A midsummer night’s dream: Bar Sardine packs in crowds with natural wine, tinned fish and a cozy vibe

A medley of warm Castelvetrano olives, Ortiz Spanish anchovies, and an "almost hard-cooked egg" with harissa at Bar Sardine in Berkeley. Photo: Kathryn Bowen

It’s 8 p.m. on a Tuesday that, earlier in the afternoon, felt particularly Tuesday-ish. No longer though, as you watch a fading summer sun streak the sky and sip a crunchy sparkling wine (a pétillant-naturel, to be exact). The pour is a golden pastiche of the sunset, with notes of lemon zest. But no one likes to drink alone, so before you, too, are dual slabs of country bread piled high with Early Girl tomatoes so juicy, you recall your red friend is a fruit, not a vegetable.

No, you didn’t beam up to Rome to enjoy a leisurely August aperitivo; nor are you in Veneto, Italy, though that is the terroir of your wine (Angiolino Maule’s 2017 Garg’n’Go Bianco Frizzante, $14). You are on San Pablo Avenue in Berkeley at Bar Sardine, the wine bar that pops up at Bartavelle, and that recently added Tuesday evenings to its Friday night repertoire.

Bar Sardine is open Tuesday and Friday evenings at Bartavelle Coffee & Wine Bar. Photo: Hailey Johnson

Bartavelle mother-son co-founders Suzanne Drexhage and Sam Sobolewski launched Bar Sardine in December 2018, in the image of a European wine bar. The duo serves a limited, marine-centric menu that incorporates the Portuguese and Spanish concept of easy-eating, artisanal conserva (food served in cans or jars). Sardine’s timing was fortuitous, if not inspired, considering recent meta-commentary confirming that tinned fish is, indeed, a restaurant trend. Speaking of fads, you may have read about Bar Sardine in local “natural” wine spreads, as most of its rotating by-the-glass and bottle selections fall within the au naturel set.

So what is “natural” wine and why is it the subject of such intense interest? According to “honest viticulture” expert Alice Feiring, it is “wine without crap in it,” as she writes in her new book Natural Wine for the People. Though more precise definitions are debated, the idea behind natural wine is to minimize intervention in the vintning process — so ideally, no sulfur or other additives to enhance color, body or taste.


Pours of the Methode Sauvage “Moonstones” Chenin Blanc and the Louis-Antoine Luyt 2018 “Laja” Pipeño, at Bar Sardine.
Pours of the Methode Sauvage 2018 “Moonstones” Chenin Blanc and the Louis-Antoine Luyt 2018 Pipeño Laja at the bar. Photo: Kathryn Bowen.

And while you may have heard words like “funky,” “cloudy” or “fizzy” to describe natural wines, Feiring says these styles “defy categorization,” so don’t be surprised if Bar Sardine serves up a glass of something fairly clear, like the vibrant Methode Sauvage 2018 “Moonstones” Chenin Blanc ($14), or a mellow pour, such as the Chilean Louis-Antoine Luyt 2018 Pipeño Laja ($11). As for the recent natural wine fanfare? It depends on who you ask: Some people just like the taste, others are concerned by the health effects of preservatives, and more still may be looking to skirt a sulfur-induced headache. (We can all dream, right?)

When it comes to the conserva craze, to dismiss Bar Sardine as merely riding the wave would overlook its primary strength: the stuff that comes on a plate, not in a tin. Luscious and sweet sliced figs are precious when drizzled with honey and paired with La Quercia prosciutto ($12). Do as the Romans do, eat the combo as a sandwich, in this case, between two slices of toasted Acme baguette. The panino was, technically, cobbled together from bread that accompanied the Ortiz Spanish anchovies ($14); to that end, mixing and matching dishes is highly encouraged and satisfying at Sardine.

While we’re on the subject of anchovies, Sardine’s specimens triangulate effortlessly between the baguette’s slightly sweet crumb and a pat of fresh butter. Calabrian chilies are likewise at your disposal, for a kick. The above-referenced Early Girl tomato tartine ($9) practically screams “summer,” and is not to be missed these months. The creamy aioli on the open-face sandwich is housemade, our server said. Don’t forget about the salt cod brandade — a thick, whipped spread served with lightly buttered and toasted baguette ($11) — that may cause fish dip skeptics to reconsider their reticence.

Still, you can’t go wrong with the Portuguese and Spanish tinned fish ($12), from which you may choose mackerel, squid in its own ink, or sardines, with or without lemon. The sardines are meaty and well oiled, but the version with citrus lacks punch despite a helping hand from large-flaked salt.

Tinned sardines with lemon, which are served with Acme baguette, butter, and Calabrian chiles.
Tinned sardines with lemon, which are served with Acme baguette, butter, and Calabrian chiles. Photo: Kathryn Bowen

If you’re looking for a rounded meal, there may be some menu strategizing required to determine what and how much to order. Ask one of the Sardine crew members, and they will graciously guide you. At the same time, bear in mind that combining several items can add up, especially with a few glasses of that thirst-quenching wine.

But consider the delicate touches. Crushed fennel seeds on warm Castelvetrano olives ($4), housemade harissa — that’s actually pretty hot — atop a perfectly jammy “almost hard-cooked egg” sliced in two ($4). Minced ginger decorates pickled carrots, while soft pickled squash present a sweet, mustardy note; the veggies accompany several dishes, and like the wine, lend lovely acid. As Drexhage is a Chez Panisse alumna who doubles as Sardine’s chef, it’s no wonder that her selections are simple, seasonal and attentive to detail. Drexhage also conceived of Bartavelle’s moniker with Alice Waters, vanguard of the farm-to-table milieu, and Waters’ Café Fanny previously occupied the space, too.

True to its name, Bar Sardine was fairly packed at 6:30 p.m. — its inaugural Tuesday service (and again, two days later, on a Friday night). It was an upbeat, all-ages crowd with an art-school aesthetic that made me feel just the slightest bit uncool. But our server quickly shepherded me into the fold. Without solicitation, he detailed the evening’s by-the-glass wine list, explaining styles and places of origin. He offered a taste of each recommendation and nailed our preferences — both evenings, despite new selections.

While running plates from the chef’s counter, Sobolewski moonlighted as DJ, alternating the tuneage one night between the Velvet Underground and funk-inspired acid jazz. The music helped set Sardine’s lively, low-key vibe that delivers the fashion factor of a wine bar, without the pretension. Perhaps because of Sardine’s petite indoor quarters, it can be moderately noisy near the bar. Step outside for a quieter space, or if you have little ones who’d like to run around the kid-friendly patio.

The crowd at Sardine thins by 8 p.m., so you might head there then with a larger party and catch a watercolor sunset. Dessert suits the moment nicely, and you will by no means regret a slab of moist olive oil cake served with a clementine marmalade ($6), even though you’ve already had a fair amount of bread. (Hey, something’s gotta soak up that wine.)

Or if you’re fortunate, Sardine will be hosting a cake pop-up, as it did on a recent Friday evening, with slices by Marykate McGoldrick, of Gold Bakery. McGoldrick is a former pastry chef at Camino, and she regularly pops up at Sardine and The Kebabery. I’m still contemplating our fluffy wedge, with cornmeal chiffon, fresh nectarines and a balanced crème fraîche whipped cream.

With the dimming light and the last sips of that pét-nat, Sardine inspires a desire for a ubiquitous summer. Hope springs eternal — or at least it does two nights a week.

Bar Sardine is open 5 to 9 p.m., Tuesday; 5:30 p.m. to 9 p.m., Friday.