‘We’re trying to make it more inclusive’: the rise of Britain’s new wine bars

<span>John Dory, Sandgate.</span><span>Illustration: Eleanor Crow/The Observer</span>
John Dory, Sandgate.Illustration: Eleanor Crow/The Observer

Friday night and it’s crowded. A communal table runs through the room, a couple of seats face windows thick with condensation. Scribbled on a blackboard menu are a few wines, plus a selection of dishes a lone chef in a minuscule kitchen somehow whips up. There’s paté en croute on your plate and Afrobeats hums at just the right volume. A shelf displays bottles with takeaway prices written in white marker. You’re at … well, you could be in any one of the new generation of wine bars that have emerged all over the country in the past few years.

Not just a bar but not quite a restaurant, natural wines and inventive small plates are their calling. Since 2020, London has seen a swathe of openings, from Cadet on Newington Green to Hector’s in De Beauvoir and Oranj in Shoreditch. Every neighbourhood in the capital, from Camberwell to Clerkenwell, now has one. Even Mayfair, where ArtFarm, owned by Hauser & Wirth gallery founders Iwan and Manuela Wirth, recently set up a wine bar below their Farm Shop.

It’s the same in fashionable quarters of most cities and towns. Manchester has Erst, Kerb and Flawd in Ancoats, Isca Wines in Levenshulme. Sheffield has Bench and Pearl. Edinburgh has Mistral and Spry. Cardiff has Sibling and Nook. Inevitably, you can’t move for them in Margate, but also Stockport, Leamington Spa, Canterbury, Bowness-on-Windermere and many seaside towns.

The new wine bar is more approachable than its predecessors, once redolent of insurance brokers in dark, cavernous buildings downing full-bodied claret. Back then we drank in pubs and ate in restaurants. Most of the new generation serve good food, whether small plates, sandwiches or charcuterie, though you don’t necessarily need to eat. They are places where chefs can hone their skills away from a frantic restaurant, or turn to for a more casual form of service.

You can turn up in your trackies. The server – not sommelier, which implies a judgmental man in a suit – is probably wearing some. Most favour natural wine, a sometimes controversial term with no legal definition, but generally involving sustainable farming practices and minimal chemical intervention. Some bars are dogmatic, others less so, but what unites them is a mission to shed wine’s intimidating image. “The barriers between customer and sommelier or server are much more fluid,” says Zeren Wilson, co-owner of John Dory in Sandgate, Kent, who’s sporting a Batman T-shirt when I visit, somewhat proving his point.

The language used is more approachable, too, says Hannah Crosbie, author of the recently published Corker, a wine guide for novices, founder of the Dalston Wine Club event series and a regular on Channel 4’s Sunday Brunch. “If you come into a wine bar and the somm says, ‘This has really sinewy tannins’, first of all, what does sinewy mean, second, what are tannins?” Instead, says Crosbie, you’re likely to hear more of wines being described by younger drinkers as “juicy” and “crunchy” (the latter generally meaning the fresh, crisp fruitiness, common in many natural wines).

The modern wine bar’s roots lie in Paris. According to Aaron Ayscough, author of The World of Natural Wine, in the 1980s the city became the centre – and still is – of a “very strong cultural force within the natural wine movement”. Around the same time emerged the cave à manger – small, informal bars where wine lovers would open interesting bottles, serving with little more than charcuterie and cheese. “The good wine bars in the UK are very influenced by Paris,” says Ayscough.

That influence can be seen at Cadet, where paté en croute has become a signature dish, or Le Pinardier in Deal, where wine washes down terrines and rillettes. The modern wine bar is not dissimilar to a Spanish tapas bar or Italian aperitivo culture either – order a glass, grab a small plate of food or two, and see where the night takes you. A continental style of drinking and eating is taking hold.

Wine bars serving food are hardly novel, even in the UK, but the wine bars doing it are. They started popping up in the late 2000s. In 2008, Terroirs opened in Covent Garden, bringing natural wine and French small plates to central London. Three years later, importer Gergovie Wines launched 40 Maltby Street in Bermondsey. Then, in 2012, Sager & Wilde opened on Hackney Road. “It was a modern spin on the wine bar, in an edgy part of London but at the top tier quality level,” says Wilson. Yet in an era of craft beer and dirty burgers, wine bars were still uncommon. And if you wanted natural wine you had to seek it out. Not any more. “That bar opened the floodgates.”

One place is routinely cited by owners as an inspiration: P Franco, which opened in an old cash and carry shop in Clapton, east London. It retained the existing exterior and blazed a trail with its aesthetics. It was tiny, with much of the space dedicated to shelves of wine, a counter accommodated about a dozen people, and the walls were covered with posters featuring guest chef series and wine events. It brought an unyielding commitment to natural wine and above all, it was a bar – food was available, but you came primarily to drink.

It took a while to take off. Former manager Will Gee says that early on there were “consecutive nights where one person would walk in the door”. Not an ideal scenario for opening multiple bottles of interesting wine. Soon they introduced guest chefs, often well-known names from top London restaurants or abroad (emulated in many wine bars), from Anna Tobias, who since launched Cafe Deco in Bloomsbury, to Giuseppe Belvedere, formerly of Brawn, who now runs Leo’s, also in Clapton. Everything was cooked from an induction hob at the end of a communal table – another regular feature of the modern wine bar. “It became this really exciting place where people can eat and drink for cheap, share a table with people doing the same,” says Gee.

