So, The Local Vine opened up mere steps from our front door in Belltown, but we avoided it for months. Partially because we were annoyed by the way they cordoned off the public sidewalk. Partially for the crowds of annoying smokers that always surrounded it, taking up what was left of the sidewalk and partially because we were waiting for the crowds to die down a bit.
Imagine our surprise when we found the place mostly empty at 8:30 on a Saturday night, on a holiday weekend, with Bumbershoot happening a few blocks away.
Counting ourselves lucky, we found a spot amongst the a-bit-too-modern-for-comfort furniture and sat down. We had read some of the reviews, so we knew the back story. This place was founded by two recent Harvard MBA grads looking to create a chain of neighborhood wine bars. They wanted to get people excited about wine in the way that Starbucks got them excited (and knowledgeable) about coffee. They were even offering free wireless as an enticement to sit and relax in their space.
Over our stay there, we found some fatal flaws for their business plan. The dark, candle-lit atmosphere screams romance (especially with wine). The lack of sound baffling unfortunately made that quite impossible as more people entered and the noise level became uncomfortable quickly. Speaking of uncomfortable, the low, backless furniture that is the majority of the place’s seating options is not very comfortable and makes it extremely difficult to have a meal without either hunching over the low table or risking spilling food over yourself as you make the long journey from your place to your mouth. The menu doesn’t help as it features a number of dishes dripping with sauces or other things dangerous to clothing. Their business plan may say “come, relax”, but their business actually says “go away.” The atmosphere itself was all about Belltown-cool which I can appreciate, but I have to admit that I’ve gotten tired of having hipster 20-somethings slouching and talking on a cellphone through their entire meal in my eye-line.
As we were here to actually eat and not lounge around drinking wine alone, we were excited that The Local Vine had gotten the chef from Crush in charge of the menu. The food itself was pretty good. For the portions and atmosphere it did feel overpriced. Most of the menu consists of small dishes, each priced between $8-$15. It took about 6 of them to feed the two of us. I would consider that a reasonably priced meal for the quality in a restaurant, but in the Local Vine it didn’t seem right.
The service was quite good when we sat down, but went down-hill as the restaurant filled up. By the end of the meal we were spending a lot of time trying to flag down someone to get our bill. This especially seemed strange because the employee to customer ratio was really high, even when the place was crowded. I’m really not sure how it devolved that badly.
Overall, I liked it. There are some serious problems there to be sure. The only thing that would get me to come back would be the food and then only early in the day when it isn’t too crowded. And then only if I wanted a snack and not a full meal. As far as the Starbucks-as-wine-bar concept, I think these MBAs need to learn a few more lessons before they’ll be able to successfully export this idea to other less-hip neighborhoods in Seattle, let alone other cities.