The years have not been kind to the wine bar. Two decades ago it seemed there were three on every high street, offering a “sophisticated” alternative to the local boozer, where you could trot off to quaff some Chardonnay and talk about the hardships of the working week. As a journalist, I spent some of my happiest evenings in various wine bars, prising stories out of contacts and trying to remember them as I trundled back to the office.
Since then, though, they have dwindled in number, replaced by themed restaurants and coffee shops. The death of lunchtime drinking hasn’t helped, nor has the smoking ban and the general malaise of the on-trade. Some still cling on, such as Corney & Barrow and the time-honoured El Vino’s on Fleet Street. But it’s fair to say that most of them appear to have seen better, more lucrative days.
So it was a surprise and a pleasure to meet someone the other day who is having a bash at reviving this tired format, and doing rather well. He is Nathan Lowry and a couple of years ago he opened Pall Mall Wines, tucked in the Royal Opera arcade a few yards from Trafalgar Square. It aims to be to ordinary wine bars what an Aston Martin is to the Ford Mondeo. For Pall Mall is a fine wine bar, selling bottles to discerning punters at up to (and over) £1,000 a pop. It’s also a multi-purpose wine merchant, wine club, and online operation, as befits a 21st century business.
Nathan, as the former owner and manager of the late, great Marquee Club (where my hearing suffered irreversible damage as a teenager), is perfectly entitled to say: “Fine wine is the new rock ‘n’ roll.”
The truth is, it’s not easy to order and drink decent wine when you’re out and about, unless you pay through the nose for it. Pall Mall by contrast charges a flat £9 corkage on any bottle it sells. It also stocks a wide range of decent wines by the glass. The result is some very reasonable prices; £8 for a glass of Marques de Murrietta for example, or £7 per glass for a Pouilly Fume. Further up the scale my eye was caught by the Tourelles de Longueville 2009 at £63, which I suspect would be twice as much were you to order it in a restaurant. If you’re hungry, there are also plates of excellent charcuterie and cheese.
Pall Mall is working with Monopole Wines on a wine club that organises monthly tastings and will send you an exciting mixed case each month for £250 (several steps up from Laithwaites, thankfully). If you’re into wine but budget conscious, it feels like a pretty happening place. Nathan is now planning two more branches of Pall Mall, one in Leadenhall Market, where I suspect the formula will go down a storm. Keep an eye out for it later this year.
Pall Mall Fine Wines. 7 Royal Opera Arcade, London SW1Y 4UY, 020 7321 2529.