With a decade-long legacy, Vino Vino is refreshing its menu while staying true to its Austin roots.
By Brianna Caleri, Photos by Courtney Runn
Vino Vino, a woody, rustic wine bar and restaurant, is a veteran in the Austin culinary scene, currently boasting more than a decade-long legacy in the Hyde Park neighborhood. The building itself dates back to the 1940s; the floorboards experienced a previous life at an old dance hall; the tables and bar top came from Bitter End Bistro & Brewery, which met its fate in a fire. Vino Vino looks the part of a heritage restaurant.
“People fall in love here,” says Executive Chef Ben Schwartz, referencing the mature, welcoming atmosphere.
In the dark glow of the dining room, the locally grown food is unexpectedly bright.
Schwartz and Doug West, the general manager and wine expert, have cultivated an ethos of expertise that dedicated regulars latch onto. The two still remember one couple that came with plenty of firm ideas about the wine they wanted to drink, unshakeable by West’s advice. A year later, the same couple regularly returns, excited to let him decide what they’re drinking next.
“It’s like a personal point of pride,” West says, “to be able to get someone’s tastes aligned…where they trust you enough [that]you can just put stuff down in front of them when they come.”
The duo is proud and serious about food but boldly opinionated and energized by each other’s presence. According to the business partners, Austin likes big red wine but not tablecloths. They think Austin has enough trendy new restaurants owned by corporations and covered with reflective décor, adding one thing it needs more of is great food service. The staff at Vino Vino is trained to provide deeper service than simply presenting a plate of food and a smile; they ask questions, carefully monitoring the clientele’s receptivity to the necessary changes that keep a restaurant fresh and true to its mission.
“I think you have to be flexible,” Schwartz says. “You have to listen to your clientele, and most importantly, you have to put them first. The second you start calling your clientele an idiot…or think that what you’re doing is above their head, you’re dead. You will never come back.”
In this case, the mission is serving traditional, radically high-quality food and wine. Most ingredients at Vino Vino are sourced within Texas; the only fruit or vegetable exception Schwartz can think of is citrus, some of which is featured vividly in a zesty orange marmalade that tastes like candied orange peel. Even the gentle, smooth honey on cheese plates is locally sourced, accompanying sweet house-made pickles, salty, tender prosciutto di San Daniele and creamy cheeses from as far away as Italy and France. The pasta is handmade by the kitchen staff the day before service. Reverently, to respect the provenance of each ingredient, the team keeps dishes simple, traditional and as close as they can get to what Schwartz calls the “grandma recipe,” some of the best food you’ll ever eat, in just a few ingredients.
West stresses to the service staff that each bottle of wine is equally as special as the thoughtfully curated food it accompanies.
“This is not just some juice in a bottle,” he explains. “It is something that someone toiled over and that someone lost sleep about just like we lose sleep over this. It’s a more important thing historically and culturally than just this thing that gets you drunk.”
Contributing to that cultural significance is an obligation both men feel about hosting community events like farm dinners and investing time in the education of staff members, many of whom go on to become vendors for the restaurant.
Although Vino Vino leans on the traditional side of cuisine and wine pairing, the goal is to push customers slowly and seamlessly out of their comfort zones. To this end, Schwartz developed two prix fixe menus—“Loves Me” and “Loves Me Not”—for Valentine’s Day and the following Friday. Schwartz deems the “Loves Me” menu the “classy side,” while the “Loves Me Not” menu represents more of a “fake trashy,” but still “with beautiful ingredients.” For the full experience, tables of two can order one of each and share.
A standout on the regular menu are the earthy, comforting johnnycakes made with Hopi blue corn originating in Arizona and topped with a cheerful remoulade. The Texas quail follows on top of a bed of farro risotto with salty mushrooms even richer than the gamy, mellow bird. Vibrant Moroccan ras el hanout shines through the visually stunning garnishes of the hummus plate with roasted carrots. And the spaghetti alla chitarra is a delicate, lighter option in a fresh green garlic sauce.
“The scene is so young,” Schwartz says of Austin dining. “And it grew up so fast. It’s kind of like a teenager without parents.”
Vino Vino wants to reintroduce traditional dishes done right to “a baby-food town,” and prove that it has everything Austinites need right here to make beautiful, delicious cuisine.
Vino Vino’s special Valentine’s Day menu is $75 per person and $35 for pairings.
Doug West’s Tips for Sourcing Wine.
- Notice things like body, alcohol, acid and tannin structure, and pay attention to how they interact with each other.
- Start learning calls, or markers, that help you recognize wines. For example, to some people, riesling smells like cut grass.
- Look for faults in the product (for instance, a volatile acid), and ask if those traits are accidental or stylistic.
- Consider where the wine comes from and whether the minerality, acidity and tannin levels reflect its origin.
- Think about how it pairs with food. Don’t let alcohol and body overpower protein. Counter creaminess with acid and look for similar flavors and notes.
- Buy wines you like and believe in and remember that it took passion and sacrifice to get it to you.