What happens to wine bars when they grow up? A wine bar is often thought to be small, intimate, and subdued with a primary emphasis on the grape and a small food menu meant to match, but not overpower, the beverage selection. That description applies to the original Uptown location of Phoenix wine bar Rott n’ Grapes, but when it came time for this wine bar to grow up, the decision was not to expand or transform the original location, but instead to open a second site, more a restaurant than a wine bar, at the north end of Downtown.
The result has been named “Rott n’ Grapes RoRo.” The “RoRo” moniker for Roosevelt Row is sometimes greeted with skepticism, but at least it’s geographically accurate in this case. Rott n’ Grapes new location is at the west end of that business district with an entrance on Third Avenue three blocks west of the Roosevelt / Central light rail station. Bike racks are found in the alley behind the restaurant near Rott n’ Grapes’ neighbors Lola Coffee and Pita Jungle. More are expected in front of the establishment as part of a series of improvements to Third Avenue.
The name of the restaurant honors both “noble rot,” a beneficial fungus that adds sweetness and complexity to some wines, and the owners’ enthusiasm for Rottweiler dogs. There are no canines to be found at the restaurant, although the Hance Park Dog Park is nearby and the bathroom doors at Rott n’ Grapes invite customers to “wash [their] paws.” The space inside the historic Gold Spot building blends the vintage brick look of the structure with contemporary touches such as concrete floors and neon signs with clever sayings like “wine not?”.
The bar is a locus of activity located up front near the Third Avenue entry. The dining room extends back from there to a second entrance facing the alley, and, along the way, visitors pass a refrigerated case designated “bottle shop.” This is where wine and beer is sold at retail for consumption at home. Directly above the bar is small mezzanine offering a second level of discreet seating. Towards the back is another staircase that leads down into a basement space known as “the Onyx,” a legal “speakeasy” open only on weekends with its own menu.
The menu at the Roosevelt location builds upon some of the favorites from Uptown but then adds full entrees and chef’s daily specials to offer a broader spectrum of contemporary American food with European, mostly Italian, influences. Appetizers in that vein include familiar items such as meatballs and arancini, crisp rice balls with a molten cheese interior. A less commonly encountered starter here is the frico con potate, essentially a potato pancake with cheese blended into the batter, topped with tomato sauce, and grated parmesan on top.
Bruschetta has become a wine bar staple, perhaps even to the point of being a cliche. Thankfully, Rott n’ Grapes offers some originality with its toppings. In one instance, a creamy mix of avocado and ricotta is augmented with crunchy pepitas and bit of spice from garlic chili sauce. In another case, finocchiona, a Tuscan salami infused with fennel seeds, contrasts nicely with the basil and parmesan flavors of pesto. Bruschetta are typically served four-to-an-order; however, a lunch special option pairs any two pieces with a small salad or the soup of the day.
Pizzas with a soft, yielding crust are another way in which Rott n’ Grapes plays with varied toppings over bread. Some have dog-themed names like the obvious “Marghe-Rottie” and “Pup Pepperoni.” The Jet is a meaty indulgence with a trio of pepperoni, sausage, and bacon. At the other end of the spectrum the Shiraz Garden Party loads the pie with vegetable toppings, including Brussels sprouts, bell peppers, sweet onions, roasted tomatoes, sliced mushrooms, and black olives. Like the bruschetta, the pizza is available in a smaller format for lunch.
Taking this location into full-fledged restaurant territory, there are several entrees available only in the evening. Risotto was originally fashioned with sweet corn added to the creamy rice during the summer. As fall arrived, the dish shifted to wild mushrooms. Pasta Bolognese is a year-round staple, capably executed with a meaty tomato sauce over al dente tubes of rigatoni. A steak with two sides is a classic favorite, and a daily special often favors fish. Pan-seared salmon with green lentils over a parsnip puree is typical of what might be expected on any night.
Lighter options include entree-sized salad such as the Grains, Greens, and Veggies in which a mix of greenery is supplemented with grains of freekeh, a young, green form of wheat that is toasted to produce a texture somewhere between quinoa and couscous. There is only one dessert at the moment, a chocolate hazelnut budino with a scorched marshmallow crust, easily shared by two people. Of course, there is plenty of wine, including bold choices like the F Bomb red blend and the smooth, dry sensation of Argentina’s Piattelli reserve rose of Malbec.
While wine may be what originally defined Rott n’ Grapes, there are also tap handles with a selection of craft beers and an array of original cocktails with a few more surprises available exclusively in the Onyx downstairs. While the television screens at the bar and occasional special events may belie traditional notions of a wine bar, Rott n’ Grapes RoRo stays true to its roots, especially in its quieter corners. The wine bar’s Uptown location continues to be a more compact and focused space, and the RoRo site is a way to grow up without leaving that behind.
1001 N. 3rd Ave. #1, Phoenix AZ 85003
Roosevelt / Central Station