What makes a wine bar a wine bar? Generally, there has to be a bar, and an emphasis on wine. But is that enough? When is a place a wine bar and when is it a restaurant with a good wine list?
I considered all this during a recent visit to Marvin, the Beverly Grove restaurant that opened in late May and claims to be a wine bar. Yes, there is a bar. And yes, there is a fantastic wine list: European-focused and rife with weird finds that light up the pleasure receptors in the wine geek cortex. There are wines at every price range and in many styles.
What there isn't is a large by-the-glass selection. The by the glass selection is great, with many options being poured from magnums, showcasing wines that are harder to get a taste of given the format. But fewer than 20 wines, all up, including dessert and sparkling options, are available by the glass. Which, to me, makes this a restaurant with a very cool wine program, not a wine bar, any more than smoke.oil.salt or the Hungry Cat or any other small restaurant with a great wine list and barstools are wine bars.
Marvin has plenty of charm, regardless of my opinions on its wine bar status. Run by Max Marder, son of legendary restauranteur Bruce Marder (here's a lengthy profile of Marder Sr. for background), Marvin is the cute French bistro we all want in our neighborhood, the type of charming little place that dots New York City and other big cities serving elegant, classic fare. We don't have many places like it in L.A., which is too bad.
Cheese plates, charcuterie, ratatouille with goat cheese toast, steak tartare, cassoulet, steak frites. All things you should reliably be able to get in almost any civilized corner of the world, and all things Marvin is providing, plus more. A place to sit at small red tables on the sidewalk and drink wine and eat cheese. A place to eat oysters at the bar with a glass of bubbly from a producer you might not have heard of.
We tried the mussels, which came in a wine and cream broth; classic, delicious. And a jamon tomato toast on dense, crusty baguette made by Red Rooster bakery, which is also operated by the Marders. I was surprised to see behind the bar Ashley Ragovin, who was recently helping to run the front of the house at Superba Food and Bread (and before worked at Trois Mec, Animal, and Mozza). She's just as gracious here (and fun to talk to about wine) as she has been everywhere else.
The space is exceedingly attractive, with burnished mirrors along the back of the bar, wooden walls, and a ceiling completely lined with empty tomato cans. It sounds odd, but looks good, and probably acts as a noise dampener.
Whether Marvin qualifies as a wine bar is perhaps irrelevant. The wine they do have, by the glass and bottle, are a huge step up from many restaurants in town.
And perhaps in this wine bar-starved city, rather than worry overmuch about the details, I need to be grateful for a place that's trying to focus on wine — a place where you can have a fun conversation with a smart person behind the bar about the awesome and weird Spanish sparkling they're pouring. It's a great addition to the neighborhood, and that is good enough, by far.