Blokes & Birds: Union of wine and English pub

The usual American take on a traditional English pub is to have the resplendent Red Lion on the marquee, a ruffian-bartender in a rugby shirt and a dented “telly” playing a tape-delayed match between Manchester United and Chelsea.

How do fine cuisine, wine and Wrigleyville fit into this picture?

The recent, intrepid opening of Blokes & Birds on North Clark Street is a challenge to the old stereotypes of: English watering holes; the grub associated with said pubs; and the pinstriped, boisterous local baseball fans who water the holes on every Lakeview corner.

Note: For a full Q&A recap, continue reading on New English: Wine and Pub United – Chicago Budget Wine

Blokes & Birds certainly is a departure from the unpleasant things associated with a London-style pub. Although live soccer might be on TV, there’s no odor of spilled ale, the fried fish isn’t redolent of Piccadilly Circus and the staff features good dental work and better manners.

“It’s all the good things about an English pub,” says proprietor Daily Webb. “Except, our bartenders don’t tell you to f— off. We offer a contemporary twist on English fare.”

Value Wine Chicago has explored seeming incongruities before, and Blokes & Birds might offer the most: Civilized drinking in Wrigleyville; haute English cuisine with gastropub aplomb; and a wine program that rather accentuates said cuisine. A recent conversation with Mr. Webb revealed bold initiatives with this often-overlooked fare — along with a goal of providing good wine values to customers.

VWC: You offer what some might call an oxymoron: English cuisine. How do you “pair” your wine program with such an ambitious approach?

Daily Webb: The original concept was to have everything on the menu be affordable. I wanted quality product but at a fair price point. This establishment is where people can feel they can come seven days a week, and would be a virtual extension of a customer’s living room. There was a need for something in this neighborhood that wasn’t just another sports bar. At the same time, Mia Francesca is a great neighborhood restaurant, but it’s a place considered more for special occasions. So, I wanted to stand out from those two [polar opposites].

At the very beginning of this venture (we opened on Nov. 2), I wasn’t sure how much wine I would actually be able to sell, and we had a small portfolio; our beer and spirits portfolio has always been quite extensive. But wine has become quite popular, and I’ve been pleasantly surprised as to how good wine sales have been.

The menu emphasizes affordability and approachability, and it has led me to choose the particular wines for my list. We originally had a lot of California wines and South American wines, and we’ve recently added a lot of Rieslings. I have done a lot of tastings with my rep from Glunz, and she has really educated me since I began this project. We sat down and paired things with the menu, and I followed her lead.

VWC: What are some of your personal wine discoveries? Does anything stand out to you either varietally or regionally, and which of those have resonated most with your customers?

DW: I actually spent a lot of my time during high school in South America, and I just fell in love with the wines from there. So that definitely influenced why the list has such a South American representation. South America is producing great wine very inexpensively. So, with the economic climate being the way it is, people will continue to look for perceived value, and this region is offering it. One South American wine we just added is the Ventisquero Reserva Cabernet Sauvignon 2007 from Maipo Valley. It’s a big, bold and juicy Cabernet. I also just picked up Ridge East Bench Zinfandel 2009, which is a California wine. It’s 100 percent Zinfandel, and it’s been a big seller. I just added it a little over a week ago, and we’ve already gone through a couple of cases. I think Zinfandel is great with our 14-hour braised lamb shoulder/Shepherd’s Pie, or with our foie gras burger.

Another wine I added recently is the Notro Malbec, and I very much enjoy that with those menu items, too.


About Thomas Caestecker

I have had the privilege to witness the wine industry through both the corporate and media lenses for several years. My conclusion: The value sector has the potential for real growth in the industry. Luxury wines are battered by the economy; inexpensive bulk wine is simply cheap. This blog's mission is to reveal competitively priced, under-the-radar wines.
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