Creating the perfect wine bar is essentially like making the idyllic bottle of wine—it can't really exist because there are too many factors (not to mention personal preference) going into both.
But we can all agree that wine bars need to be fun, a little romantic, full of great cheese and charcuterie and at least dinner-ish food, and, of course, have a focus on wines that are fantastic, unusual, and perhaps even rare.
Too many wine bars, though, traffic in cheesy-named flights, and too many sway toward that candlelight/love sofa situation that makes non-intimate couples feel awkward and the wine feel irrelevant.
So in search of our dream San Francisco wine bar, we've plucked the strongest attributes from nine of the city's best. And this being the city of start-ups, we'll happily accept Sand Hill funding to make it happen.
Ungrafted: Srsly Legit Wine
At some point, a strict definition for "wine bar" is going to be written. For now, we can embrace a generous overlap between a bona fide restaurant and a wine bar.
Nobody ties together that overlap better than Dogpatch newcomer Ungrafted, from husband and wife couple Chris Gaither and Rebecca Fineman, who met at a wine exam (how romantic) and have worked at many of SF's top spots (think Gary Danko, Spruce, and Octavia). What they've managed to create is a fantastic destination that has plenty of appeal for being a three-course dinner type of restaurant—caviar with mini arepas; Creole-spiced fried chicken; octopus adobo—or a come-as-you-are chill bar to nerd out on grower Champagne or some as-yet-unknown rising star Burgundy. And trust us, the all-somm staff here knows it all—and they'll be nice enough to guide you.
In startup speak, it's ultra user-friendly for however you choose to make an evening of food and crazy great wine from all over the world. Heck, the chocolate chip cookie dessert plate here actually comes with a glass of Pedro Ximenez as part of the dish. To Ungrafted, they're just meant to be together. Is that a move that a wine bar would do or a restaurant would do? Who even cares about genre labels at a great restaurant-ish wine bar like this? // Ungrafted, 2419 Third St. (SoMa), ungraftedsf.com
The Riddler: All the Charm
This is what we want our dream wine bar to look like.
The Riddler, the year-and-a-half-old Parisian-style bubbles hangout in Hayes Valley, feels so iconic that it's hard to remember the neighborhood without it. With all sorts of gold and black accents and a grand portrait of Jacqueline Bisset in Casino Royale, the oh-so-charming space feels like a set where Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron could have sipped a little Veuve in An American in Paris. In present day SF, it's where Salesforce workers and Tinder second dates sip Veuve or, more likely, a chambong and a Joan (a glass of cheap wine filled to the brim).
We'd like to see a little more breadth in the by-the-glass Champagne offering, but there's definitely no complaining about the tater tot waffles or the perfectly Frenchified atmosphere. // 528 Laguna St. (Hayes Valley), theriddlersf.com
20 Spot: Dinner
Cheese is only the beginning of the food possibilities here.
(Courtesy of 20 Spot)
Do you want substantial snacks with your wine? Or perhaps dinner? Or the kind of snacks that make you even hungrier so then you have to go out for dinner afterward? Ugh, the wine bar food dilemma.
When it comes to the wine bar-restaurant hybrid, the Mission's 20 Spot is our winner: It's a flexible place for grabbing a glass at a counter that seems more civilized than a bar, or for a sit-down with food without feeling quite like a restaurant. It's neither overly romantic or overly casual; 20 Spot can be what you want it to be—it's here for you.
Plus, there's no going hungry when you have one of the city's best avocado toasts—gloriously topped with halibut ceviche—at your fingertips. Oysters, tartare, and octopus paella round out the culinary offering. // 3565 20th St. (Mission), 20spot.com
Terroir: Natural Wines
Whether or not you've even tasted an all-natural wine—currently trending in New York and Paris—chances are high you're aware of the debate about them: Are they pure, clean, chemical-free delights, or spoiled, off-balance travesties of wine thanks to the lack of sulfites?
