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San Francisco Wine Bar: Hotel Biron

hotel.biron.jpgYou would think that findability might be a required virtue of any good wine bar, but for the past few years the strangely named, yet unassuming Hotel Biron has been proving that ever-so-wrong. Tucked into an alley behind Zuni cafe and the more recently arrived CAV wine bar, Hotel Biron has been soldiering on despite practically sharing a common wall with a major competitor and despite being notoriously easy to walk right by without noticing.

Those who do spot the glowing orange "B" halfway down the non-descript alley and follow its beckoning lure through the fog and the nearby dumpsters will emerge into a low-lighted den of hipness that is delightfully European in quality, sans a thick cloud of cigarette smoke. Billed as a wine bar and art gallery, Hotel Biron manages to stay very true to both monikers. Each month the small space features the work of a different artist, over forty wines by the glass (and the half glass if you ask for it), and nearly twice that many available by the bottle.

While the wine list doesn't change as often as the art, it offers a wide selection of wines from all over the globe. On my most recent visit the list covered the US, Spain, Portugal, France, Italy, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Chile, Argentina, Germany, Australia, and Hungary. The wines, which range in price from $9 to $20 a glass and $24 to $150 per bottle, are generally free from mass market wines, though they don't often stray from the more well known producers in any region.

The wines are always poured in full-size, proper Riedel crystal stemware, which makes for a very pleasant drinking experience as you lounge on the black leather couch, or one of the small tables at the front or back of the narrow, dim space.

Because the space is small, service is limited to ordering your wines at the tiny, three-seat bar area and then taking them back to your table. If you happen to order one of their competent build-your-own cheese or charcuterie http://www.vinography.com/archives/images/hotel_biron_bar-thumb.jpgplates, one of the servers will run that out to your table when it's done being made, but apart from that, you're on your own.

If you happen to be there when there aren't many people so you can get a word in edgewise with the owner, Chris, you'll find him quite knowledgeable about the wines on offer. I've had mixed experiences with the rest of the staff, who are quite friendly and professional, but not always familiar with all the wines. For those wines they have had the chance to taste, however, they offer informed and helpful opinions.

Don't bother seeking much wine advice, however, when the place is filled up, as it seems to be even on traditionally dead nights of the week, like Tuesday and Wednesday. The ancient concrete floors and somewhat low ceilings make for an incredibly noisy space, so loud it becomes difficult to carry on a conversation with your tablemates.

While able to satisfy the minimum criteria of most wine geeks, Hotel Biron seems to generally be populated with the more urban crowd of sloppy-chic South of Market San Franciscans. These are more my sort of drinking companions than can be found in other, more upscale wine bars throughout the city, meaning that Hotel Biron is an easy choice for meeting a friend.

WINE LIST: two and a half stars

STEMWARE: four stars

SERVICE: two stars

FOOD: two stars

ATMOSPHERE: three and a half stars

OVERALL: two and a half stars

Hotel Biron Wine Bar & Art Gallery
45 Rose Street
San Francisco, CA 94102 (map)

Open 7 days a week from 5:00 PM until 2:00 AM, with a reception for the month's artist on the first Thursday of the month.

Street parking in the neighborhood is usually easy to find, and Zuni cafe down the street offers valet parking for ten bucks. Most of the MUNI market street lines stop about a block away.

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