Wild About Wine Bars

Wild About Wine Bars

BEV REV: What do you get when you put a full bar in an enoteca? For Extra Virgin, it's stronger overall margins.

THE MAESTRO: Chef Nick Van Wassenhove's enoteca menu features small plates with big, big flavors.

ROOM AND BOARD: Extra Virgin's dining room (below) accommodates 200 patrons. Its antipasto board (above) is designed to encourage sharing.

It's hard for a casual visitor to tell if the new downtown Chicago restaurant Extra Virgin is filling a market niche or actually helping to create one. But you can't argue with the food, the crowds, the bar scene or the fact that its owners have just opened the adjoining XV Lounge to help handle the overflow. If you're looking for a way to tap into the small plates phenomenon, and if you'd like to sell a whole bunch of wine when you do, this is the kind of place you should look at before you open one of your own.

What's involved? Extra Virgin is cast as an enoteca, and its mission is to bring Italian wine bar culture to Chicago. In Italy, the core elements of traditional enotecas are small plates of simple, authentic, delicious food that's designed to be shared, plus plenty of affordable local wines served in less-than-full-bottle sizes, with the whole works sold at modest prices. In the U.S., enotecas—often relabeled here as "Italian wine bars"—have lately blossomed into a hip concept that retains these core elements, while tweaking them just enough to appeal to U.S. patrons' tastes.

What's most notable in Chicago is not so much the number of new enotecas, but the high caliber of operators behind them.

It's quite a group. The people who run adventurous culinary spot Blackbird—owner Donny Madia and chef/owner Paul Kahan—got things rolling a couple of years ago with Avec. Although its menu is not strictly Italian, Avec chef (and RH Rising Star) Koren Grieveson's Mediterranean small plate/large plate lineup plus the emphasis on regional wines opened plenty of eyes. So did the narrow, all-wood dining area, which helped create Avec's pass-the-plate vibe.

Then Richard Melman's Lettuce Entertain You crew got on board, carving out an enoteca space at its Osteria Via Stato, where plate-passing was already part of the dining room routine. Restaurants America followed up last fall with Extra Virgin—more about it in a minute—followed soon by Quartino, a venture from the Gibson's Steakhouse/Hugo's Frog Bar ownership group. The point here is that when this much smart money flows into a type of restaurant none of them has been involved with before, something big must be going on.

The Extra Virgin folks seem pretty sure they're on top of a trend. The place is the latest venture from Restaurants America, the Chicago-based multiconcept operator that has previously developed Bar Louie (now up to 16 units nationwide, most of them near Chicago) and Red Star Tavern (14 units, a similar geographic spread). Both Bar Louie and Red Star Tavern were recognized as RH Concepts of Tomorrow. It's a company that knows a lot about what America wants to eat, where it wants to eat it, and what they are willing to pay for the privilege. Cutting-edge concepts and/or celebrity chef vehicles are not this company's calling card; well-operated, well-executed restaurants with very good food and lots of beverage revenue are what they do well. When Restaurants America rolls out something new, as the Extra Virgin operation is for them, you can be pretty sure the mainstream public is ready for it.

Their new place gets a lot of things right. Foremost among them is its emphasis on shareable small plates. Chef Nick Van Wassenhove keeps it traditional, beginning with an antipasto board that gives patrons the choice of three antipasti (from a lineup of nine options) for $6 per person, six choices for $10.

Chiccetti choices include an olive board, bowls of spiced almonds and truffle potato chips that go for $4 each. Bruschetta, flatbread and salads all come in hearty portions at prices under $10. Most of the 15-item small plate menu entries are classic Italian fare. Large plate prices hover slightly north of $15 dollars, with the short rib osso buco, at $21, the most expensive item on the list. Portion sizes for most items are generous.

It's all served in a 7,000 sq. ft. space that seats 100 in the bar, 200 in the dining room, plus an extra 50 on the outdoor patio when the weather cooperates.

Seem like a lot of seats to fill? Extra Virgin definitely is of a scale larger than a traditional enoteca would be. But it's not too big for downtown Chicago. You can bet the number crunch-ers at Restaurants America think this the optimal size.

Part of the company's core expertise is beverage program management. At Bar Louie, for example, revenue is split 50-50 between alcohol and food.

Extra Virgin is a wine bar, so the offerings on its 56-bottle wine list are available in 3 oz. and 6 oz. portions, as well as in full bottles. Many of the small portions are in the $3-$4 dollar range, meaning that customers can get a nice glass of wine and some dandy antipasti, leave a nice tip and still walk away with change from a $20 bill. Note that Extra Virgin has a full martini list—something foreign to the traditional enoteca format.

Chicago restaurant critics like the concept. "The menu abounds in simple, shareable dishes, and prices are exceedingly modest," is how the Chicago Tribune's Phil Vettel summed up what he ranked as a two-star experience. At price points like this, it's a tough combination to beat.