These are far from the best of times for the New York restaurant business. Costs in every conceivable part of the industry continue to rise. Labor remains in extremely short supply. Customers, many of whom learned the joys of home cooking during the pandemic, are increasingly daunted by menu prices.
And yet. There is magic in a New York night out done properly. Fernando Hernandez, the former Lead Sommelier at Michelin-starred Casa Mono and Bar Jamon, knows this. Which is why, when he and his former Casa Mono colleague, sous-chef Andrew Kelly, saw the opportunity to open a wine bar in a cozy rectangle of a space on the Lower East Side, they jumped—and Brick Wine Bar was born.
Hernandez talked with The New Wine Review about Brick Wine Bar’s breakneck opening, weirdo wine list, and why reasonably priced wine changes the energy of a restaurant in wonderful ways.
“This bar happened too quickly”
- I went to Italy this year. I now get why people love Europe: you can have a meal and a great bottle of wine, and you can afford it! I also noticed that the most reasonably priced wines were from grapes and regions I was less familiar with. But they were great. I thought, ‘if I ever open a place, I want it to be this. How cool would that be to have a bar with varietals and regions that are less well-known, but they’re all delicious? And it’s all affordable, easy, nice.’ That’s what Brick Wine Bar is.
- Brick is pretty much a hole in the wall. It’s on Clinton Street which, to me, is the last real part of the Lower East Side. It’s very New York. It’s loud. Full of people. But it has its charms.
- This bar happened too quickly. I knew what to do; I had a business plan. But man, it happened fast. I decided to leave Casa Mono. I spent 18 years there. I started as a busser and worked in every front of the house position up through buying all the wines. I was working with fantastic, super knowledgeable people. But at one point I wondered, “Will I be good at this anywhere else? Or is this the only spot for me?” So I took a new job. Maybe two or three weeks after, one of my former guests at Casa Mono, a guy who owns restaurants, he finds me and says, “I think I found a spot for you.” So we take a 12-minute walk and then we see the space, and I think, “This is right. This is cool. It gives you a different vibe”’ And he says, “We want you to be a partner here.” After that, everything happened in weeks.
- The first night was cool. Something I’ll never forget. We were getting things organized for our 5:00 opening. And at 2:30, someone walks in and says, “Are you guys open?” And we kind of looked at each other and were like, “Fuck it. Yeah, we’re open!” And that was our first customer. I had to go find a chair for them; they weren’t even out yet.
The magic of reasonable prices
- During the pandemic, prices just skyrocketed. It wasn’t fun for people. They’d come visit us for a casual drink and their bill would be crazy. I thought that was really wrong.
- We’re trying to go the other way. All of our wines are $11-$13 per glass. All our bottles are under $53. Our guests are like, “How are you making money on this?” and I say, “Maybe I’m not!” But you can see them relax when they see the prices. They’re used to New York prices.
- People think, “How good can a $40 bottle in a restaurant be? It’s probably going to be shitty.” And they’re right! They know there’s usually a limit to how good cheap wine can be. But then they taste what we serve them, and they’re amazed. The secret is to serve less well-known wines. People assume we’re taking a hit on our margins because these wines are too good for their price.
- What’s so cool is that moment when the guest sees what we’re doing, and they kind of get it—that’s how we know we’re going to see them again. In our first week, a group came in and ordered five or six bottles and a bunch of food, and at the end, I drop the check, and the guy was like, “Is this it? Did you charge me wrong?” And I said, “nope, that’s it.” He was immediately like, “Well, fuck it! Give us two more bottles, then!”
- The right way to come to Brick is to reverse the food and wine decisions. I’ll say, “You choose the wine, and then let me feed you.” We think of it as food pairings, not wine pairings. I’ll bring out two or three dishes that really show off all the dimensions of the wine. The whole thing is maybe $75. People love that, man. In New York, you get one bottle of wine and two plates of food, you’re already at $120 or $130 at most places.
On fabulous, unheralded wines
- Our list is weird, man. We have wines from Hungary, Georgia, Pinot Nero from Italy, Cinsault Rosés from Morocco, unoaked Chardonnay from Mexico that’s very mineraly and crisp, but still gives you those bruised apple Chardonnay aromas. It’s an adventure here.
- My favorite region in Spain is Ribera Sacra, in Galicia. The main variety there is Mencia, which is super pale, but very aromatic, floral, vegetal—you get brighter red and black fruits, but it’s very light and has a great mineral balance to it. It’s a hell of a wine.
- One of the reps I like a lot brought in this unfiltered Northern Italian wine called Easy, made from a varietal called Monarc. It’s a new variety, it’s only been around since 1988. And I just thought, “If I saw this on a shelf, I’d never buy it.” But when you taste it, it’s awesome! So I went for it—it’s now one of our most popular wines.
- I think Mexican wine is about to have a boom. They’re traveling to Europe, bringing back what they learned, and following traditional practices, but they’re being more adventurous than most winemakers in France or Italy. Baja is surrounded by water, which gives them a big advantage in temperature control. There are great wines being made there. Lots more are coming.
- You have to change once you open. Like, right away. We’re not struggling—we’re doing fine. But you quickly realize you have to adapt to what guests want.
- You look around, you listen to people, and you adjust. Our neighborhood is more of a bar food area, so we’re trying out high-end sandwiches now. People wanted happy hour pricing, so we introduced smaller, by-the-glass pours of wine in addition to larger by-the-carafe pours.
- We’ve had to learn to work with the neighborhood. Our space is more minimalist than some of the older spots around us. So we stick out. It’s a little tricky, actually. You can see it when people walk by and get a little confused—they think we’re too upscale. We’ve had to fight that a bit. For example, we switched from cloth to paper napkins. That little stuff helps tell people this isn’t a fancy place.
The decline of service
- Service in NY sucks now. It’s horrible. Everyone got used to pandemic-style service when it was OK to not do a perfect job. Places were short-handed, so people were understanding. But that’s over. There’s no excuse now.
- The whole thing is about hospitality. That’s what we’re good at. if you feel like we take good care of you, if this is a spot where you feel happy, we know you’re coming back.
- When I first watched people order through an app at a restaurant, I was like, “No way. That’s messed up.” I never thought it would catch on. You lose a lot of who you are as an industry when that happens. You lose the talking, the pleasure, the ability to give people an experience and make it personal.
“We give hugs”
- On Fridays, I like to have a more friendly approach. It’s the end of the week, it was probably rough for some people. We chat as friends. We give hugs. I top them off with wine. People will stay for hours. Saturdays are busier. It’s younger. It’s a little louder. I have to move faster. The contrast is good.
- It’s funny how music affects the environment of work. When I see the team is low, I play more vivid music with more rhythm, and it’s cool—you can see everyone waking up to it. When the music’s louder, everyone moves faster.
- We get a lot of sommeliers in here. A lot of industry people. They love it. They love the idea you can come in and split a really good wine for $50 and relax with it. Where else can you do that in this city?