San Francisco Wine Bar: CAV

I’ve long wished for a warm place to sit while I inevitably end up waiting for a table at San Francisco’s Zuni Cafe on cold foggy nights. Now I’ve got one, but the problem is that once I walk in the door at CAV Wine Bar, I rarely ever leave. Whether owners Pamela Busch and Tadd Cortell deliberately plotted this as a strategy for getting customers, I’ve never had the gumption to ask, but in reality it hardly matters, as any wine lover will tell you after taking a look at the menu. This is the wine lover’s wine bar.

Pamela should know a thing or two about wine bars — she was one of the founding partners of the original Hayes and Vine, a San Francisco institution for many years that was much mourned when it closed several years ago (it was long the ruler by which I measured all other wine bars). That knowledge makes itself clearly felt in this new venture, which occupies a modest z-shaped space immediately next door to Zuni Cafe at the western end of Market Street. The wine list, the food, and the overall vibe resonate with a reassuring confidence and calm.

CAV’s interior space itself is mostly stark modern, though a few homey touches keep it from being clinical. A floor to ceiling chalkboard at the end of the bar (invariably scrawled with a combination of menu information and personal messages or jokes) and the abstract pointillist mosaic of corks emerging from the frame on the back wall both add to the comfort of the space. When the bar seating, the high tables with stools, and the back room tables are all full, the space can be slightly noisy, but it thankfully never seems to get downright chaotic.

CAV’s wine list is a constantly shifting menu of discoveries, surprises, and favorite gems. I have no idea how often it changes, but it must at least weekly as I’ve never seen quite the same selection two visits in a row. Pamela
might have a different way of describing her goals for the menu, but the way I would describe it would be a menu that strives to offer a wine to match nearly every wine lover’s taste in wine while at the same time presenting the opportunity to try something completely unexpected. Last time I was there the white wine list sported a whopping 21 different varietals on offer (among 17 different white wines from 10 different countries). Another 16 red wines were available by the glass, along with a few dessert wines and a dozen Sherries and about twenty well-aged Ports and Madeiras. Along with these fifty or so wines available by the 2.5 ounce pour or by the full glass (there is no full bottle list), there is usually always a very interesting flight of wines on offer, highlighting a region, a varietal, or a particular winemaker. If after all this you can’t find an interesting wine to try at CAV, I fear you’re a hopeless case.

Should you choose not to drink, for whatever reason, however, CAV still might be worth a stop, as the food coming out of the kitchen run by executive chef Christine Mullin shines even without the wine to complement it. CAV’s menu is a combination of really excellent small plates (or “bites” as they call them) that are incredibly wine friendly. Seeming to change as often as the wine menu changes, this list has contained items as diverse as a trio Spanish tapas, squid ink risotto, organic salads, grilled vegetables, roasted quail, or oysters with champagne gelee. If something more substantial is required (whether from hunger or simply the need to absorb more than a few glasses of wine) you can tuck into a selection of entree size dishes that on my recent visit included grilled venison chops, a pork tagine with golden raisins, olive oil poached sea bass, and an honest-to-goodness gourmet fondue plate. Speaking of cheese, the cheese plate is quite possibly the best I’ve seen outside of a fine dining restaurant with a proper cheese course.

Service is casual but attentive, and unlike some other establishments this size in the city, they generally seem to have enough staff working to pay reasonable attention to everyone. CAV gets top marks from me for making sure its employees know what they are talking about when it comes to wine. Everyone standing behind the counter has an excellent command of the list and of wine in general, and those who work the floor are generally very well informed as well. Pamela herself is quite often to be found in either place and you’d be hard pressed to come up with a wine question she couldn’t answer.

Can I find anything to complain about? Well, I’d love a couch to sit on instead of a high stool, and I wish even the 2.5 ounce pours of wine came in large wine stems instead of the small tasting glasses, but other than that, there’s not much more that needs to be changed. A great list, excellent food, a mellow scene, and excellent service easily make CAV one of the top wine bars in San Francisco, and one of my favorite hangouts.

WINE LIST: four stars

STEMWARE: three and a half stars

SERVICE: four stars

FOOD: four stars

ATMOSPHERE: three and a half stars

OVERALL: four stars

CAV Wine Bar
1666 Market St
San Francisco, CA 94102
(415) 437-1770

Open Monday to Thursday 5:30PM to 11:00PM, Friday and Saturday 5:30 PM to Midnight. In addition to nightly service, the bar also offers occasional wine tasting classes and specialized tastings to highlight a region or varietal.

After 6:00 PM parking can be had with some effort on the surrounding streets and on Market Street itself. There’s always $8 Valet available at Zuni Cafe, as well.