What makes a wine bar a wine bar? It's a question we posed last year when Marvin opened in Beverly Grove, and it's one that came to mind again when we walked into the high-ceilinged interior to wait for a table one evening at Esters, the bustling new Santa Monica wine bar, shop and gourmet retail market from the team behind Rustic Canyon and its wine director, Kathryn Coker.
Around 20 quirky yet accessible wines are available by the glass, and you can order bottles from a two-story-high retail wall of Old World–skewing selections that will set you back an additional $15 corkage fee (each wine Coker chose, we were told upon being seated, has a story behind it). Upscale drinking snacks (lavender almonds, curry cashews), wine-friendly small plates (four-cheese grilled cheese, ham with figs and beet molasses) and build-your-own meat and cheese plates were crafted in collaboration with Rustic Canyon executive chef Jeremy Fox and pastry chef Jun Tan.
But with a space bordering on cavernous, table service that feels more formal than casual and a by-the-glass list that is no bigger than many restaurant lists these days (Rustic Canyon's is larger, in fact), what, exactly, makes it a wine bar? The retail component — which also includes goodies from co-owners Josh Loeb and Zoe Nathan's other Westside restaurants, plus a grab-and-go section of sandwiches and other wine-y snacks — certainly helps, as do the small plates clearly crafted to complement, not overwhelm, the wine.
However, if wine bars are seen as a space for exploration, somewhere to not only find interesting varietals and small producers on a printed list but to discuss them with someone who can lead you to a new "aha" moment, then this might not be it. Our server was helpful with providing tasting adjectives (and was a good sport given our ignorance about many of the varietals on the list), but with a packed house, there was little time to go into less jargon-y details, or to give us the stories that supposedly lie behind the wines.
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To be fair, the Esters crowd doesn't seem like the type looking for such stories or revelatory moments. They're there because they're fans of the breezy, minimalist space, or of Loeb and Nathan, and — judging by the girls-night-out crew to our left and the awkward Tinder date to our right — either already know that they wanted to drink the $23 glass of 2012 Deux Montille Bourgogne Rouge or are at least doing a great job of pretending that they do. Discoveries of the silky nebbiolo ($14 a glass) or the pert Pomponette rosé ($11) are quiet ones, and without a printed list of the 200-plus retail bottle options (a portion of which are affordably priced under $25), it's hard to even know where to begin beyond the glass options.
Esters is built inside a historic Art Deco building that also houses Loeb, Nathan and Bryant Ng's new buzzed-about restaurant, Cassia. It has a beautiful patio that's perfect for afternoon sipping and also makes a great first stop for a small bite and interesting glass of wine before dinner (it's a nice contrast to nearby Bodega Wine Bar's basic wine list and sultry, after-hours feel). A small selection of bottled craft beers, cocktails and aperitifs also is available. And, as you will be constantly reminded throughout your visit, you can buy wines by the bottle to take home.
After opening a few weeks ago with evening hours only, Esters now is open 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Sunday through Thursday and until midnight on Fridays and Saturdays.
Esters, 1314 Seventh St., Santa Monica; (310) 899-6900; esterswineshop.com