There's nothing quite so conducive to friendly interaction as opening a bottle of lovingly nurtured grape juice and sharing it with one's fellow bipeds. It's even better when good food and a convivial setting — a tapas bar, a sidewalk cafe — enter the equation. Despite its 21st-century proto-IKEA design, Berkeley's new Beta Lounge belongs to the tradition of the cozy pub and the neighborly taverna where noshes are nibbled and vino is quaffed and there's plenty of ho-paaa! to go around.
Opened in March by Sonoma natives Gabriel Duran and Elon Khelif, the sleek downtown wine bar boasts a clean loft atmosphere, with concrete walls, exposed piping, and a silvery-gray color scheme. The minimal design accents include a Siamese fighting fish (aka — aha! — the betta fish) slumbering in a bowl on the bar, which also features a large and attractive wine rack crafted at San Rafael's IK Design, a woodworks owned by Khelif's father. There are frosted windows draped in burgundy velvet, a lounge with red leather sofas and ottomans tucked away at one end of the room, and a hip indie-electronica sound design soft enough to encourage conversation.
Be warned, though: For a wine bar, the vino selection here is pretty minimal. This isn't the sort of place where you plow through a hundred pages of rare and perfunctory vintages in search of that perfect Pinot. Instead there are just seventeen wines on the premises, six white, eleven red, each priced at $8 per glass and $30 per bottle, with a couple of sparklers at $32 and $40 per bottle each. While this sort of setup restricts one's imbibing options considerably, it also simplifies things a great deal. The owners' desire is to serve what they know and like as inexpensively and unpretentiously as possible, and their selections — primarily midlevel wine-country vintages with the odd organic and import thrown in — fill the need.
The venue offers several other alcoholic possibilities as well. Beers include draft Lagunitas and Pyramid Hefeweizen, plus bottled Newcastle, Red Stripe, and Guinness. There's sake by the carafe and bottle in several variations, from the crisp and dry to the sweet, milky, and unfiltered. And an extensive menu of cocktails crafted from sake and soju include a few that are nearly as good as the real thing. Among those that weren't was a pallid margarita — you really need honest-to-God tequila when it comes to margaritas — and the mojito, which tasted like a tall glass of overly lime-y seltzer without its depth charge of rum. But the Cosmopolitan's underpinning of pomegranate juice complemented the high-octane soju in a pleasant and refreshing way, and the Cloud 9, a Beta Lounge original, mixed up lychee-flavored sake and creamy unfiltered nigori to excellent effect. (A blueberry-limned variation, the Blue Moon, wasn't quite as satisfying.) One night, the bartender, an affable sort, also served up complimentary shots of cocktails still in the planning stages: the Pink Pearl, a refreshing draught of champagne barely sweetened with grenadine; and the Beta Sunset, a concoction of pineapple juice, grenadine, and agave wine not unlike a mild tequila sunrise.
To complement the libations there's a menu of snack items and light meals that's as easygoing as the wine list. The hummus plate was simply constructed of whole-wheat pita wedges, kalamata olives, and a unique house-made hummus that was rich and hearty without being too citric or garlicky. Another platter featured a soft, aromatic triple-cream brie, a mildly nutty sheep's-milk cheese, and a wonderfully smoky and buttery aged Gruyère with a selection of crackers, grapes, and olives — the perfect wine-country snack. The spinach salad was bountiful with artichoke hearts, red onions, candied walnuts, and a marvelous spinach-Dijon dressing. And a couple of two-handed sandwiches — tomato-avocado and turkey-tomato-pesto — served on freshly baked rolls were delectable.
Some of the selections are a little too easygoing. The bread sticks turned out to be your basic focaccia with olive oil and balsamic vinegar on the side. The Beta Pizza was tasty enough — parmesan, mozzarella, tomato sauce, and your choice of pepperoni or roasted peppers and eggplant on a ciabatta roll — but it's the sort of thing you can whip up in the kitchen in ten minutes. The limpid guacamole wasn't particularly spicy or even avocado-y, relying on an overabundance of lime and cilantro for its flavor. But the spring rolls burst with the crisp, spiky flavors of fresh mint, sprouts, bell pepper, and richly seasoned tofu, and were especially yummy dunked in an earthy, creamy peanut-coconut dipping sauce.
Dessert is simplicity itself: sizable scoops of Ciao Bella's incomparable gelato in three flavors. If it had been up to me I'd have opted for at least one dark chocolate option as well as something in the seasonal-sorbetto arena; instead, there's a perfectly creamy vanilla, an irresistibly oomphy espresso flecked with bits of coffee bean, and a green tea complemented with big luscious chunks of white chocolate that offset the gelato's medicinal-herbaceous taste.
Vegetarians will find plenty to nibble on between all that quaffing and tippling. Flesh-free options include steamed and salted edamame, the "bread sticks" with oil and vinegar, the chips and guac, the tofu spring rolls, a mixed green salad in addition to the spinach varietal, the hummus, the cheese platter, the avocado sandwich plus another sandwich stuffed with roasted vegetables, and the plain cheese and the roasted vegetable pizzas.
In keeping with recessionary 2009's resurgent obsession with happy hour, the Beta Lounge offers $3 beers and $5 glasses of wine and sake every night from 4 to 7 p.m. alongside the house salad at $4, the hummus platter at $6, and the pizzas at $5 to $7 apiece. Cocktails are $5 all night Monday, bottles of wine are $20 all night Wednesday, and on Sunday nights sake bombs are $3.50, with large carafes half off. In addition, the staff is relaxed yet attentive, hip yet friendly (did we mention the free champagne shots?). This is an attractive and welcoming place to schmooze, snack, and sip.