Uncorking the Zeitgeist: Temescal’s Snail Bar has the buzz but is mostly a bust

When we arrived at Snail Bar, I noticed a white-haired woman inside. She sat across from her companion, fork in hand and in motion. Just after we were seated at one of the empty wine barrels that doubles as a sidewalk table, the woman took our photograph. She discreetly held up her phone in our direction, and at the tables behind us, then disappeared. She hadn’t zeroed in on any particular face. Her photograph captured the convivial scene. An urban East Bay street corner, where people were emerging from their homes and apartments at dusk to drink together, make small talk, flirt and slowly get drunk on natural wines.

Before Snail Bar opened a couple of months ago, one headline announced that this Temescal wine bar was “hotly anticipated.” Another article reported on the chef’s dedication to slow food. When friends of mine drove by, they routinely noticed a crowd outside. Something about the combination of its location, the timing of the opening at this late stage of the pandemic, the advance press and the bar’s novel use of social media has summoned up that magical sense of FOMO. If you’re looking for the zeitgeist, Snail Bar is uncorking it nightly.

Earlier this year, I ate a delicious meal made by chef Christopher Ahr at Downtown Wine Merchants. DT Wine Merchants has none of Snail Bar’s word-of-mouth or its current cultural caché. The owner, Susanne Breen, doesn’t sell natural wines, because she says they’re made without SO2—sulfur dioxide—and are therefore “unstable.” Breen has been in the business for nearly 30 years and said, “There’s a reason why modern wine-making techniques exist.”

Regardless of which side of that argument one agrees with, I left Snail Bar wondering why I had just paid $99 for two glasses of wine, a few mediocre appetizers and a plate of stale bread. DT Wine Merchants is definitely an old-fashioned establishment, but three months later I still remember how good Ahr’s food was. When a restaurant or bar captures the public’s imagination, when customers feel emboldened to take photographs of something besides their own plates and faces, it doesn’t seem to matter whether the food is good, excellent or average. Snail Bar is serving the neighborhood a desirable illusion. Dining out is nearly back to normal—as long as patrons have their vaccination cards handy.

Management has trained the charming waitstaff to address customers as “friend.” As in, “Would you like another glass of wine, friend?” It’s a repetitive, Stepford-like gesture that’s as meaningless as a mannequin’s smile. My actual friend was surprised that her tasty French Pinot Noir ($8) was served chilled, with sediment settling to the bottom of her glass. She finished it, along with the refill that arrived in a laboratory beaker. I tried an orange wine ($8.50) for the first time and enjoyed the combination of citrus and a slight vinegar tang that lingered at the back of my mouth.

We ordered a wan charcuterie plate ($25) and a cheese plate ($25) that French citizens would derisively snicker at. When I imagine charcuterie, I picture ribbons of delicate pink ham or prosciutto and a hard salami or two. Instead, the plate featured a lone slice of pâté, dark-brown slices of duck meat, and folded, pale, white, fatty rounds of something unfortunate like mortadella. The trio of cheeses were all made in America; the runny, stinkiest one from Mike Pence’s home state. The tiny wedges were all tasty and sized to please a solitary dormouse.

A honeynut squash—halved, buttered and baked to a supreme creaminess—was the biggest hit. It wasn’t too sweet or overly spiced. The chef had smartly fried up tiny slivers of zucchini as a topping, which provided a pleasing and countervailing crunch. Had Snail Bar served freshly baked bread and a tub of rich butter, we would have stayed to order escargots or shellfish. Cold, hard bread is a total buzzkill. Although the quality of Snail Bar’s bread was the last thing on the minds of the photogenic people lining up for tables in the autumnal night air.

Snail Bar, open Thursday to Monday, 4–9:30pm, 4935 Shattuck Ave., Oakland. 510.879.7678. snailbaroakland.com
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