Vinifera Wine Bar & Bistro is the sort of restaurant where a humorous remark about a regular can and does set the place roaring with laughter.
Affectionate laughter, the sort born of easy relationships among familiars, like the many Michelles and Jeremies, the Al, the Deena and the Carol who’ve come to love Vinifera and make the place their own since it opened in May 2017.
Co-owners Brittiany Karlson and Jeremy MacArthur revere those names and hope to welcome more to the restaurant at 18 Auburn Way S., known to locals as the former site of the long-vanished Flapper Alley.
It is the atmosphere, Karlson and MacArthur say, mashed up with top-notch food and top-drawer wine, that sets Vinifera apart from the run-of-the-mill and keeps its legion of partisans coming back for more, and more.
“We’re really like a family here,” Karlson said.
Between walls on which hang photos of the city of Auburn, old and new, donated by the White River Valley Museum, the restaurant offers an impressive variety of inspired cuisine, sommelier-selected wines, most of them the product of grapes grown in Washington state, locally-crafted beers and signature cocktails.
Cocktails like the lemon-lavender martini, Karlson said, citing her personal favorite. This drink is made from a purple gin into which are dropped flavored ice chunks that melt and infuse the concoction with unexpected tastes and release edible blossoms, so that the last drop down the hatch differs from the first drop.
MacArthur, sommelier and cook, and Karlson, who holds down the front end and does the books, came to Auburn five years ago to work at Auburn Wine and Caviar. When they learned that the old Flapper Alley site was available, they struck out on their own.
The two are fond of mixing up the menu, trying out new dishes, keeping customer palettes in a state of delicious anticipation.
“About six weeks ago, we mixed up our menu, sort of focusing a lot more on smaller plates of food, sort of amuse-bouche (french for “happy bite”) style or tapas-style food,” MacArthur said.
“We’ve noticed that a lot of our customers want to sit and linger and have drinks and snacks with their friends, so we wanted to make sure we have a lot of things like that,” Karlson explained. “Shareable things, so people can come in relax and not feel rushed, just kind of have a plate here and a plate there and mingle with their friends, instead of feeling like ‘you gotta eat your food and go.’”
“The way it works now is, in ascending order: bigger platters and smaller plates,” MacArthur said. “The GF on the menu next to selected items means it’s naturally gluten-free vegan or it can be made gluten-free.”
The menu offers a lot of burgers, flat breads and salads, the latter made at the restaurant and tastied-up with MacArthur’s own handmade dressings.
“We probably sell about 120 pounds of crispy mushrooms a week; it’s our most popular menu item,” Karlson said.
Also wildly popular, the spicy pork chops and the salmon, a menu stalwart that MacArthur changes with the seasons, just as he does with vegetables.
“We’re also going to do a spring-pea risotto with fresh pea shoots and a little bit of lemon and parsley in there,” MacArthur said.
The two are working out their spring menu, ornamenting it with singular items like carrot-cake waffles.
But, said MacArthur, eager to correct a common and clearly grating misunderstanding, while Vinifera does have Italian food on the menu, it is not an Italian restaurant.
“People think we are Italian because of the name. But it’s actually a Latin name. The full phrase is Vitis Vinifera, which is a type of grape,” he said of a grape that is also the chief source of old-world wines and table grape varieties.
Whatever the two have been doing, it’s working. Among the many laurels placed on their heads have been Best New Business and Best Diner in the Auburn Reporter’s annual Best of Auburn contest.
“Everyone from the wine novice to the wine snob can come in and find something to enjoy,” MacArthur said.
“Or somebody who just wants to drink Jack Daniels at the bar,” Karlson added, “we just want everyone to feel comfortable, enjoy themselves, enjoy our live music, become friends with the other regulars and the people who are sitting around. We do notice a lot of our customers get up and talk to each other and have a really great time when they’re in here. There’s a lot of mingling. We’ve had almost the same staff from the time we opened, so they really know our customers, and our customers really know them.”
“I think we know more about our customers than maybe we should know,” MacArthur said with a laugh.