Wine bars are seeing something of a resurgence lately, and the Mission is no exception. Whether extremely-hip, in-your-face, or a little bougie, newer wine spots like Bar Part Time, Shuggie’s, and Chezchez have vibes that cater to specific crowds — and share a high price point.
One pair of barkeeps have a different vision of a wine bar, one where everyone can fit in and the drinks don’t set you back half a day’s pay.
“I mean, we’re going to know our shit, but we’re not here to be, like, fancy,” said Rafa Saenz, who hails from Madrid and is opening a new Spanish taverna, El Chato, with a friend on the corner of 21st and Bryant streets.
(It’s true; even for our interview, Saenz showed up in lounge-y pajama pants, and hosted me in his establishment’s dingy basement, which was full of remnants from the previous business that he referred to as trash. I know, I know, it’s ill-advised to follow strangers into dark cellars, but curiosity got the better of me.)
El Chato will be for everyone, Saenz said, adding that he’s not trying to “rip people off,” other than accounting for inflation as needed. “We’re not here to gentrify this neighborhood.”
Saenz, who lives in Bernal Heights, and his friend and partner, Erin Rickenbaker, said they deliberately steered clear of Valencia Street and its vicinity, looking for the quieter, neighborly community of the southeast Mission.
The owners plan to channel that low-key, community spirit at El Chato: Customers can order a “chato,” a small, low-commitment, three-ounce pour of wine, have a regular glass, or go in on a porrón or a bottle with friends.
Saenz describes a porrón as a container that looks a bit like a bong, a bit like an old-school olive oil bottle, with a long, narrow spout for pouring wine into your mouth. “You drink from it, and then you share it with other people. It’s not like, ‘this is my porrón’ — porrón is for everyone. So it’s really fun.”
Online images of people drinking from a porrón show an adult version of “slap the bag.”
A chato will run customers as little as $6, and a proper glass will start at $13. For “a dope bottle of wine” for the table, Rickenbaker said prices will start at $36.
Friendship and sharing are big themes at El Chato, which is taking over the long-vacant corner where Cafe Murano once stood. The owners don’t have a restaurant license, and plan to keep things simple: You can order tinned fish and charcuterie, grab it at the counter, and share it with friends at communal bar tops.
They hope to host live music and encourage people to mingle and dance. Outdoor seating is part of the plan on the luxuriously wide sidewalks, and Saenz said he wants a parklet for grilling.
“I’m the wine and anxiety, and Rafa is the food and the vibe,” jokes Rickenbaker, an East Bay native and connoisseur, who will be curating traditional and natural wines from Spain and beyond.
The two met in 2017 while working at Bellota, a Spanish restaurant in SoMa, and they act like carefree, goofy old friends. They joke about how the basement we’re in is like an interrogation room, and discuss how their logo for El Chato is ever so slightly inappropriate, or “spicy.”
“I saw her pouring wine like, I was like, fuck — Erin could be a perfect business partner,” Saenz remembered. He said it was a lifetime dream of his to open a wine bar, and realized Rickenbaker shared a similar dream.
Rickenbaker, who was Bellota’s wine director and assistant general manager, would make wine videos for her social media followers, and tell them about her love for wine. “She’s an influencer,” Saenz jokes, and the pair bust out laughing.
“I like to do wine videos and teach people about wine,” Rickenbaker said, clarifying that she only has 1,500 followers. “I would like to drink, and show up in the video,” Saenz jumped in.
As they were considering how to share their love for wine with others — they were in talks about hosting non-touristy wine tours to Spain — the pandemic shut things down.
They pivoted and realized it might be a good time to shop for a space of their own in the city. It took a year to find the perfect spot, during which the pair said they almost gave up; they had begun considering Mexico City, or moving back to Spain, when they finally landed a lease at 21st and Bryant.
“The neighborhood community crowd is kind of what we like,” Rickenbaker said, noting the mix of people who have been in the neighborhood for generations and newcomers from different backgrounds.
And the name “chato” is fitting; it means short, like a short pour of wine, but can also be a term of endearment amongst friends and works with the ambience the new business owners are aiming for.
“In Madrid … we create nicknames, words out of experiences, out of situations, you know, like, we never call anyone by their name,” Saenz said. He gives an example: Someone slips and hurts their leg once, and their name becomes “pata,” or leg. “I’m always saying stupid shit…” he trails off. “But funny.”
The two chatos laugh. “But funny,” Rickenbaker echoes.
Even though they’re starting small and local, Saenz and Rickenbaker have big plans in mind: They hope a future El Chato 2 will find a place in Mexico City, and wine tourism in Spain is still a core part of their business plan.
For now, they are taking it day by day and staying flexible as inevitable roadblocks have delayed their opening. The tile that was bought for the floor was too thick and wasn’t ADA compliant, so they built the bar with it. The Health Department came to inspect and found the wrong color tile in the bathroom; they moved those to another wall.
“I’m very happy; that was a good mistake,” Saenz shrugs about the tile mixups. While they wait for final permits to come through, they are finalizing the decor — expect glowing legs of jamón and a fresh mural — and hosting pop-ups at their friends’ restaurants to see what works and what doesn’t.
El Chato’s doors could open as soon as August 1. After they do a trial run with friends and family, Saenz said he hopes to draw people in and “throw a fucking party … make noise from the beginning.”