It seems the winning formula for restaurant success in this economy is a dual equation of innovative conception and affordable pricing, and San Diego’s Wine Vault & Bistro has done their math just right. Open only three nights a week for dinner service, Wine Vault designs its weekly changing tasting and prix-fixe menus around its ever-shifting wine offerings, turning out dishes that are specifically created to pair well with that night’s featured wine flight.
On Thursday and Friday nights, Wine Vault offers guests a $20 three-course prix-fixe menu that may be paired with an optional red, white, mixed, or featured wine flight, each of which usually comes in at under $20. Saturday night’s offerings include a chef’s five-course tasting menu for $30; each course is designed to pair with a wine or liquor on Saturday’s special wine flight, priced at a mere $20.
“Our concept gives people the opportunity to taste wines they may not be able to afford on a regular basis,” says Chris Gluck, Wine Vault’s owner, and the person in charge of choosing each week’s featured varietals. A born oenophile, Gluck handpicks the weekly wine list and suggests food pairings to the kitchen, educating the chef about each wine’s flavor profile.
“Our kitchen is very market-driven. Basically, we use whatever is fresh,” he says, stressing Wine Vault’s use of local produce and purveyors. “We have a lot of poetic license, but again, we stay within the wines’ flavor profiles.”
With menus that feature dishes like Duck Prosciutto with Roasted Figs, Balsamic Glaze and Wild Arugula (paired with a 1995 Vina Gotica Rioja Reserva), and Chile-Braised Pork Belly with Summer Squash Cake and Romesco Sauce (paired with a 2007 Two Hands “Angels Share” Shiraz), it’s no surprise the majority of Wine Vault’s dinners are often sold out or preceded by a hefty wait at the door.
“We’ve always been super affordable. It has nothing to do with the economy, it’s just the way we always envisioned doing business,” says Gluck, who opened Wine Vault three-and-a-half years ago after running a successful artisanal pasta distribution business. “All of our marketing is 100 percent e-mail, and we basically decided we would never advertise and take that hypothetical advertising budget and lower prices.”
The prix-fixe menu structure also helps keep prices down since Gluck usually has a pretty accurate idea of how many menus he’ll sell on any given night (upon accepting a reservation, Wine Vault requests a guest’s credit card number to avoid no-shows).
The owner also cuts costs by requesting guests go to the bar, themselves, to pick up their wine, eliminating the need for additional employees and making for a very social dining environment.
“Sometimes there’s a short line and you end up talking to people while you wait to pick up the next glass on your flight ticket,” Gluck explains.
“It’s been pretty busy consistently; I’m just thrilled that [business] has flat-lined, which tells me that it would have been taking off if the economy were better,” Gluck says. “I can see that we’ll be even busier and have to turn away more people in a better economy.”
In addition to Wine Vault’s three-day work week, Gluck often organizes at least one or two special winemaker dinners on the restaurant’s “off days,” inviting a specific winemaker or importer to host a five- or six-course tasting menu that includes wine pairings for each dish. More often than not, these events sell out quickly.
“A lot of people are very intimidated by wine. Inherently, there are two questions that they have about wine—the first is how much will it cost, and the second is what will it go well with,” Gluck explains. “We answer both questions. We take out the uncertainty of the money and the uncertainty of knowing what wines will work with what dish.”
Despite all the success, Gluck is still hesitant to expand the restaurant’s hours or 90-seat dining room.
“We certainly have some ideas, but in this economy we’re not going to do anything,” he says. “Everybody needs to learn to be satisfied with what they’ve got right now.”