Since it opened in 2012, brunch at Sweedeedee in Portland, Oregon’s Mississippi neighborhood has attracted what can only be described as a parade of local clichés (men with ironic mustaches, ladies in perfectly shaped vintage coats) lining up for hours for eggs and anadama bread. But by 3 p.m., they are all gone. That’s when Simon Lowry and Liz White show up. By 6 p.m., the daytime-only cafe has morphed into Sardine Head, an evening pop-up wine bar.
Lowry and White’s Sardine Head is one of an underground movement of ad-hoc wine bars around the country. Primarily started by restaurant industry vets, these pop-ups have become a means of putting a new stamp on a tired construct. With a relatively low bar to entry (most utilize existing restaurant and bar spaces in off hours or on slow nights), the wine bars give owners a chance to experiment with concepts that might not be able to support a seven days a week set-up—a chance for natural-wine-meets hip-hop parties and a menu that surrounds savory white wine and copious tins of fish to be viable concepts. Some begin with hopes of one day manifesting as a brick-and-mortar concept, while others are a temporary exercise meant to fill a hole in their city’s wine life. These have become some of the more thrilling places in the country to drink wine.
Sardine Head grew out of a monthly coursed dinner with wine pairings, but Lowry (the wine guy) and White (chef and former fish monger) soon wanted to pivot to something “more democratized,” says Lowry. The pop-up now operates three (soon to be four) nights a week and offers an impressive 60 wines alongside imported tinned fish and à la carte seafood dishes. (The name, Sardine Head, refers to the French penn sardin, a once-pejorative term for the women who worked in canneries on France’s Brittany coast—a job Lowry’s grandmother held.)
They aren’t the only two that see a symbiosis between wine and tinned fish. “When I was working at The Whale Wins, [chef] Renee Erickson introduced me to Matiz sardines,” says Mandie Liddle. “When I started paying attention to natural wine, tinned fish and fatty salty things just made sense. The high acid in lots of natural wine goes well with those flavors.” She found a thread there when working with Dana Frank at her former wine bar, Dame, in Portland. She carried this on to her own pop-up, Bar de Soif.
With her business partner, Jonathan Werth, Liddle began hosting their Bar de Soif monthly pop-up at Seattle’s Essex on Monday nights, when the bar was closed. The pop-up became so popular that the owner of JarrBar (where Werth and Liddle worked full time) offered the pair his space on a weekly basis. Werth and Liddle called on all of the natural wine importers and distributors in the city and got them on board, enabling Bar de Soif to make wines available by the glass and the bottle—at cost. The idea was to have the opportunity to serve wines by the glass that were ordinarily only available by the bottle in other restaurants.
“We were more concerned with capturing and sharing the rare momentary magic that is natty wine in its prime,” says Liddle. “We created something that we felt was missing in the natural wine community here in Seattle, with loud music, small bites and lots of laughs.”
The beauty and the hitch with a pop-up is that it is almost built to be transient. In the fall, Werth moved to Europe with an undeclared return date and Liddle needed a break. She hopes to launch a new round of Bar de Soif in the spring, but in the meantime, she’s tapped another pop-up concept with a similar vision to pick up the baton at JarrBar: Juice Club, a pop-up concept launched by five friends as a dinner club showcasing natural wine with chef Matt Lucas’ food. Their evenings at JarrBar will enable them to pack in 35 people at a time and serve casual snacks, or what Lucas describes as “off-the-cuff things I want to eat, made with really good ingredients” alongside wines from Abruzzo’s Lammidia and pét-nat from Oyster River in Maine.
Whereas the food served really drives the wine menu at Juice Club and Sardine Head, at Seeds, Stems and Everythang, Juan Fernando Cortes and Brad Tolleson’s wine pop-up in Decatur, Georgia, it’s as much about wine as it is about music. Named for an Outkast song (natch) of the same name, Cortes and Tolleson marry their love of hip-hop with the wines that they’re into every Thursday night at Brush Sushi Izakaya, starting at 10 p.m. The two make their own playlists and collaborate with a different wine importer every month, with eight or nine options available by the glass and a slightly longer list of by-the-bottle options. Lately, they’ve been inviting local chefs to present a short menu of late-night dishes, too.
While the two don’t have any big plans for turning the concept into an independent operation, a number of these pop-ups have been launched with that intention from the get-go. When Dana Frank was in the process of opening her Bar Norman in Portland, Oregon, she hosted Natty by Nature pop-ups around town, combining natural wine with ‘80s and ‘90s hip-hop that her husband, Scott Frank, would play on vinyl, as a sort of test run. Similarly, Briana and Andrew Volk are looking to overhaul the little grocery that’s attached to their restaurant, Little Giant, in the other Portland (Maine). They’ve launched a series of monthly wine nights, called Hush Hush, a beta version of the wine bar they’re hoping to realize later this year. Each night has a theme: funky wines and caviar and yes, you guessed it, tinned fish; magnums and pasta; West Coast white wines and Chinese food.
“We’re doing them to see if this sort of concept has some legs to become more permanent,” says Briana. But it’s also about taking the opportunity to share what they love in a relatively low-risk fashion and quite simply, she says, “Andrew and I just think it’s fun.”