Last year P Franco announced its shock closure, after the company behind it went into liquidation. Gee reopened a few months later as 107 Wine Bar & Shop following a successful crowdfunding campaign. Apart from the name, not much has changed and it’s still permanently full. Gee is aiming for somewhere that’s “relaxed, like a house party”. Guest chefs from the likes of St John continue to make it one of London’s most exciting places to eat, too.

P Franco attracted food and wine lovers from across the country. “We sat there, shared a bottle of wine, had a few small plates, and were just like, ‘We love this, we need to do something similar in Sheffield,’” recalls Bench and Pearl co-founder Jack Wakelin.

Sheffield and Manchester are getting in on the act. Erst has some of the best food in the country, with brilliantly executed European-inspired small plates such as ricotta gnudi with brown butter and sage or cuttlefish with chickpeas and rouille. But feel free to pop in for a glass of wine. A few minutes’ walk away at Flawd, “it feels like a festival atmosphere when the sun is shining”, says co-founder Richard Cossins. No matter that the food – split pea dips, leeks with goat’s curd, and “things on toast” – is made mostly in a sandwich press, pressure cooker and, of course, on an induction hob. It is some of the most exciting in the city.

In London, some of the city’s buzziest food is made in similarly limited circumstances. Cadet has minimal cooking space next to a communal table; downstairs a charcutier makes the famous paté en croute. For co-owner Tom Beattie, wine bars are “moving away from the restaurant. You can have less staff, one chef,” yet still feature a daily changing menu with dishes such as cooked mussels or venison with trompette vinaigrette.

It seems axiomatic that modern wine bars appeal to a younger crowd, but outside hipster enclaves that’s not always the case. At Bench in the Sheffield suburb of Nether Edge, the crowd tucking into ox tongue with lentils and sparkling rosé is decidedly mixed, the server explaining Sicilian natural wines to a table of octogenarians. The same can be said at John Dory. Sandgate is a typical seaside village, with two pubs and a fish and chip shop. “It’s like a wealthy suburb of Folkestone,” says Zeren Wilson, over a glass of crémant de limoux. There are second homes and Airbnbs, young couples moving in from London. When John Dory opened in 2022, its tiny high street was dominated by antique shops and definitely didn’t have a wine bar serving low-intervention German riesling. “Wine’s the focus,” insists Wilson but there’s also great cheese and charcuterie, tinned fish and local bread.

Occasionally, guest chefs cook more substantial dishes. Late last year Mitch Tonks’s menu featuring tinned fish, including a Sri Lankan mackerel curry and sardine paté, was a particular success. In February, the bar launched a Sunday roast inspired by French bistros, cooked in a newly installed kitchenette.

“We had a good instinct that Sandgate could do with a place like this,” adds Wilson. Indeed, the bar is packed on a cold Friday afternoon, a mix of young professionals and middle-aged parents. About 80% of customers are locals, mostly regulars – “a lot of dogs’ names we have to remember,” Wilson jokes. Since opening, the short high street has seen two new delis, a bakery and a brewery. “It seems that we’ve helped kickstart a little regeneration,” says Wilson.

We wanted to have the appeal of a pub, you could wander in and nobody feels alienated

Francis Roberts, Cadet, London

Why are wine bars thriving? In financially uncertain times, a place where you can spend what you like appeals. “People have a glass, or a beer, or one dish, and don’t have to commit to a menu price, or an entire evening,” says Cossins. “It’s a great level playing field.”

No operator I asked saw wine bars replacing pubs, but the language used to describe their bars was, universally, pubby. At Flawd, Cossins says there is a “stern policy of never turning people away” – most wine bars find space, even if standing. “We wanted Cadet to have the appeal of a pub, you could wander in and nobody feels alienated,” says co-founder Francis Roberts.

A new hybrid may be emerging. Alfi opened in Spitalfields in December 2023, calling itself a “wine pub”. Larger than the typical wine bar, it has a wide range of wines on tap (organic, biodynamic and natural). “We stayed away from the wine bar approach,” says co-owner Ben Hodges. “We were trying to make it more inclusive. If you don’t know lots about wine, you can come and try lots of nice things in a bar setting.”

Pearl in Sheffield is similar. It is spacious, with beer and wine on tap. After Guinness and two lagers, orange wine is the most popular order. Set in the redeveloped Park Hill estate, Pearl is, according to Wakelin, “our interpretation of a local”. As at Bench the wines are natural, although the food is more snacky. In February the team opened another site next door, a bakery and wine bar called Bench la Cave. “If you said to me three years ago, ‘could Bench just be a wine bar?’ I’d say it wouldn’t survive,” says Wakelin. “We’ve got to the position where I feel like we really can.”

Late last year new wine bar announcements popped up almost daily. Linden Stores in Knutsford; Meat Bread Wine in Brighton; Morchella in London’s Exmouth Market. In February, Sager & Wilde founder, Michael Sager, opened Bruno near London’s Victoria Park to considerable fanfare. From 25 April, Fitzrovia will be home to a place called July, which will focus on Alsatian wines and small plates from a former 40 Maltby Street chef. The revolution, and ongoing democratisation of wine, shows little sign of abating. “The pomp that comes with wine,” says Richard Cossins, “we’re out of that, I would like to think.”