San Francisco is known for cuisine that tends to have either Asian or European roots and a “don’t-mess-with-the-precious-ingredients” style. Wine lists, which often appear to be an afterthought, generally favor California wines. Beers on draft come from all over and are rarely, if ever, brewery direct. Yet none of that is the case with St. Vincent Tavern & Wine Merchant, a quirky spot named after the patron saint of wine and vinegar.
St. Vincent Tavern & Wine Merchant, which opened in May, and is very much part of the “casualization of fine dining” trend, but it’s nothing like what you generally find in town. Or anywhere, for that matter. The establishment is “almost anti-concept,” according to St. Vincent’s wine director and owner David Lynch, which probably goes a long way towards explaining its appeal.
It all starts with the wine list, which is geared heavily to French and Italian wines. While the food menu is limited to one page and about 15 items, the wine menu goes on for five pages with 116 wines—29 of them by the glass. Prices range from $30 for a bottle of 2011 Delecheneau Touraine Rose Sec “Tournage riant” from the Loire Valley to $195 for a 1988 D’Oliveiras Terrantez Madeira from Portugal, but the vast majority are in the $40 to $70 range.
There’s also another 28 reserve wines priced from $125 for a 2006 La Torre Bruncello di Montalcino to $675 for a 2002 Case Basse di Gianfranco Soldera Brunello de Montalcino Riserva, both from Tuscany. Most of the reserve wines are priced at less than $200, though.
All of the still wines are available by the half bottle for half of the listed price, with the exception of the reserve wines. This has led to a convivial atmosphere where small parties are inclined to order a couple of half bottles. Many of the wines improve after being open for a day or so, and the staff is ready with recommendations and suggestions based on what bottles are open.
The demographic of St. Vincent’s defies description as well, Lynch says. “It’s all over the place—from Mission hipsters to older diners who know me from Quince,” the San Francisco restaurant where Lynch had been sommelier. “It’s a young crowd, but not entirely so. We get more serious wine geeks too,” he notes.
Savvy wine geeks, since St. Vincent was designed for people who don’t have big bucks. Not surprisingly, the spot has also become a magnet for industry folks on Friday and Saturday nights.
Beer for the Bottom Line
While the wine program is a major investment and a contributor to the top line, the beer program feeds the bottom line at St. Vincent’s. Sayre Piotrkowski, a certified cicerone, is the beer director and bartender. He says he is “infatuated with unpasteurized brewery fresh beer,” and the draft beer list reflects it, with eight beers, all coming direct from breweries in California.
Draft beer prices range from $3 for a 6-oz. pour of Dee’s Wild, a sour ale from Dying Vines in Oakland, to $6 for 12 oz. of 1903 pre-prohibition style lager from Craftsman Brewing Company in Pasadena. The rest of the list of beers in bottle fills in the gaps. “We have a broad spectrum of flavors and textures, beers as aperitifs, that pair well with first courses, desserts and cheeses,” Piotrkowski says.
What’s Old is New
In contrast to the local draft beers and European wines, the food has an East Coast vibe reflecting the background of executive chef Bill Niles. “I come from New Jersey, so a lot of the dishes are what I grew up with—American Italian, Irish, more New England style,” Niles explains. But he doesn’t shy away from using cutting-edge sous vide techniques. Niles is most definitely not a “hand’s off” type of chef; sausages and pickles are made in house.
The menu changes frequently. Niles is proud of the producers and farmers he works with, though he doesn’t promote their names on his menu. Beet and horseradish or curry pickled eggs ($3 each) have been a runaway hit, as has been the hand-rolled soft pretzel ($5) served scorching hot with a grainy mustard and cultured butter. Succotash, burgoo, and a she-crab dish stand in contrast to the cliché goat cheese and beet salad, pizza and roast chicken found on other menus in the neighborhood.
Speaking of the neighborhood, St. Vincent pushes the boundaries of the Mission dining corridor on Valencia Street, both in terms of its address and cuisine. The area includes Italian, Japanese, Californian, Vietnamese, burger joints, taquerias and pizzerias, but nothing else in the way of straight up classic, regional American food. It must have been about time for something old to become something new.