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04.21.2007

San Francisco Wine Bar: Que Syrah

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Every neighborhood needs a wine bar. The world would be a be a better place if we all had one. The oft unexplored little neighborhood of West Portal is certainly a better place for the existence of Que Syrah, a cozy postage-stamp-sized space on the main drag. This narrow, bright space offers a couple of small tables, a loveseat and a comfy chair, and a few seats at the bar for wine-loving denizens of the fog.

Unfortunately, Que Syrah doesn't have much more going for it than its casual comfort and neighborhood convenience.

Let me start with the wine list. The bar suggests on its extensive web site that it "specializes in small production wines from around the world." That's a good start, and the by-the-glass list does indeed have wines from many places around the world, including Croatia. Whether they are all small production could be the subject for a lengthy discussion some other time, but the main problem is the number of wines actually available to taste. Last night, the list included 6 whites and 7 reds. plus a couple of dessert wines. Thirteen wines? It seems awfully strange that a wine bar would offer so few wines for tasting. Now I don't know how often they change their wine list, but I didn't get the impression that it was weekly.

Furthermore, Que Syrah violates one of my cardinal criteria for wine bars -- they don't offer wines by the "taste" or half glass. Even more galling, when I was there last night, they even refused to open one of the bottles that they serve by the glass to give me a sip to help determine whether I wanted to order a glass or not. I eventually talked someone into selling me half a glass at half-price on the menu, which I drank without much pleasure and left, never to return.

In addition to the short by-the-glass list, which is served in a single style of Riedel restaurant glass -- no matter what kind of wine you order, the bar http://www.vinography.com/archives/images/que_syrah_interior-thumb.jpgoffers a weekly changing "flight" of wines (which DO come in half-glass sizes) that are organized around varietal or region, as well as a decent list of wines by the bottle in the $25 to $50 price range. This list is somewhat California heavy, and all current vintages. The bar also offers a couple of beers and non-alcoholic drinks for the teetotalers or designated drivers in the crowd.

Like some of the other smaller wine bars in the city, Que Syrah offers a small selection of nibbles to accompany your glass or bottle of wine. These include a reasonably good selection of cheeses (which are unfortunately accompanied by baguette rounds, supermarket crackers out of a box, and some dried fruit) and a few dessert items such as blue cheese with honey and a cheesecake sampler.

Service is friendly and casual as you might expect, and you're likely to be served by the owner, who knows all the wines on the list well. The other folks who work there seem to have tasted the wines and possess enough knowledge to answer most questions about their style, despite their unwillingness to actually let me try the wine before buying.

Despite not measuring up to most of my criteria for what is required to call yourself a proper wine bar, it's clear that Que Syrah is well patronized by neighborhood wine lovers. If you live in the neighborhood, you probably already know about it. If you don't, this bar is not worth going out of your way to visit.


WINE LIST: one star

STEMWARE: one and a half stars

SERVICE: one and a half stars

FOOD: one half star

ATMOSPHERE: two stars

OVERALL: one star


Que Syrah
230 W Portal Avenue
San Francisco, CA
415.731.7000

Open Tuesday through Sunday starting at 3:00 PM until 10:00 PM weekdays, 11:00 PM on Friday and Saturday, and 9:00 PM on Sunday.

Parking in West Portal can be difficult, but anyone willing to venture into the surrounding residential neighborhood can usually find a spot. The K,L, and M trains from downtown all stop at the nearby West Portal station.

Dress is casual.

Comments (10)

John wrote:
04.22.07 at 8:50 AM

"oft unexplored"? You do sneak in the occasional prose gem!

Keith wrote:
07.05.07 at 3:40 PM

Alder we are the owners of Que Syrah and would like to respond to your observations about our establishment. One of the best things about San Francisco is the diversity of neighborhoods and people. There is no cookie cutter approach in this city and we believe that to be true with wine bars. While I’m sorry that you didn’t enjoy your experience, I am surprised that we ranked low on your scale. Your biggest peeve was our policy of not tasting unopened bottles. This has been the subject of much deliberation, internally and with our customers. When we opened, it was our policy to taste any bottle but, do to our eclectic selection and volume, we were wasting a good amount of wine. Since we are a small independent shop, with no outside investors, a decision had to be made whether to raise prices, pour past wine or change the policy to provide free tastes only for open bottles. As we refuse to offer anything but the freshest wine we decided, with our customers input and approval, to keep our prices low and gladly offer free tastes on opened bottles only. Many other wine bars will sell days old wine to consumers, something we pour down the drain. Personally, we don’t like the current trend of bars pouring small tastes and charging high markups for such tastes. We would rather provide free tastes on open bottles which our clientele lauds. Since we know, as you state, our wines very well, an accurate description can be provided to anyone interested in checking out an unopened wine. If an accurate description is not enough, we do sell half glasses of anything on our by the glass list to try. We keep the half glass prices the same markup as a regular glass so this is a small investment. Other bars, some you rated highly, will charge higher markups for a half glass or a small taste so the consumer ends up paying much more for much less.
When I started reading your criteria on what a good wine bar is, another area where you gave low marks came to mind. To quote yourself “As a wine lover, I appreciate diversity and choice, but there is no inherent value in the sheer number of wines on offer. They must be good.” On your review, you gave low marks to our number of wine selections by the glass. You provided an inaccurate calculation of 13 for that night. I checked the menu and it was 2 sparkling, 6 white, 7 reds, 3 on the flight and 6 dessert style wines for a total of 24 BTG. At Que Syrah, we hand pick great wines from around the world. We believe in offering our clientele diverse choices. Accordingly, we change our flight weekly and our by the glass list bi weekly. On average, this equates to over 50 different wines poured each month. For a small neighborhood establishment we think this is a pretty diverse selection.
Further on in your criteria for a good wine bar, you mention that in regards to atmosphere; “I'll lean towards the relaxed comfy side of the equation rather than the more energetic "scene." My favorite haunts often have couches or lounge style seating and never get too raucous.” I’m surprised you gave us a low a mark in this category. This statement describes Que Syrah well (see picture in your blog.) And as for food, you state “the better ones will actually take some care in selecting non-supermarket cheeses or fresh artisan breads.” We have, again quoting you a “reasonably good” (We and our clients think outstanding) selection of cheeses from around the world which rotate on a monthly basis. We buy our cheese from passionate, knowledgeable purveyors and buy our breads from a local artisan baker. Actually we prefer to purchase everything, including our chocolates and cheesecakes from local artisans. So I don’t see where the low score correlates to your stated criteria of a good wine bar. With that being said, I would welcome you back for another try on a night that is not so busy. Maybe you could spend more than a few minutes and get to know us, our philosophy about wine and our bar a bit better. We are a husband and wife team that aspired to open a small, cozy wine bar where people could met old and make new friends. Even you, while writing a poor review, described Que Syrah as “cozy” with a” by-the-glass list that does indeed have wines from many places around the world.” You further state that we have “friendly and casual service” and owners “who know all the wines on the list well.” Sounds like a good recipe for a neighborhood wine bar.

