St. Charles' new Vintage 53 wine bar pours on the charm
Generally, I don't seek out wine bars. From my perspective, they can be everything the neighborhood tavern is not: stuffy, expensive and endeavoring a European nonchalance way too hard. But the new Vintage 53 wine bar in St. Charles is clearly out to win converts -- and does so with its welcoming atmosphere, stellar wine and enticing small plates.
Motif: Launched March 24, the rustic industrial-themed wine bar is comfortable, warm and inviting with open ceilings, muted olive and gunmetal gray colors, flattering lighting and reclaimed wood tables. Floor to ceiling windows insure fine people-watching if you get one of the 62 seats near the window. There are tables, banquettes and a bar; the outdoor patio adds another 10 seats.
Vintage 53 Wine Bar162 S. 1st St., St. Charles, (630) 549-0423, www.vintage53.com
Hours: 3 to 11 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday; 3 p.m. to midnight Friday and Saturday; noon to 8 p.m. Sunday
The name, Vintage 53, refers not to an extraordinary year for wine but rather to the birth year of owner Mario Grado's dad, who died suddenly before the bar opened.
Liquid consumption: The extensive wine list -- there nearly 100 from around the world -- reads like an international spy's passport, stamped with French Champagne, Italian moscato, Chilean reds, Napa whites and German Riesling. Even though waitstaff patiently explains the diverse, subtle flavors expected with each vintage (and I often can't detect the notes in "a passionate, chewy white with a finish of baked apricots and spicy almonds"), we thoroughly enjoyed the Epica Cabernet Sauvignon from Chile and the Cloudfall Chardonnay.
The beer aficionado with me squawked a bit because there were no suds on the menu, but midway into his second glass of red, he beamed, "Hey, I like this!" Of the nearly 100 choices, you can order more than half by the glass. The bar utilizes the Coravin system allowing pours by the glass without pulling the cork, eliminating oxidation and preserving the rest for weeks and months. It's easy to relax at Vintage 53 and, once you do, it's actually fun to attempt to taste those "melancholy leather undertones" or "a playful papaya perfume." Vintage 53 also serves Pellegrino, lattes, espressos and cappuccinos.
Food: Pair your chosen vintage with an appealing bar snack -- like popcorn? You betcha. I love anything with funky truffle essence, so we tried the Truffle Pecorino popcorn. My curmudgeonly companion sniffed at the choice but admitted, "it was the best popcorn I ever ate." The warm kernels are tossed with truffle oil, shredded Pecorino and pepper and topped with scallion greens. Who would have thought popcorn could be so sublime?
Other choices include Ancho-Chocolate and Black Salt/Pink Pepper. Grado no longer minds the fact that a colossal carnival popper takes up a chunk of the kitchen.
We were excited about charcuterie and cheese (you check off what fills your slab of slate via a menu akin to a sushi bar's with items going for roughly $3 to $6 each) and then a few small plates, but our savvy waitress suggested we get the charcuterie first and order more after. Her advice was spot-on because the presentation of two cheeses, truffle mousse pate and Soppressata was not only substantial, but additional amenities included pitted olives, crostini, preserves and a yummy mix of hazelnuts, pistachios, Marcona almonds and rosemary.
Grado doesn't want customers to feel underwhelmed by portion size compared to price. "We don't overcharge," he stated emphatically. So, next time, I'm ordering the popular wild boar meatballs ($13); roasted red grape crostini crowned with Zingerman's fresh goat cheese and Ames Farm prairie flower honey ($7); and Braised Berkshire Pork Belly served with jalapeño-cheddar cornbread ($12). Flatbreads are equally enticing, from the rabbit sausage (with fennel, rapini, Pecorino and hot sauce) to the roasted pear and pancetta.
Everything is made to order in-house (except for one confection), and Vintage 53 has neither a freezer nor microwave so you know head chef Alton Morris is putting the final touches on your plates moments after you've ordered. The kitchen can make items gluten or dairy free or vegetarian.
Crowd: Our late Sunday afternoon visit saw couples sipping at the bar and several bigger groups at tables. Grado said that they're regularly hosting entourages of girlfriends, couples, office get-togethers and people from local businesses wanting to wind down after work.
Music: Recorded music is ethereal and low enough for conversation and there's live music Friday and Saturday nights -- jazz and acoustic duos and solo acts.
Overall: Vintage 53 offers an authentic, carefree European experience with an unaffected ambience coupled with excellent wine, fresh, substantial "small" plates, flatbreads and charcuterie. In addition, you'll feel as though you're getting considerable value in terms of quality and quantity versus cost.