With no reservations, black and white tiles left over from the cheese shop that once occupied the space, and a non-stop buzz, Snail Bar is Oakland, Calif.’s hottest ticket. And not that it doesn’t have competition. Located in Temescal, a neighborhood packed with restaurants and bars, the spot has nevertheless captured the hearts and bellies of the local clientele.
This is no coincidence, as Snail Bar has been years in the making. Colombia-born, Michelin star chef Andres Giraldo Florez, who has worked in the kitchens of NYC institution wd-50 and Spain’s Mugaritz of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants fame, is chef and owner who has room to finally go a little bit off script. Peter Larue, who has stints at NYC’s Estela and Chez Panisse on his resume, is the general manager and wine manager. Together — assisted by a multicultural, energetic team — the two have created an impossible-to-resist mix of natural wines and original, seductive bites, like the often-Instagrammed snails with cashew miso and kumquats and the uni and avocado arepas.
While in good company — natural wine is front and center at some of the Bay Area’s wine spots — Snail Bar’s devotion to the genre runs deep. In addition to offering wines by the glass, the bar functions as a bottle shop. “I really want Snail Bar to be a place where people can discover how much diversity there is within the world of natural wine, from classically styled and pristine to wild and unique,” says Larue, who is constantly adding new wines from small producers in California and beyond to his list. “There are so many different grapes, regions, and producers with different philosophies to explore; traditions being honored or subverted. I love it when I can help open someone’s mind and palate to something new that they really enjoy.”
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How does it feel to have a pandemic-era hit on your hands? What does everyone get wrong about natural wines? And what is it about a ham and cheese-Riesling pairing? Florez and Larue sat down with VinePair to answer all the tough questions.
1. You both have a rich experience in hospitality. What did you take from it when opening Snail Bar? And what did you leave behind?
Peter Larue: I’ve been really lucky to have gotten the chance to work with, and learn from, some really thoughtful and unpretentious wine professionals over the years. So I do my best to follow in their footsteps and share my interest in wine in a way that people can relate to, regardless of how much background they have talking about wine. We really did our best to strip away things that weren’t essential and just focus on having great food and wine, and an environment that feels fun and comfortable.
One good example of something I let go of is maintaining a printed wine-by-the-bottle list. Since we operate as a wine bar as well as a bottle shop, we simply display the wines that are available on the shelves, and I find it helps us save time not having to constantly edit and reprint menus.
Andres Giraldo Florez: I left behind the pretensions; embraced the attention to products and community.
2. How did the location come into play, inspiration-wise? How did Oakland mix with international and forgein influences?
AGF: I’m a Colombian chef cooking in California. I’ve traveled a lot, so it all just kind of came together in my brain — but I’ve been envisioning this spot for years.
PL: Luckily, in terms of food, the Bay Area culinary landscape is super diverse, so it’s pretty easy to incorporate influences from other countries and cultures without it feeling out of place. Menu-wise, Florez does a great job highlighting the amazing seasonal produce that’s available to us here, as well as finding people who make great products and incorporating them into our menu. Those products might be the flour tortillas that Michael Xulo makes, or getting salsa macha from Kuali salsas, utilizing sake kasu [a flavorful, paste-like byproduct of sake brewing] from Den Sake, or any of the fantastic fermented products from our friends at Shared Cultures.
I’m born and raised in Oakland. Florez is a transplant who’s decided to make Oakland his home. I feel like Oakland has always welcomed people who embrace the city and are proud to add to the community, and the response from people since we opened has been incredible.
3. How did you know the timing was right for this sort of a wine bar in Oakland?
AGF: It was the one thing that was missing. I just happen[ed] to put the right thing in the right neighborhood.
PL: Coming out of the pandemic, I don’t think anyone opening a new venture could feel confident that the timing would be right, but it was also a reset of sorts. And it was clear that there would be an opportunity to bring something new to the dining scene here in Oakland. So it’s hard to say that we knew the timing was right. But once I got brought on to be the general manager and talked to Florez about his vision for the bar, I knew it was a place that I’d want to eat and drink, so I felt that was a good start.
We also benefited from following in the footsteps of places like Ordinaire, Ruby, and The Punchdown that helped introduce the Bay Area market to the same kind of wine we love and sell, but they’ve done it without a full kitchen producing great food to go with the wine, so we felt there was an obvious opportunity there.
