unwinding with a glass of wine on the couch at Parcelle. Some have menus designed by Michelin-starred chefs while others like St. Jardim and Do Not Feed Alligators double as coffee shops. Many, like Gem Wine, maintain a cozy and quiet interior, while spaces like Sauced have leaned into the lively nightlife vibe.

With each new space offering a new take on the original wine bar model, now seems like the time to question: What exactly constitutes a wine bar? Why has the concept morphed into previously unseen forms in New York City? And are there consequences to slapping the wine bar name on just about any establishment?

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“A Wine Bar Is a State of Mind”

To define what constitutes a “wine bar” in 2023, let’s start with the basics: Does a wine bar need to, in fact, have a physical bar at all? New York’s newest openings are certainly testing that boundary.

One of the city’s scene-iest new haunts, Parcelle, comes equipped with all of the de rigueur wine bar essentials: a photogenic facade, a compelling list of obscure wines poured into pristine Zalto glasses, and a bites menu featuring the ever-so-trendy anchovy toast and cheeky “chunks of fancy parm.” The one thing missing from this meticulously designed space is, well, a bar. While guests can consider the nuances of a 2003 Barolo seated at a table or enjoy the whimsy of the by-the-glass list’s unidentified “orange wine of the day” while relaxing on an emerald green couch, there are no bar stools to be found.

“We started as a pop-up in a parking lot during the pandemic when people couldn’t be inside. There was no bar. The spirit of the place doesn’t need a bar; I guess all you really need is wine.”

The presence of a bar, specifically one held for walk-ins and not reservations, has been a staple of wine bars in the past, offering an interactive space with opportunity for education. “One of our pet peeves is a bar where you can never get in if you don’t have a reservation,” says Christa Alexander, co-founder of the West Village’s St. Jardim, a wine bar that insists on keeping its bar seats open for walk-ins. “It’s like if you are at an omakase restaurant, you want to sit at the counter and see them doing their thing,” she adds. “Sitting at the bar you are part of the action, befriending the bartenders and getting tastes of things, as opposed to sitting at a table, where you are being served.”

In this scenario a suggestion from the somm can spark someone’s interest in wine, or a seasoned pro can pop in to enjoy a familiar glass with a friend. Either way, an impromptu glass at the bar is undoubtedly one of the most magical wine drinking moments.

Yet, many in the industry think the conviviality of a wine bar can extend beyond the physical feature. “I don’t think a bar is important at all,” says Piper Kristensen, the beverage director of Brooklyn wine bar Place des Fêtes. “We started as a pop-up in a parking lot during the pandemic when people couldn’t be inside. There was no bar. The spirit of the place doesn’t need a bar; I guess all you really need is wine.”

Modeled after French wine bars, but serving unique bottles from the Iberian Peninsula, Place des Fêtes opened in its permanent space in Clinton Hill in 2022 from the team behind Michelin-starred restaurant Oxalis. “We wanted to open something a little more beverage focused than Oxalis, and the category of wine bar is great because it is super versatile,” Kristensen says. He also references a specific energy that wine bars offer compared to traditional restaurants, insisting that “a wine bar is a state of mind.”

The Four Horsemen Effect

This seems to be the guiding principle for many wine bars these days. More important than the seating layout, size, or menu, is the vibe. And it’s clear that operators don’t want to be pigeonholed. On that front, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to tell the difference between a wine bar and a restaurant with a good wine program. Place des Fêtes was recognized as one of the best new restaurants of 2022 by several prestigious publications, and restaurants like Claud and Chambers are constantly lumped into the wine bar category due to their impressive beverage programs.

The epitome of this is Michelin-starred wine bar The Four Horsemen. The bar made a splash when it opened in 2015, likely receiving extra attention due to owner James Murphy’s LCD Soundsystem fame. However, most of the hype surrounded the bar’s deep list of popular and hard-to-find natural wines. While it was a wildly successful wine bar for its first few years, The Four Horsemen hit peak fame around late 2019 and early 2020 when it received both a favorable review from The New York Times and its first Michelin Star. The Four Horsemen is now regarded as an unmissable culinary destination in the city, even though it still categorizes itself as a wine bar.

