Gilbert, the backbone of the bar, runs it and teaches people about wine.
4711 34th Street, San Diego
"Complexity is the end of fun,” says Rick. He’s philosophizing at the bar stool to my right, here in this little wine bar behind Rosie O’Grady’s pub. This is up in Normal Heights. Rick’s talking about wine, I think, but also life. He should know about fun. The guy pretty much runs Barona Casino. Nick, on the next stool over, is part of the operation, too. “Barona? We like it simple,” says Rick. “We keep the ATMs free. We don’t want to put brakes between people and their fun.” He lifts his glass of wine, Gascón Malbec, from Argentina. Seems Argentine wines — ’specially the Malbec grape — are a hot item these days. I look down at my glass, California red, a Tangley Oaks, Napa Merlot. Eight bucks. Complexity? How would I know? ’Course, when Gilbert, one of the bar’s managers, handed me the glass, I took a slurp, swilled, swallowed, looked at the ceiling, and then held forth as a man has to do. “Modest little wine, but not afraid to speak out for itself, voice of its own, sings in B-flat minor with major notes of vanilla, blackberry, strawberry, damp soil, pepper…”
Okay, everybody knew I made all that up, except the blackberry/vanilla part. And Gilbert told me about that. Actually, if I were gonna say anything about this wine it’d be that after glugging a couple of mouthfuls, it’s good, gutsy, smooth. And so it should be for eight buckeroos.
Rick’s talking about setting the flavor when you run a casino. As he explains, I have to wonder: What’s a guy like me doing in a classy place like this? Fact is, up here in Normal Heights, the choices for eatin’ and drinkin’ are almost embarrassing, there are so many good ones. Like, half an hour ago, I was standing on Adams at 34th, looking around. Rosie O’Grady’s, Blind Lady Ale House, The Ould Sod, for starters…they call out to you like sirens.
Among all these beer meccas, it’s easy to miss this tiny wine-and-food outfit. The discreet hanging sign is smallish, oval-shaped, cream and maroon. “Proprietor’s Reserve Wine Bar.” Prim and proper, that’s all it says.
Eight o’clock on a Wednesday night, and inside’s as big as your grandma’s boot closet. One small, bricky room with a seven-person bar, plus a couple of tables. Seats 20, Gilbert says. He’s a modest, cheery-cheeked guy you feel you could open up to about how your wife doesn’t understand you. Or, in Carla’s case, understands you too well.
I sit up to the bar. All around there’s talk, murmurs, laffs, but nothing raucous. Too small for that. Side walls are new-cleaned old brick. Date back 90 years, Gilbert says, to when the building went up. Some patrons have their names on little plaques on the bricks — must be the regulars. On a shelf, someone has chalked onto a mini-blackboard: “‘In water one sees one’s own face. But in wine one beholds the heart of another.’ Old French proverb.”
So, gotta order something. But what? Me and wines, well, Two-Buck Chuck is about the only name that comes to mind. This wall behind the bar is a sea of bottles. I look at Gilbert, like, Help! “I’ve got a nice Merlot,” he says. “From Napa. Full-bodied…”
Fine. I go for it. But, bottom line is, I’ve got to eat. There’s another chalkboard with the food specials, like a cheese-and-charcuterie plate, for around $8. They have a porterhouse steak for $15, and a plate of shrimp scampi with steamed veggies is $12. Three New York steak tacos with sautéed mushrooms and pearl onions are $10. Not bargain basement, but it might be doable, though the plate of cheese and salami and olives looks more realistic. That’s $8, or $14 for a large plate.
“It’s the most popular thing,” Gilbert tells me. “Plus, we have the whole menu from Rosie O’Grady’s. Same kitchen. It was Rosie’s owner’s son Chris who had the idea for the wine bar. That was back in 2005. This used to be Rosie’s storeroom.”
All right. Sweet. Because Rosie’s menu has a lot of Mexican things on it, like chile relleno, burritos, soups. Five to fifteen bucks. Gilbert says one of the most delicious is the chile relleno topped with sautéed shrimp, for $12.
But K.I.S.S. (as Carla says: Keep It Simple, Stupid), so I go for the $8 cheese plate. Comes with French bread. And guess what? It’s interesting, with different salamis, pâtés, and three different cheeses. Complex (heh-heh) in its way, but a fun counter-punch to the Merlot.
“You should come back on Friday,” says Gilbert. “That’s when I decant a couple of bottles of above-average, interesting stuff we normally only sell by the bottle. We have them by the glass for around $8.”
Actually, right now, I’d rather decant a couple of steak tacos, and the chile relleno with sautéed shrimp. Cheese plate was great, but the tacos sound hot and squelchy, more gut-satisfying. Yes, I’m still hungry. But, sigh, it’s a question of dinero. Maybe next time.
“So, Gilbert,” I say, “let’s say a feller came in and was hungry and had enough for the food, but not the drink, would that be cool? Like, a plate of those tacos and a, uh, glass of water?”
“Not a problem,” says Gilbert.
“You’d rather see your own face?” says Rick. “Not the heart of another?”
“How Merlot can you go?” says Nick. ■
The Place: Proprietor’s Reserve, 4711 34th Street (off Adams, behind Rosie’s, Normal Heights), 619-283-7449
Type of Food: American, Mexican
Prices: Cheese, salami, olive plate, $8 ($14 for large); porterhouse steak, $15; shrimp scampi with steamed veggies, $12: three New York steak tacos with sautéed mushrooms and pearl onions, $10; chile relleno topped with sautéed shrimp, $12
Hours: 4:30 p.m.–11:00 p.m. or midnight, daily
Nearest Bus Stop: Adams Avenue at 34th Street