By the Glass

Baltimore's crop of wine bars gets better all the time. Here's where you can get a taste.

Focus on the Bar Scene

September 19, 2004|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,SUN RESTAURANT CRITIC

One of the most civilized trends to come along in the new millennium is wine bars. Suddenly theyM-Fre everywhere. Last December a new one, Grand Cru, opened in Belvedere Square. It was followed last month by the Wine Market, a wine bar, cafe and retail shop, which opened in Locust Point. And a new wine bar is part of the current renovations at DonnaM-Fs in Cross Keys.

Besides the places that label themselves wine bars, just about every good restaurant these days offers an impressive selection of wines by the glass at its bar. The most spectacular local examples are Charleston and Petit Louis, under the direction of wine expert Tony Foreman, who is also co-owner of Bin 604 Wine Sellers. Still, they are restaurants first and foremost. (We had to draw the line somewhere.)

The following are self-proclaimed wine bars where you can get interesting wines by the glass, and plenty of them. The selections are often idiosyncratic, which is good if you like to experiment. Those bars that are also retail shops will serve you a bottle at the retail price plus a reasonable corkage fee. Several offer flights, a few ounces of several different wines to compare. They are like tastings, only more fun because you donM-Ft spit out the wine.

Best of all, wine bars are very convivial spots. You never find someone brooding and drinking himself into a lonely stupor. Food is often an important part of the experience; all the places listed offer more than the usual bar munchies. The food did affect how we felt about them, although not as much as the wines offered, the atmosphere, and whether smoking is allowed.

Chesapeake Wine Co.

2400 Boston St., No. 112, 410-522-4556

This place has a patina and lots of minimalist style, a sort of urban shabby chic. The small bar is planted squarely in the middle of the retail shop, with a few bar tables surrounding it. Chesapeake is more neighborhood hangout than wine-geek heaven, but we loved the menu of 20 wines by the glass that changes weekly, the range of styles in each type, and the fact that there are always four sparkling wines available by the glass and three or four dessert wines. We didnM-Ft love the smoking, including one guy who lit up a cigar at the bar.

FlemingM-Fs Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar

720 Aliceanna St., 410-332-1666

Surprised to see a chain steak house on the short list? OK, wine isnM-Ft sacrosanct here; but we canM-Ft ignore the 100 wines by the glass or the changing selection of flights. FlemingM-Fs handsome traditional bar atmosphere is a good way to make a transition into the wine bar scene. But if you like to taste your wine, watch out for the bar snacks: addictive but very salty homemade garlic-herb potato chips.

Grand Cru

527 E. Belvedere Ave., Belvedere Square, 410-464-1944

Each wine bar has its own distinct style. This one manages a delicate balancing act of making the neighborhood feel comfortable while looking like a hot spot for hipsters. (Note the curved zinc bar, the silver high-top tables, the pastel purple and green color scheme). Grand Cru is a retail store, not a restaurant.

The food offerings are sketchy, but the bartender wonM-Ft mind if you bring in a meal from elsewhere in the Belvedere Market.

HelenM-Fs Garden

2908 OM-FDonnell St., 410-276-2233

ItM-Fs locally famous because of its good New American food, but did you know the charmingly funky HelenM-Fs Garden also has a fullfledged wine bar? If you havenM-Ft been there in a while, the expansion into the townhouse next door was finished in 2001. HowM-Fs this for a deal: Happy hour is from 11:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday. The 40 or so wines by the glass are all half price. The list is very accessible; currently the wines tend to be Californian, but co-owner Ed Scherer says itM-Fs shifting more to European and South American.

Iron Bridge Wine Co.

10435 Route 108, Columbia, 410-997-3456

The biggest downside to the Iron Bridge is that itM-Fs so popular you may have trouble getting a seat at the bar. This cozy retail shop, cafe and wine bar was an instant hit when it opened last year, partly because the wine-friendly food is so good. The wine list is organized by style, so if you like M-y say M-y big, bold reds you can see whatM-Fs available at a glance. There are 30 wines by the glass and four themed flights (such as the M-tAnything but ChardonnayM-v flight and M-tHip RedsM-v). They change regularly.

Spike & CharlieM-Fs Restaurant and Wine Bar

1225 Cathedral St., Mount Vernon, 410-752- 8144

When it opened 13 years ago, this was BaltimoreM-Fs first wine bar. There was no TV, unlike at other bars. This encouraged conversation while customers sipped their glasses of wine. These days itM-Fs hard to remember just how unusual that was. As wine drinking has gotten more popular, the barM-Fs clientele has diversified. ItM-Fs no longer mostly symphony- and operagoers. Look for out-of-the-way wines here, about 20 by the glass, and half-price bottles Wednesdays and Thursdays.

Vespa Cafe and Wine Bar

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