When a nice evening becomes an unforgettable night out, often much of the credit is due to good ol' alcohol. Where maybe people were on their best behavior over dinner -- perhaps commenting on what a nice flavor the salmon has this time of year -- their real selves often come out over a round of drinks. Suddenly the level of amusement gets cranked up to 11. You're quoting movies over and over again -- "These are my O.R. scrubs..." "Oh, are they?" -- and laughing like you haven't already heard the line from Rushmore or said it about 15 times. You're roving downtown like a pack of benign wolves -- alternately checking out all the other wild animals out on the street or hunting for the next stop on the impromptu drinking tour. Everyone looks beautiful over drinks -- flushed, happy, bright-eyed and ready for more merriment. The very air seems to crackle with flirtation.
Yes, for all the trouble it causes, a little alcohol is just what's required to turn an ordinary evening out into something sublime. And the Inland Northwest, it turns out, has no shortage of places perfectly suited to booze's more social aspects. While we don't have the space to profile all of our favorites, here are some that have it right...
At some restaurants, the wine list fits neatly into a little square on the back of the menu. At Niko's, it gets its own 24-page book.
"We have approximately 1,000 wines," says owner/chef Laith Elaimy. "1,000 labels that is."
Right. Considering the number of different wines that some labels offer, a thousand-label wine list is quite an achievement. And filling in for vacationing wine manager Pauline Riley, Elaimy is quick to point out that Niko's has not only one of the best wine lists in town, "it might be one of the biggest in the state." Looking through its pages, we don't doubt it.
The wine bar is a draw all on its own, with coppery burnt orange walls, a latticed ceiling strung with white lights and faux grape leaves, and above all, rack upon rack of bottled wines lining the walls. It feels like a bit of make-believe mediterraneo in there, with delicious garlicky smells emanating from the kitchen and a handful of tables in which to while away an entire afternoon or evening. It's not uncommon to see small groups of friends sharing appetizers and wine after hitting a play, or a cluster of wine aficionados poring over the wine list just to read names they're not likely to see anywhere else in town.
Among the most popular things on their daily menu are the "wine tours," often featuring three reds or whites from various parts of the Northwest -- or the world for that matter -- in three two-ounce pours. For instance, they're currently offering the "Hogue Heaven, Washington Red Tour," where for $7 you can sample Hogue Cellars' "Vintners Select" merlot, cabernet sauvignon and syrah. We also like the sounds of their "Ab Fab French Red Countdown Tour," in which $13 gets you three delicious Gallic reds.
Wine is best when paired with food and Niko's periodically offers wine dinners, much like the one coming up on May 26.
"It's our 'Best of Washington Wines' dinner, and we'll have six of the top producers in the state, which are Leonetti Cellars, Walla Walla Winery, Kiona Ridge, Barrister, Woodward Canyon and Pepperbridge Winery," says Elaimy. "All the winemakers will be there to talk about their wines over a five-course dinner, which we're still planning."
The Baby Bar
I don't even remember when I first discovered the Baby Bar, but I was predisposed to like it before I even entered. Why? Their logo is a tousle-headed toddler with a diaper on his bum and an open bottle in his right hand. Maybe I'm juvenile, but drinking babies are funny. This old Spokane haunt -- named for its crib-sized dimensions -- was resuscitated early last year by Slick Rock Burrito's owner Mark Henriksen, who discovered it behind his burrito shop and set to work.
While they used to have a "Martini Menu," most drinks are plainly spelled out on the chalkboard above the bar. The Baby Bar would seem to specialize in, to borrow loosely from It's a Wonderful Life, "hard drinks for people who want to get drunk fast." Bartenders John, Patty and Bob know how to mix a potent cure for whatever ails you, and they're friendly to boot. While you're waiting for your drink to come, you can peruse all the great B-movie art (High School Hellcats! Marijuana Girl! Live Fast, Die Young!) or spend some time with their excellently well-stocked jukebox. Seriously, nowhere else in Spokane will you find the Pixies, Johnny Cash, Modest Mouse, Dean Martin, the Shins, U2, the Cowboy Junkies and the Bucket Riders all in one place.
Bartender John Gustafson tells us that part of their secret has to do with the fact that their well liquors are "above average" -- Jim Beam, Bacardi, Beefeater and Smirnoff are always better than that bottom shelf stuff other places sometimes serve. They also have $1 Pabst Blue Ribbon, a nice array of local beer on tap and even a smattering of wine (Penfolds Shiraz-Cab, Bogle Merlot) for the occasional fancy-pants in your group.
Most of all, the Baby Bar feels like a hangout. The blood-red walls, the tables emblazoned with big red stars, the dim lighting and even the Othello game and the dictionary on top of the bar suggest that this is a place for making oneself comfortable.
The Wine Cellar
If you're in Coeur d'Alene any time soon, you owe it to yourself to check out the Wine Cellar. Just as the name implies, the Wine Cellar is down a flight of stairs and looks a little like a medieval grotto. The cellar proper, in fact, sits under Sherman Avenue, while the rock-lined walls of the bar and the restaurant give the place a cool catacombs-like vibe. There's something about the place that hearkens back to the '70s -- maybe it's the brick walls with little half-moon shaped windows dividing the bar and the restaurant, maybe it's the Dijon-yellow walls; whatever it is, it works.
While there's live music most nights each week, it seems like a lot of people come primarily for the wine and food. Appetizers include escargot, brie-in-a-bread bowl and salmon cakes, among the more de rigeur crostini and stuffed mushrooms. Their wine list is a whopping 14 pages and offers everything from $15 Northwest reds to a five-liter French wine for $2,475. Their staff is warmly efficient -- moving traffic, offering advice on wine selection and polishing wine glasses during slow moments.
The Wine Cellar is famous for its dinner menu -- which offers Paella, Pork Prime Rib, Seafood Linguini and the homey Chicken Pasta Bake - but it's also a great place for just hanging out at the bar. On one of our recent visits, we enjoyed conversation with two visual artists, one gallery owner, a real estate agent, the new athletic director of NIC and two recent transplants from Colorado. It's hard not to feel welcome here, and the Wine Cellar is one of those institutions that's really earned its longevity.
All the farms I remember from growing up in North Idaho and Eastern Washington were not what you'd call stylish. In fact, what I do remember are blocky sofas covered in that ubiquitous mauve upholstery, copper Jell-O molds lining the kitche