Wine Bars Go Casual

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the wine-bar boom of the early 2000s was one part culinary fad and one part symptom of an over-indulgent and bloated economy. to most new york city diners, wine bars were never viewed as a place to get a serious meal. the wine lists were often voluminous and confusing, the bite-sized "tapas style" snacks were expensive and the vibe was exclusive-and not in a fun way.

the economy, obviously, has changed, as has the city's view of such non-essential eateries. wine bars aren't exactly out, but they are certainly going through a bit of a metamorphosis. in some cases, they are downsizing, while other establishments are going for a more casual route.

toward the tail end of the wine-bar craze, a small and unassuming italo-centric establishment opened up on the upper east side called cavatappo (1728 second ave. at 90th st., 212-426-0919). since its debut, the owners have opened two new outposts (one a block over and down on first avenue, and the other in the gramercy area), but the original remains the cozy and humble wine bar that regulars in the 'hood have come to know and love. and that's exactly its charm: it is, above all else, a neighborhood joint. that's not an easy role for a wine bar to play, especially in yorkville. surrounded by frat bars and dingy irish pubs, it isn't the first place you'd think a yorkvillian would go for a quick after work tipple. but the place is always hopping. the reason goes back to its humility. does it have a compact, yet thoroughly well-thought-out wine list? yes. does it have a handful of yummy plates that won't break the bank? absolutely. is it intimidating, cold or pretentious? not in any way.

serving more serious entrees, but maintaining the italian wine bar vibe (and list), is uva (1486 second ave. betw 77th and 78th, 212-472-4552), a trendier, less low-key option. while the list remains reasonably priced, the atmosphere is more clubby, but still has an air of authenticity. one of the best features on the menu is the traditional serving of dry lambrusco. it is brought to the table in a white, porcelain bowl, which is the classic emilia-romagnian way to drink this refreshing, slightly fizzy red wine. you can spend as much or as little as you want at uva and still feel like you're sitting in a northern italian enoteca.

the higher end artisanal restaurant and fromagerie has staked its claim as one of the top artisanal cheese spots in new york city (murray's is also always jockeying for the top spot). taking a cue from the downsizing trend in leisure spending, artisanal has actually done the opposite of what most fine dining establishments have attempted in recent months: they've opened a new place.

bar artisanal (268 w. broadway at sixth ave., 212-925-1600), in tribeca, is artisanal's dialed down and less formal alternative. what bar artisanal sets out to do (and mostly succeeds at) is to give you the grand and bustling feel of their big brother restaurant without the overwhelming price tag. the vaulted ceilings and ironwork are reminiscent of mario batali's otto. the wine list is an abbreviated version of the original's, but still covers all the basics.

the focus here is to provide an inexpensive and user-friendly experience for the always confusing "which wine goes with which cheese" conundrum. for this, the folks at bar artisanal have a supplementary menu that provides several three-cheese-with-three-wine options. nothing on the main menu costs more than $20, which makes having a special night out with a significant other in a trendy part of town a little less fiscally taxing.

it's always good to find a bargain, and even better when it doesn't feel like one.


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