While some are good and some are not (as is the case with any style of wine), in our experience natural wine tends to be just lovely; the SoMa wine bar Terroir is our city's casual champion of the stuff. Our dream wine bar will definitely let you sample some funky natural orange wines and some whites, reds, and rosés that don't taste bizarre at all. Terroir offers all of this on its constantly changing chalkboard menu. // 1116 Folsom St. (SoMa), terroirsf.com
Tofino Wines: Buy a Bottle
At the hectic intersection of Geary and Masonic, Tofino Wines is the opposite of a dark, make-out-on-the-sofa wine bar. With soaring ceilings, potted palms, marble-clad pillars, and tons of natural light, it feels more like a grand cafe.
But don't let let all the airy open space fool you: This is really an exceptionally curated wine boutique with a bar and a handful of cozy tables. And while S has dozens of terrific wine shops, Tofino is tops in terms of enjoying a glass of powerfully mineral-driven white Burgundy before buying a great bottle of Massican chardonnay to take home.
The recent addition of chef Josh Even—the Tosca Cafe head chef who flew the coop in the wake of restaurant owner Ken Friedman's recent #MeToo scandal—and his menu of seasonal snacks and sandwiches may be reason enough to pop into Tofino even if you don't care about wine (but how is that possible?). // 2696 Geary Blvd. (Laurel Heights), tofinowines.com
Indian Paradox: Global Pairings
Even if this Divisadero Street spot served only cheese and charcuterie, it would still be one of SF's best bars for enjoying a thoughtful glass by virtue of its super-strong wine program. But Indian Paradox is really like nothing else, thanks to its fabulously atypical food pairings.
There are slider-like minced lamb pavs and various crunchy and fried chaat snacks that give new wonder to that crémant d'Alsace or new-wave Australian shiraz. Whether it's Sri Lankan or Japanese or Moroccan flavors next, hopefully more enterprising chefs will follow the lead of this creative concept. Our dream wine bar certainly wouldn't shy away from global thinking. // 258 Divisadero St. (Lower Haight), indianparadoxsf.com
High Treason: The Fries + Conserva
Drink like the Spaniards with a selection of seafood conservas including razor clams, sardines, and octopus.
(Courtesy of @hightreasonsf)
The French know that fries and Champagne are a match made in wine bar heaven. But when they're as special as the crunchy, shoestring-style duck fat fries at the Inner Richmond's perennially hip High Treason, who really cares what you pair the fries with?
At this ode to good wine and vinyl records, those fries, along with the impressive assortment of high quality imported seafood and tinned fish conservas from Spain, will make grazers forget all about the whole notion of wine with cheese. The list of Californian and European wines from mostly young, forward-thinking producers is intense—you could call it epic—even including several fortified wines that are tempting to taste. High Treason also emphasizes by-the-glass options in the $9 to $15 sweet spot that is sadly going out of fashion in SF these days. // 443 Clement St. (Inner Richmond), hightreasonsf.com
Union Larder: The Three Cs—California, Cheese, Charcuterie
By looking around, we'd wager that Union Larder could easily be among the city's top five venues for dating app rendezvous, never mind that there's nothing intimate about it: The atmosphere is industrial and the volume easily surpasses 100 decibels.
Nevertheless, the crowds are here for the selection of greatest hits of what former Chronicle wine critic Jon Bonné termed "The New California Wine." Tatomer, Liquid Farm, Broc, Bedrock—they're all here, and they're all fantastic compared to the state's big oaky chardonnays and giant tannin-rich cabs of the past. The strong cheese and charcuterie program is the ideal pairing for Santa Barbara County rieslings or Mendocino Ridge pinot noirs. // 1945 Hyde St. (Russian Hill), unionlarder.com
Birba: Poulsard, Furmint, and Hondarribi Zuri
Wait…what? Those are just three of the lesser known but fascinating varietals sometimes offered at this tiny Hayes Valley wine bar.
Our dream wine bar will certainly follow the lead of this quaint spot and offer the likes of Hungarian furmint, a brash, mineral-driven white; poulsard, a soothing, soft red from the Jura in France; and hondarribi zuri, a light, effervescent txakoli white from Spain's Basque Country. Birba's owner, Angie Valgiusti, a former sommelier at The Slanted Door and wine director at the much-missed Bar Jules, is succeeding at spreading the attention of obscure European wines here in the heart of California. It isn't easy, but we think it matters. // 458 Grove St. (Hayes Valley), birbawine.com
This article has been updated since it was originally published on Aug. 23, 2018.