4. Tell me about the wine selection process. Who does what, how do you research wines, and how do you get in touch with purveyors?
PL: I do the bulk of the wine ordering, but Florez has spent several years drinking and learning about natural wine and discovering producers he loves, so when he sees that there’s a wine or wines available from a producer he’s really interested in, he’ll put in an order. It’s been great; he’s definitely turned me onto some producers that I really like that I wasn’t familiar with before.
We work with a bunch of different wine distributors, some of which are completely focused on natural wines; some that only have a handful of producers that fit our criteria. I try to taste as much as possible to find new wines and producers that I’m excited about sharing, or [that] I think would add a nice dimension to our program. We also work with some small producers in California that we’ve developed relationships with whom we order directly from.
AGF: It’s been a work in progress from the beginning. Before Larue came on board, I was doing all the wine purchasing, but my relationships with the importers and distributors date back to my time at Verjus.
5. What are some misconceptions about natural wines you’d like to resolve?
PL: Oh, man, several. But one of the big two is that all natural wine will be “funky,” or that the more natural a wine is, the funkier it will be. This one cuts both ways; some people have a negative experience with natural wines that were perhaps flawed or aren’t open to some of the wilder flavors that some natural wines exhibit, then write off natural wine as a single style. On the flip side of that, there are people coming in who’ve been conditioned to ask for something “funky,” and then when you ask what they mean by that, they can’t explain what they’re actually looking for. Either way, it feels like a term that has an outsized importance in how we talk about natural wine, but it’s often not that helpful because it can mean very different things to different people.
The second one is that natural wine doesn’t age well. It’s total bullshit. There are a lot of natural winemakers who purposefully make wine that’s meant to be drunk young, and as natural wine becomes more popular, the demand is such that plenty of wine ends up being drunk before it should be, honestly. But natural winemakers who really know what they’re doing can make wines that are as age-worthy as any.
6. How did you decide to add a wine shop component to the bar?
AGF: It was the plan the whole time. Technically, we’re a cave à manger.
PL: The cave à manger concept was a big part of Paris’ natural wine movement — places where you can drink wine affordably with some delicious food as well as grab bottles to go. It seems like an obviously good idea, but for whatever reason, it’s a relatively new concept for American diners. Several years ago, I went to Bacchanal in New Orleans, and that really opened my eyes to the potential for this kind of concept in the States.
Operating this way means the markup on the wine isn’t nearly as much as you’d find in a traditional restaurant, so you have to trust that you’ll help make up for lower profit margins by selling more wine. And luckily for us, that’s proven true. I’m always stoked when someone tries a wine by the glass and ends up leaving with a couple bottles to take home.
7. What went into pairing the food with the different wines? What are some examples of dishes and glasses that go well together?
PL: Working with Florez, it’s pretty easy to come up with compelling pairings. We appreciate a lot of the same wines, and his food stylistically is often a no-brainer as far as finding wines that will be good to drink alongside [it]. First and foremost, when it comes to pairings, I think wine should support the eating experience, so the goal becomes to find wines that will amplify, contrast, or complement the flavors of a dish.
One good example from earlier this year: We got some great black truffles in, and we were offering freshly shaved truffles as a supplement to our ham and cheese sandwich. We had this amazing aged Riesling from 2008 that had a lot of aromatic intensity, enough to match up with the truffle, and still had great acidity to cut through the richness of the sandwich. It was a combo too good to sleep on, so I put the Riesling on by the glass to make that experience accessible for people.
8. Having had a fantastic run in 2021, what are your plans for next year?
AGF: We’ve been working out of this space with no kitchen, so hopefully, all the plans will be finalized by next year so we can build a small kitchen and the food will get more technical. We’ll then be able to do a lot more with the amazing products we’re currently using.
PL: Chef’s done a great job creating a menu that we can execute with the limited equipment we’re allowed to use, but the plan is to install a proper [range hood] and some new equipment that will really open up the possibilities of what we can do with the food here. Apart from that, the goal is to keep improving. It’s been a great first few months, but we ultimately want Snail Bar to be a fixture of the East Bay dining scene for many years to come. So the challenge is to keep the momentum — and the joyful, fun vibe that we’ve established — going.