Friday, December 18, 2009

Spill the Wine

I have always liked that part of town. It’s a frontier of sorts between the labyrinth of the University and the whirr and noise of downtown Minneapolis, an open expanse hemmed in by strange freeway entrances, the cheap, unlovely Metrodome, and a bend of the Mississippi that can still accommodate houseboats while also cuddling up to a quaint power plant or two from a bygone era.

Washington Avenue cuts an expansive swath through the center of this ragged urban zone, and it’s lined with equally odd establishments including an indoor skating rink, an Old Spaghetti Factory, The Minnesota Center for Book Arts, the local headquarters of the Red Cross, and, capping its east end, the formerly Swedish neighborhood known as Seven Corners, where the elegantly broken-down Southern Theater serves as a favorite venue for various dance organization.

In recent years the Guthrie theater and a raft of condos have arrived in the neighborhood, and in their wake a few interesting nightspots have opened up in the warehouse spaces nearby.

The other day we decided to check out the Happy Hour at Spill the Wine.

The deal is this: from 4 to 6 p.m. appetizers are ½ price (i.e. 4-5 dollars apiece) and they offer an assortment of $15 bottles of wine. These “special” wines aren’t actually printed out anywhere, and the waitress who served us initially had a very shaky command of who the vintners were, but really, does it matter? We ordered the chardonnay, which was fine, and later tried the pinot grigio, which was also fine.

As for the appetizers, they were slightly classier than one might desire; we ended up having more than our fill of sashimi, gnocchi, calamari, and crab cakes. But they were tasty enough and fairly priced. No complaints.

The ambiance of Spill the Wine is quite nice—a sort of peach-crate elegance with a few tables in front looking out across Washington Avenue (nice view) and a warmer, darker room stretching back from the street alongside the bar. The noise level was pleasant—animated but not overwhelmingly loud, which made it easy for the eight of us to talk back and forth across the table.

The only real blot on the evening was our waiter, an energetic fellow who reminded me of a thinner, cheerier version of Newman, the misanthropic postman in Seinfeld. He insisted on pouring out the wine glass by glass, which is a real no-no in my book, especially with such a large group, people arriving at different times, and two types of white wine on the same table. Worse than that, he brought out quite a few dishes we hadn’t ordered. “We didn’t order this,” I said at one point. “It’s on the house,” he replied and darted away as if on roller skates. As the dishes piled up, the only explanation I could think of was that a private party had canceled at the last minute and they had a lot of raw fish sitting around in the kitchen attracting flies. Meanwhile, Newman neglected to bring out a few things that we had ordered—the cheese plate, for example.

When he brought the bill, he mumbled something about “two of the dishes are on me.” Hmmm. “Is something wrong?” he asked sheepishly when I went over to talk with him. “I’ve been going to restaurants for decades,” I replied, “and I’ve never experienced anything like this. We didn’t order half of these things.” “What do you want me to do?” he said, with an anxious tremor in his voice, as if he were genuinely concerned, “Knock $20 off the bill?” “Forty minimum,” I replied, and he immedately agreed.

Later Newman came over to the table and apologized for any “misunderstanding.” He seemed not only contrite but genuinely melancholy, like a dog who’s just been kicked by someone he’s always trusted. It was a strange scene all the way around, and it cast an faint but ugly shadow over what was supposed to be a festive little get-together.

All the same, I’d like to go back to Spill the Wine, it’s a nice place to sit, maybe try the hummus and the cheese plate. Next time I’ll bring a pad and pencil, so we can keep our order straight…even if the waiter can’t.