Alder wrote:
07.06.07 at 6:54 PM

Keith,

Welcome, and thanks for your comments. I stand by my review, but you are, of course, welcome to disagree. You should really consider pouring wines by the "taste." Figuring out what to charge is just a little simple math. You have more options than simply not letting people taste unopened bottles and fleecing your customers with "higher markups."

Noel wrote:
08.10.07 at 3:12 PM

I couldn't agree more with you, Alder. We had dismissive service and then ignored. While living in the neighborhood, I rather leave WP and go elsewhere. My friend agrees.

Jennifer wrote:
08.22.07 at 7:19 PM

We stopped by Que Syrah this past Sunday. The place was empty and we found the service to be less than welcoming. The woman at the bar was reading a book and glanced up to ask if we were looking for a bottle to take with us. I think she was trying to usher us out because we had a baby with us.

We asked if we could stay for a tasting with our child in the stroller and she asked if "it" (This is the only time that our child has been called "it" by someone...we were shocked) would be staying in the stroller and then gave a non-committal response about whether or not kids were allowed. Although she stated that the place was 21 and over, she also seemed to imply that if that child was held in our arms that it might be OK since it was a Sunday. ????

Now, we certainly understand that some wine bars have 21 and older policies. Others do not. We had a lovely time and tasting with our baby in tow at Nectar in the Marina, for example. Perhaps because they serve full meals?

What irked us about Que Syrah was that the policy was so vaguely and rudely communicated to us. There are lots of children in West Portal and it doesn't serve Que Syrah very well to completely alienate parents. A simple, "hey, sorry...that's the rule and perhaps I can recommend this wonderful Anderson Valley pinot noir for you to take home" would have made us feel more welcome in the place. Needless to say, we left without trying or buying anything and we probably won't be back.

Anonymous wrote:
08.23.07 at 9:19 AM

Jennifer,
Due to our licensing we cannot have children in the bar. Some wine bars that serve full diners have different licenses. I spoke with the server that evening when I got to the bar and she mentioned this encounter. She referred to your child as "it" because she could not tell as to whether it was a boy or girl. Not out of disrespect. Apparently the stroller was turned away from her when this happened.

Danielle wrote:
10.25.07 at 10:22 PM

I hate the place.

Judi wrote:
03.04.08 at 9:38 PM

I respectfully disagree. Having been numerous times each to other wine bars in the city (Cav, Hotel Biron, Wine, Bacar, Nectar, Parea, EOS, and London), Que Syrah is definitely one of my top picks. While I understand your dismay at not being able to taste bottles not currently open, my preference would be to keep prices down by not doing so. I have always relied on the owners to give me their description of a wine I was considering ordering, with great success. (They are also expert at recommending which wine on the list most closely matches whatever flavor profile I feel like having that visit.) As you mentioned, complimentary tastes from open bottles are always available.

I have been going to Que Syrah for nearly 2 years, and have not once been treated rudely, nor even indiffererently. I have always found the staff to be welcoming, knowledgeable, and friendly. I enjoy being able to select from a new and diverse list each time I go.

Maureen wrote:
07.01.08 at 8:45 AM

I went here with a friend and we realized this:
service - finally looked at, finally served, just RUDE
wine - overpriced for the wine offered
and yes, I'm a neighborhood wine lover who won't return

Claudia wrote:
01.25.09 at 8:25 PM

My neighborhood friend and I meet here often for a glass - especially nice on a Sunday afternoon. We have always enjoyed ourselves as well as the input of the owners on the wine/flight we are considering for the evening. I appreciate that it is a neighborhood wine bar and if I need tastes, instead of walking a block, I'll drive an hour to Napa.

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