In Praise of Dining Alone at the Wine Bar
What I learned from three nights of "weird whites" and "light reds" while going solo in New York.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Earlier this week, I talked about the fallacy of so-called “starter wine.” In truth, there is no one-size-fits-all way into wine. There are many paths. One of those paths is the menu of a good wine bar. Today, I’m happy to publish a meditation on this experience by Kristen Hawley, who writes Expedite, a great newsletter on the future of hospitality. Kristen is one of the keenest observers of how restaurants work. She claims she’s “not a Wine Person.” I disagree.
My husband and I have a family rule: If one of us leaves home for more than three consecutive nights, the traveling partner is required to take one of our two young children along. This doesn’t mean our three- and five-year-old do a ton of traveling. It means that we each take a lot of three-night trips. Which is how I found myself with three unplanned nights in New York last month, blissfully alone.
No one knows how to bask in alone time at a bar like the untethered parent of young children. In my 20s—which I spent living in New York—I believed I had mastered the art of the hours-long wine-bar sit, nursing glasses of whatever they were pouring, reading alone or chatting with friends, eating olives and snack mix for dinner with little else to do. Those bars were my home, especially when I was avoiding a roommate who was sometimes an ex-boyfriend, or fending off the Sunday scaries. But there is no greater joy than an evening free of (most) responsibility, choosing wine and food from a menu I can now afford, slipping back into a different time.
I like wine, but I am not a Wine Person. I know just enough about wine to know that I don’t know nearly enough. I’m a journalist, so I like learning new things, talking to new people, and understanding how things work. But I unfortunately do not possess the gene that allows me to methodically file away wine knowledge in my brain. Historically, I never feel more self-conscious than I do inside a space where everyone in the room must know far more about something than I do...
Which is how I felt when I pulled up a counter stool at Wildair on the Lower East Side. A restaurant critic once described it as a “hip natural wine bars that makes patrons feel as if they’re extras in a Sofia Coppola flick.” It’s a perfect spot for soloing because of a well-positioned bar looking directly into a kitchen that serves small plates like radishes with butter and smoked compté (so good), beef tartare (a solo-dining must-order), and fried squash blossoms with stracciatella.
I had a clear handle on the menu, but asked for help with the wine list. Actually, I asked for “the weirdest white by the glass.” I was looking for a way to allay my anxiety about knowing so little while still conveying a sense of adventure. The server poured tastes of two, and I admittedly chose the less adventurous one; it was hot outside, I had gotten off a plane mere hours earlier. I regret nothing.
The wine I chose was Iuli ‘Barat’ from Monferrato in Piedmont (made from a nearly-extinct grape variety called baratuciat). I committed this wine to memory by name because, according to the producer, the name barat means “cat balls” in the local Piemontese dialect. (The label reflects this.)
After that glass, I loosened up a bit. It’s impossible not to after given the opportunity to think about cat balls. My second glass, a chilled of pinot noir from Pierre-Olivier Bonhomme in the Loire Valley, also came on the server’s recommendation. It was good, but mostly I enjoyed the smug satisfaction of finishing three dishes alone and making it to bed by 10pm. Also, the cat balls.
The next day, Saturday, I celebrated my best friend’s 40th birthday in the courtyard of her building in Brooklyn, drinking Trader Joe’s rose and reuniting with friends I hadn’t seen in years. I was on the fence about another bar dinner, but after two nostalgic laps around Cobble Hill, I walked into June, a beloved natural wine bar on Court Street. It’s dark and narrow, in the middle of a block, with a gorgeous marble bar and real Parisian vibes, though the noise level is decidedly more Brooklyn than Paris.
Wine bars on Saturday nights hit different. The dining room is rowdier, the bar is more crowded, the staff is busier, the seatings are stacked. The crowd probably contained fewer Wine People, too. For instance, the guys sitting beside me asked if the restaurant carried “any skin-contact reds.” They were met with a graceful, but truthful, response: All reds are, in fact, skin contact.
Loud tables of couples and groups sat in the backyard outside under twinkling lights, a familiar neighborhood specialty. I sat inside at the bar, wedged in the center seat, nursing a glass of unfiltered white with my beef tartare (yes, again) and a pretty remarkable bean dish. I ordered the beans at the bartender's recommendation, but I took a chance and picked the wine myself. It was loud, the list was short, and I was still feeling the effects of day drinking. I caught up on a back issue of the New Yorker next to a man flipping through a very thick, very fancy hardcover novel. Eventually it got too dim and too loud to read and we both got up to leave, never exchanging a word. Don’t change, Brooklyn.
On my third night, I made a 5:30 reservation at Place des Fêtes in Clinton Hill, a new-ish place from the team behind tasting-menu standout Oxalis. It was raining when I arrived, making the candlelight and exposed brick feel extra cozy, even at that questionably early dinner hour. By now I had slid into the sort of relaxed happiness that is the third day of good restauranting, even as the all-Spanish wine list again reminded me I know just enough to realize I don’t know enough.
Actually, I didn’t know anything about any wine on this list, so I asked the server to pour his favorites: one white, then eventually one red. The second was made by Cati Ribot, who is ”a single mother and the only woman making natural wines in Mallorca.” It’s clearly an important part of the wine’s story, because that’s how he described it. Sold. (Cati Ribot Son Llebre Negre 2019)
I love that asking “weird white” or a “light red” is enough direction to land on the right pour. I especially appreciate the associated storytelling, the background information, the way a server talked about a wine without reverting to stuffy tasting notes or what I was supposed to pair it with for optimal enjoyment. A story about a quirky name (cat balls!) or one about a female winemaker who’s also a single parent, or another about why this particular pet-nat is different from all the other pet-nats on the menu and in the world because the vineyard is extra rocky or facing a weird direction — that’s the kind of detail I’m interested in tasting. Luckily, that’s the sort of detail the staff wanted to share.
I was seated next to a fellow solo diner each night, but as this was New York, we didn’t engage beyond a polite head-nod. When the point of solo dining is dining alone, I much prefer to sit in silence, reading and watching the kitchen work; my solo neighbors seemed to agree. The food, the wine, the atmosphere was different everywhere I went, but the vibe was the same. It was relaxed, it was easy to be there, and the staff loved talking up the wine and offering suggestion. I clearly did something right at Place des Fêtes because the server dropped a healthy pour of amaro in front of me after dessert. By night three the whole experience had become a wonderful comfort—like, yeah it is totally normal for me to be by myself eating this plate of mussels doused in cuttlefish ink at 6:00 pm, on a Sunday, on a residential block in rainy Brooklyn, what?
On the walk to the train afterward, it was hard not to reflect on my final dinner in the city. I missed New York, missed my youth, my friends. I walked past the screams and shouts and bedtime noises of Sunday night toddlerhood from open apartment windows. I missed my kids, too. It was time to go home.