Note: I wrote this piece on 9/18/13. And B&V is still rockin’ 30th Ave.
A warm fall night along 30th Avenue in Astoria, a street known for the buzz of cocktail lounges and yet another new bar was opening in aspirations of attracting the local young residents. The owners of Bourbon and Vine, which arose from the site of a failed margarita bar, hopes that an eclectic menu and mix of wines and whiskeys will coalesce under the cool, low beats of the new gastropub. The launch attracted couples who sat at the booth sippingbeef jerky garnished Urban Bourbons and peachy Kronic Tonics. Preppy young professionals home from work pored over menu items that included root beer fritters topped with cheddar and cinnamon and hot brown street sandwiches laced with “X-rated” tots.
The hodgepodge menu and the bourbon and wine theme are the result of an eleven-month collaboration among owner, Rocco Del Greco and managers, James Park and Brittany Howse. It was very much a creative group effort to convert Sangrias, the previous restaurant at the location, into a sophisticated gastropub featuring 42 types of whiskey along with specialty beers and hard-to-find selections of wines, from Bordeaux to Mauzac. Park, a sommelier of wine and bourbon, played to his passions when Greco gave him the OK to tune Bourbon and Vine to a more serious ambience in an effort to refresh the often strong-personality, ethnic-specific restaurants in Astoria.
“[We created the list] to see if Astoria would reach out for more bizarre whiskeys – next month’s [list] is completely ludicrous,” says Aly Talley, a whiskey-savvy bar tender, who is kept up-to-date on Park’s evolving drink menu. Though their selection features some typical selections (from the $7 Wild Turkey 101 to the $18 Johnnie Walker Gold Label), Bourbon and Vine prides itself on offerings such as the medium grade Johnny Drum bourbon whiskey and the high end Taylor Bourbon from Kentucky which will appear on the October menu.
What’s even more exciting to Park and Del Greco, though, is the impending arrival of Wasmund’s Rye Spirit white dog, an obscure whiskey from Virginia – and its barrels. For the first time since opening, the pair will take their already impressive whiskey list one step further to include Wasmund’s white dog aged in-house. And don’t get Park started on Breckenridge bourbon. The honey-banana flavor boasts such originality that it sells out repeatedly within three days at Bourbon and Vine. “The way they make it is amazing,” says Park. “They collect snow from the Rocky Mountains at 9,600 feet up and then they melt that snow and then use that water for the whiskey.” Park, who’s dedicated the past four years – and likely fifteen more – to the study of wine also has a passion for whiskey, even designing their Urban Bourbon with Breckenridge in mind. No wonder it’s his all-time favorite.
At the end of the bar, 26-year-old Brittany Howse greets guests – she was “the face” of the new neighborhood joint, encouraged by Del Greco to familiarize herself with locals and their suggestions as the gastropub develops its identity.
Back in late spring, when Howse was working at Five Napkin Burger down the street, Del Greco, the owner of Bourbon and Vine and a few of the bars that had come before it, such as Sangrias, had approached her. Howse had been his waitress recently and Del Greco felt her chipper presence, seriousness within the work place and knowledge of the neighborhood would be the perfect combination of traits for a manager who had planned to hire for his new bar. The squat 42-year-old man in his signature striped, straw boater hat asked her to shape the identity of he and Park’s envisioned pub. Flattered by his gesture, Howse led Greco to a back table where they sat down and talked business over coffee. “Give me an offer I can’t refuse,” Howse told him jokingly quoting the Godfather. And by handing her the managerial reins to Bourbon and Vine, he did just that.
Collaboration was a theme that permeated every facet of the pub from Del Greco’s Southern food truck inspired menu to the community that they invited inside. Consistent with the coolly elite feel of gastropubs, the cook would prepare only twelve-each of the two featured entrees each night which would be served on a first-come-first-served basis. The simpler the better, hence the revival of the country-cooking inspired menu. The creation of the Bourbon Spiked PB&J epitomizes their collaborative approach. “One day James was trying to figure out what to put on the PB&J and was like ‘let’s fry it’,” Howse recalls. A discussion ensued among the staff and Park about how to fry the sandwich.
The final verdict: Captain Crunch. And the new look is drastically different. A stage is open for live performances featuring local artists. Replacing the tacky red, orange and yellow squares that speckled the wall, Bourbon and Vine will showcase canvases of local artwork. Pitchers of sugary tropical drinks have been replaced with short, glass tumblers filled with 1920’s prohibition-era classics such as the Old Fashioned, allegedly the first cocktail ever documented. Park had sought to include both wine and bourbon which would infuse the gastropub with a seriousness that the bubbly Sangrias lacked.
A week after opening night, Sarah Young, an Astoria resident for seven months, enjoyed the gastropub’s ambience with a group of friends. She liked that they were able to try a few different wines before settling on one. “When you’re in there like – and it’s a new place – it doesn’t feel like a new place. It feels very smooth,” said her friend Peter Mac Atee.
The evening of opening night, Wednesday, Sept. 11, the 14 Bourbon and Vine staff members were eager to see their concept of the gastropub, an idea which had been brewing for at least a year, come to life during their soft opening. Tomm Reid, a new Astoria resident by way of Scotland and one of their six bartenders, readied himself near his cocktail shaker. By 8 p.m. the place was so crowded that there were no open tables and only two free bar stools. Reid rattled off the drinks orders as they came: Mint Julep, a punch of bourbon whiskey and sweet mixer topped off with crushed mint leaves; the Old Fashioned, a sugar cube, a shot of water, few drops of Angostura bitters, one orange slice – crushed – two ounces of bourbon whiskey and a maraschino cherry. And the orders kept coming well past their tentative 1 a.m. last call until the last guest staggered out at 4 a.m. So much for Wednesday’s “soft opening.”