In accordance with the overwhelming recognition The Four Horsemen garnered, this business model has taken off in the NYC drinking scene. A flurry of restaurants disguised as wine bars have opened, including LaLou, Fradei, Foul Witch, Bar Bête, Bar Pasquale, and Place des Fêtes — all boasting rotating seasonal menus that warrant a visit based on the food alone. Even wine bars that popped up in the first wave of the natural wine boom have switched things up with new chefs and more elevated menus. Notably, June Wine Bar brought on Chef Diego Moya, formerly of Racines, in 2021, and the bar started receiving more media attention for the new-and-improved food menu.

Is this shift about chasing culinary clout, or is it simply just a better business model? St. Jardim’s Christa Alexander points to the predictability and profit that comes from guests staying for a full dinner as the reason the bar expanded its culinary offerings. St. Jardim opened as a café by day and wine bar by night in 2021, and due to its focus on beverages, the team only worked with a consulting chef to design the original minimalist bites menu. Over time, however, Alexander noticed that those sitting at tables and ordering more food would also order more bottles of wine, so the team has since hired a full-time executive chef. “We serve thoughtful, intentional wines from small producers, and we are crafting a menu that is really well aligned with this approach with more ingredient-driven small plates,” Alexander says.

Bars in general started to lean on the reliability of reservations after the unpredictable nature of the pandemic, which has also contributed to the turn to fine-dining-like experiences. Ultimately, if a space has to choose between someone who walked in for a glass or two or a party that made a dinner reservation, the bar will always pick the guests eating dinner.

Hopping On The Trend

While the wine bar sensation was ripping through the city, New York was actually losing some of its top talent. Theo Lieberman, who has worked at iconic NYC drinks spots including the now-shuttered cocktail bar Milk & Honey and La Compagnie des Vins Surnaturels, is now the wine director for Delicious Hospitality. He notes that the pandemic as well as the better quality of life in other emerging markets drew many of the top sommeliers out of the city. “When I worked at Compagnie, the somm team was composed of all award-winning talent,” Lieberman says. “Now there is a very real shortage of hospitality professionals, which has created a lot of new opportunities and made us take time to invest in people — whereas in the past there would be a line of sommeliers in the wings waiting.”

The restructuring of restaurants during the pandemic caused some businesses to rely on servers more for wine service, phasing out the sommelier role at many wine bars. So, while there might be more wine bars now than ever, guests might be less likely to encounter traditional sommeliers in these spaces.

Along the same line, many of the newest wine bars were opened by those outside of the wine industry. Arguably one of the hottest openings in the past few years was Le Dive, a natural wine bar in the increasingly hip, wannabe neighborhood, Dimes Square. The space as well as the street seating is constantly packed, with a club-like energy buzzing throughout the evening. This is no coincidence as the space was opened up by Golden Age Hospitality, the team behind legendary nightlife spot Acme and, more recently, The Nines.

While many wine bars of the past were opened by notable wine industry professionals like
Terroir’s Paul Grieco or Laura Fiorvanti of Corkbuzz, the trendiness of the “natural wine bar” label seems irresistible to many — even those with no previous industry experience. David Shama of Do Not Feed Alligators is a photographer by trade, and St. Jardim is the co-founders’ first foray into the hospitality industry — though, they did bring on the wine buyer from The Four Horsemen to design their extensive natural wine list.

Future of The Wine Bar

Don’t be mistaken, there are still a number of reputable wine bars in the city, and with the rate of new openings, New York is in no risk of a wine bar shortage. Reliable spots like Terroir, Corkbuzz, and Somm Time as well as newer additions like Moonflower and Skin Contact, have kept the true spirit of the wine bar alive. However, walking into an establishment and simply grabbing a glass is becoming increasingly harder to do, as the trend toward food-focused wine bars continues to take hold.

While no one’s complaining about the abundance of vibey places where food and wine lovers alike can enjoy the luxury of bluefin tuna and uni toast alongside baller bottles of Radikon and highly allocated wines from the Jura, labeling these spaces as wine bars perhaps adds to the image of pretension and intimidation that wine already grapples with. The preference for reserved-table seating in many new spaces has added another layer of exclusivity. And odds are you may need a reservation weeks in advance simply to walk into any of the city’s trendiest spots, making spontaneous wine bar moments few and far between in NYC.