Drinking is easy. Finding the right bar, not so easy. We’re here to help. As a public service to all of you thirsty explorers, every week we highlight the best bars in America and tell you what makes them so damn great. This week we’ve got a 750-square-foot wine bar that’s small on space but big on character.
NAME: Union Larder
LOCATION: Russian Hill, San Francisco
ON THE JUKEBOX: The Cure, Prince, James Brown
WHAT TO ORDER (NEWBIES): Calder Carignan - Mendocino, Calif. (on tap)
WHAT TO ORDER (REGULARS): Union Larder Rosé - Eaglepoint Ranch, Calif. (on tap)
WHY WE LOVE IT: Most bars are set up for drinkers to cement themselves to the stools and settle in for night-long boozing sessions. Not so at Union Larder, an unusual, Spanish-style wine bar in San Francisco that’s designed for speed. “We’re more like a pit stop on your way to something or on your way back from something,” owner Jay Esopenko says. “They’ve been doing this for a couple of centuries in Europe, but we were the first ones to do anything quite like this here.”
When you walk into Union Larder, it feels as if you are walking into a pantry or larder. Cured meats are hanging from the ceiling, sectors of cheese are lined up on the counter and bottles of wine are stacked along the wall. (The place is so homey, in fact, that if you have a question, you can just text Esopenko–his cell number is available on their website.) The bright space was co-designed by one of Esopenko’s friends, a principal at 8 Inc., the firm that designs the Apple stores. All of the seating is open and at a counter or bar. A local blacksmith forged the barstools and another local artisan sewed the tops out of leather sourced from Napa. “We never wanted to be one of those big, produced places and spend millions of dollars,” he says. “I think we pulled off authentic.”
Esopenko knows authentic: He spent years traveling through Europe and the Middle East in his 20s and fell in love with the quick, unpretentious wine bars of Barcelona and Northern Italy. There, you could pop in and snack on a plate of cured meats and cheeses, sip a glass of wine, and be on your way. In 2014 Esopenko and his wife, Melissa Gugni, finally introduced that concept to San Francisco. “I wanted to bring wine back to what it should be: an everyday drink,” Esopenko says. “And if I want to fill a glass and have a couple of slices of cured meat in my shorts, I can do that and feel comfortable here.”
The wine list is long and funky, featuring about 70 percent California bottles. Fifty wines are available by the glass, 10 of those are on tap and all of them range in price from $10 to $25. Right now Union Larder is showcasing the staff’s favorite “new California” winemakers like Matthiasson and Tatomer. “When you think of California cabernet and California chardonnay, you think big and lush and bright,” Esopenko says. “Well these wineries are kind of going the other way, focusing on higher acid, food-friendly wines that are definitely more European in style.”
Esopenko is especially adept at collecting rare bottles; not expensive bottles, just bottles that are hard to get your hands on. He credits this to their relationship with local producers, which they have been cultivating since 2010 at their nearby specialty grocery store, Little Vine. “Ninety-nine percent of the people who come in here have never heard of these wineries,” he says. “We get first crack at the really small stuff. Guys [winemakers] will just show up and be like, ‘we made 20 cases of this cool thing. Want some?’ We feel pretty lucky.”
In fact, many wineries keg their wine specifically for Union Larder. The house rosé is made by a Union Larder bartender and the bar will soon introduce a house Vermentino and Syrah that he makes as well. And while the space is designed for quick glasses and snacks, some people do come in and spend a few hours, putting together their own multiple-course feasts. You could easily make a meal out of a few plates of housemade charcuterie such as the coppa (spiced, cured pork shoulder), marinated sardines, a goat cheese salad and the grilled cheese made with two types of French cheese and a porcini mushroom Béchamel sauce.
“We had some people from Barcelona come in and they said ‘wow, this is so cool! I want to open this in Barcelona!’” Esopenko says. “That’s the greatest compliment I could have ever gotten.”
Alyson Sheppard is the resident hangover specialist at Playboy.com. Find her on Twitter: @amshep