San Francisco Wine Bar: Amelie le Bar a Vin

Every neighborhood deserves a wine bar, and more and more these days, it seems like every San Francisco ‘hood has one. Wine lovers are taking over the world! (Insert evil laugh here).

One of the latest outposts in the previously beer swilling frontier of San Francisco is the swanky Amelie le Bar a Vin, a beautifully designed space in the middle of the Polk street culinary corridor, if I can borrow the more common label for Valencia street. Polk street, formerly one of the infamous proving grounds for San Francisco’s ladies of the evening, is increasingly gentrifying along its entire length, and smack dab in the middle of it you’ll find Amelie. Just look for the glowing red bottles of wine.

Amelie has got one of the best atmospheres of any wine bar in San Francisco, a perfect blend of mood lighting, nice interior features, comfy seating, and a beautiful bar. I’m not sure who designed the place, but whoever it was had a lot of fun and a great eye for detail. From the wall lighting made from chains of red frosted wine bottles, to the red lacquer bar with fluorescent lighted raceways, to the quirky green ex-theater seating in the front of the space, Amelie has something to offer every kind of wine lover — those who want a more formal dining experience, those who want to lounge, and those who want to lean on the bar with friends.

Amelie’s wine list, which is offered as loose leaf paper clipped to idiosyncratic backing materials that include record sleeves and old book jackets, is competent, French-leaning, though not horribly adventurous. Occasionally it features a few wines that connoisseurs would consider a bit pedestrian. But with more than 20 whites and 20 reds available by the glass, and many more by the bottle, no one is going to get stuck with something they don’t want to drink. Stupidly, the bar only offers these wines by the (very generous) 6 ounce pour. The staff is more than willing to give you a little taste of anything you’re considering, but they haven’t quite got the idea that a good wine bar should help teach people about different sorts of wine, and that forcing people to order a huge glass is only going to teach them how to get drunk.

Speaking of glasses, Amelie also loses points for pouring every wine in the same clumsy bistro stemware, no matter what the variety. If you order one of their flights of wine, they’ll actually serve them to you in relatively proper tasting glasses, but order $15 glass of Chardonnay and you’ll get it in a glass that some restaurants don’t consider fit for serving bottled water. I actually saw two proper crystal Bordeaux wine glasses when I was there recently. One was hanging in a rack behind the bar, and was actually used to serve some woman a glass of wine, and the other is where the bartenders keep their pens and pencils.

Like many small wine bars in the city, Amelie is staffed pretty regularly with one or more of its owners. Germain Michel claims to spend 7 days a week on duty at the bar, and while I haven’t been in there a whole lot, he’s been every time I have, so he might just be telling the truth. You’ll find him friendly and well versed in the wines on the list, though the same is not true of his other staff, who are more often serving patrons in the back or the front of the space. Last time I was there my questions about a Riesling on the list yielded a description of the wine as, “well, sort of sweet, but not really,” and a blank stare when I started throwing out words like ‘kabinett’ and ‘spatlese.’ If you find yourself confronting such facial expressions in your quest for a good glass while you’re there, I suggest asking for one of the “experts.”

To go with your glass (or bottle) of wine, there are a number of excellent choices on the wine friendly menu put together by co-owner Samie Didda (who most locals will know better from Bistro Chou Chou) and overseen on a daily basis by chef-de-cuisine Ben Coe. Offering a nice variety of small plates, cheeses, charcuterie, and more substantial plates, the menu allows for everything from snacking to serious eating depending on your mood. I particularly recommend the cheeses and small plates, though I might suggest avoiding the signature Raviole de Royans, which just end up being tongue scorching lava-beds of browned cheese and overcooked pasta.

The scene at Amelie as far as I can tell is a nice mix of folks who stumble down from Russian Hill and Pacific Heights looking for a casual good time without a lot of pretension. While there certainly are more than a few Beautiful People™ on display, Amelie avoids being tragically hip, at least to the point that I don’t feel out of place, which perhaps tells you something.

While the stemware and the wine list could be taken up a notch to make it a truly stand-out destination for wine lovers, Amelie is definitely a worthy pilgrimage for wine lovers in the area, and a fabulous place to stop for a drink after a movie around the corner at the Clay.

WINE LIST: two and a half stars

STEMWARE: one half star

SERVICE: two stars

FOOD: two and a half stars

ATMOSPHERE: four stars

OVERALL: three stars

Amelie le Bar a Vin
1754 Polk Street
(cross street: Washington)
San Francisco, CA 94109

Amelie is open 7 days a week from 6:00 PM until 2:00 AM (kitchen closes between 11:00 PM and 12:00 AM). Street parking in the neighborhood is hit or miss, but there are lots of parking garages reasonably close by, such as the one on Bush at Polk.

Public transportation options are numerous, including the MUNI bus lines #19, 47, 49, and 76 down Van Ness or Polk, as well as the #12 and 27 cross town lines on Jackson and Washington.

Dress is casual, though if you’re looking particularly scruffy you might feel out of place among the young, and inevitably well dressed crowd.