They were the darling, trendy spots of the post-disco Yuppie generation. Yet while their numbers, like their pretensions to grandeur, have shrunk, the most honest, forthright and, frankly, the best wine and cheese bars are still in business. Here are five such establishments in Connecticut that, like the wine and cheese they serve, have aged well.
Sarah’s Wine Bar
20 West Lane (Route 35)
Ridgefield, CT 06877
A wine list spanning 33 pages is as impressive as it is dizzying. With selections larger than most of the state’s package stores, Sarah’s has wine for every taste and for every budget – including those willing to drop up to $1,000 a bottle for the 1995 Chateau Margaux. Most wines, fortunately, are available for one-twentieth to one-tenth of that price per bottle, and a small but representative selection of wines is available for $9 or $10 a glass. The assorted cheese and fruit board offers an aged array of cheeses perfect with a vino of your choosing. Pâtés, polentas and flatbread pizzas are part of the simple yet elegant French country fare at Sarah’s. The wine bar also offers a lovely choice of tarts, fruits and fondants and dessert wines to accompany these sweets. The pineapple and polenta upside down cake may sound strange, but it is as amazing as it is unique. Sarah’s also has live entertainment many nights, ranging from funky jazz to classical guitar. Sarah’s Wine Bar is the more casual wine bar above Bernard’s restaurant, so head upstairs for these wine and cheese treats.
93 Whitney Ave
New Haven, CT 06510
No mere wine and cheese bar, the fromagerie and bistro Caseus is very, very French in its menu, wine list, ambiance and attitude – with the best possible results. That its phone number translates to 203-6CHEESE is the first clue as to the primary focus of this astounding Gallic treasure in New Haven, which boasts 100 artisan cheeses. “Every cheese has its story,” quips a staffer, but wine lovers will not be disappointed when they visit. More than 20 vino varieties are available to choose between, and not just French wines, as “we also have some American stuff too” explains an eager if youthful waiter. Charcuterie boards and large and small plates of lamb sliders, wild boar rillettes and a very Gallic take on the cheeseburger are available for those seeking to upgrade their wine and cheese tasting into a full-on banquet. A shop is even attached to buy cheese and charcuterie platters for parties. Reservations are highly recommended.
Ballou’s Wine Bar
51 Whitfield St
Guilford, CT 06437
With a wide variety of European, Australian, South American and domestic wines to choose from, new customers are frequently overwhelmed by the choices at Ballou’s. But don’t worry, the staff is friendly and knowledgeable about what is served. Four fondues (including the house favorite, the cheese merlot) are available for those seeking a hot meal, while more traditional wine and cheese snackers may call for one of the many cold plates. A popular cheese plate choice is the brie or the goat cheese with apricot jam. Both menu choices can be enhanced with baskets of bread or fruit, which begin at $3. Pasta, paninis, soups and sandwiches round out the menu – but the real draw is the wine list.
437 Main St
Middletown, CT 06457
Esca is not just a wine and cheese bar, it is an Italian wine and cheese bar. The distinction becomes clear with the choice of wines and cheeses available that reflect its Mediterranean character. Carmelo Bramato, along with his wife Marisa and daughter Elisa, are known to the regulars of this Middletown favorite for being available and amenable hosts. The service, like the food, is highly rated by fans on the restaurant’s blog. While most patrons come for the food, many stop in for the nearly unending Thursday night happy hour (4:30 p.m. till 10 p.m.). Esca is popular among snackers as well. The spot is perfect for a glass or half bottle of wine, perhaps with a fruit and cheese plate, fondue, salad or “small plate” (piccolo piatti) of smoked mozzarella, marinated mushrooms or grilled prawns to accompany house favorites Sangiovese, Falanghina or even humble but brawny Chianti.
228 Pearl St
Hartford, CT 06106
“A place for wine, a place to dine” is the motto of a place so proud of its Italian heritage that it serves Italian wine and Italian wine only. With more than 50 choices (plus slots for “revolving staff pics”) of wine by the glass, this is THE place in Connecticut to test, try and savor the great wines of Italy. Food also abounds in this pre- and post-theater favorite off Bushnell Park, with rosemary-skewered Italian bread and bowls of olives available to enhance the wine and cheese experience. Full lunch and dinner menus of – wait for it – Italian food are presented to entice those at the bar for the wine and cheese.
Mark G. McLaughlin is a professional and prolific writer with a proven publishing record in a wide variety of fields. An historian, novelist, freelance journalist, ghost-writer, book reviewer, magazine editor, web and magazine columnist, Mark has more than 30 years of experience, most notably but not exclusively in the fields of international relations and history specifically military history. His work can be found at Examiner.com.