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A Different Sort of Establishment

April 16, 2010
Pure Wine Cafe

Pure Wine Care

PJ Strain is not your typical restauranteur, and Pure Wine Cafe, located in historic Ellicott City, MD, is not your average wine bar. Owner PJ and Sommelier/General Manager Mark Bowman, both in their mid-20s, opened for business on May 24, 2009. “Being young doesn’t make us anything other than at a disadvantage when trying to deal with folks older than us,” Mark told me as we sat at the bar. He hopes to “take the pretentiousness out of wine” and help his guests learn a little about the diversity of wine while enjoying good company and a welcoming atmosphere.

I had the pleasure of sitting down with Mark and PJ to learn more about their unique venue, the story of how it all started for them, and what the future holds as Pure Wine approaches it’s first anniversary.

400 square feet, 200 years of history

The first thing everyone notices about Pure Wine is the blend of old and new in space itself. Built in 1893 as the lobby for the Howard House hotel (now apartments), the location has at various times housed businesses as diverse as a restaurant, bank, butcher’s shop, and clothing store. Only the sum of such history would yield decor that includes a 19th-century decorated plaster ceiling, unfinished brick and granite walls, and a modern stainless steel bar top. Oh, and let’s not forget the so-called “wine wall”, an elegant solution that combines both storage and display elements.

What you might also notice is how “cozy” the space feels. Limited by the confines of historic architecture and adjoining tenants, Pure Wine comfortably seats only a few dozen guests at a time. Small is the wrong word, though – intimate works much better. Limiting the crowd size helps Mark and his staff create a very personal level of service that you just won’t find at a 400-seat restaurant.

Rising from the ashes

The historic building’s previous tenant offers another interesting twist to the story. Immediately prior to Pure Wine Cafe, Annabelle’s wine bar occupied the space . Despite a reasonable amount of success, however, a couple years in the owners decided to move on, much to the disappointment of one PJ Strain, a frequent patron. Unwilling to accept defeat, PJ worked with his family and friends to invest in new equipment and help him open Pure Wine to pick up where Annabelle’s left off.

From there, PJ recruited Mark from Charleston, SC’s S.N.O.B. (Slightly North of Broad) restaurant to run the front of the house as general manager and sommelier, and chef Kevin to serve as the back-of-house manager. There’s more to the story of how they all met and ended up in business together, but it all gets a bit long and complicated. I’ll let you sit down with Mark and a couple glasses of wine to hear all the details.

“Wine should be fun” – the Pure Wine philosophy

A closer look at the "wine wall"

A closer look at the "wine wall"

“Surprise people… but keep it simple” describes Pure Wine Cafe’s approach to the menu, the wine list, and even to the service itself. Although the average guest might only see the casual atmosphere, Mark’s training in the restaurant business gave him an attention to detail that patrons of fine restaurants around the world will appreciate, from the placement of silverware to the frequency of server interactions. “[We have] absolutely something for everyone,” Mark told me, in reference to my questions about the demographic they hope to reach. His unassuming approach to wine education attracts regulars who range from their mid-20s (like myself) to septuagenarians.

Looking to the future

I listened to Mark go on for a good while about the culture of relaxation in Europe, and what he calls “daylight business.” In an ideal world, he’d have a patio and tables outside that let people share a drink and a little sunshine. Unfortunately, the historical society doesn’t share his vision – no tables on the sidewalk. And since they can’t punch through a wall with tenants on all sides, Pure Wine is looking at a number of alternatives to grow the business in 2010. Part of that, to the benefit of customers, is a ridiculous happy hour special featuring $2 glasses of wine. Beyond that, however, they’re looking to expand into brunch hours; work with other Main Street restaurants on city-wide events that benefit the whole business community; and establish partnerships with local artists and DJs to connect with the nascent Howard County art scene.

In conclusion

There are so many more things I could talk about, from their Art Opening promotions that support local artists to the business connections they’re cultivating with other Ellicott City business owners and wineries (the menu will soon feature Black Ankle wines from Federick County!). I’m looking forward to seeing all that Pure Wine Cafe can accomplish in the months and years to come as one of the truly “unique establishments” in the Maryland wine industry!

For another opinion, please check out another review in the Maryland Food and Wine Blog (http://foodandwineblog.com/2010/04/15/pure-wine-cafe-ellicott-city/)  – published, by coincidence, on the same day as my post!

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