Literary wine bar is literally fine

The new bar at Vroman’s Bookstore in Pasadena, CA. Saturday, Feb. 15, 2020. DJ Prakash/The Occidental

Review by Pablo Nukaya-Petralia

Stuffed between shiny stacks of graphic novels and Cheshire Cat tchotchkes, The 1894 Wine Bar at Vroman’s Bookstore in Pasadena invites customers to celebrate the joys of literature and alcohol in one convenient place. Officially opened Feb. 10, The 1894 offers customers a selection of drinks and snacks to suit their needs. The bar situates visitors adjacent to the bookstore, allowing one to transition from shopping to drinking with just a few steps.

Unlike the books it takes inspiration from, however, The 1894 suffers from an unreadable plot. The mixture of extravagant drinks, pale fluorescent lighting and antique aesthetic baffles one as they pass the waist-high counter that separates the bar from the store. Is it a bar, or a place to read that happens to include alcohol? Nothing separates the dark interior of The 1894 as it clashes with the brightness of the bookstore, inviting comparisons to an airport cantina or day-drinking in a Barnes & Noble.

In its defense, the Feb. 10 opening of The 1894 bustled with customers around 6 p.m. A small line developed outside the bar in the bookstore, forcing customers to peruse beginner guides to astrology as they waited to try drinks such as the “Huck Finn Mule,” the “Lo-Groni” and the vague “Greek Mythology,” a name so encompassing that the drink may very well be the god Zeus disguised in beverage form. Sample drinks included the “Treasure Island Martini” — which combines coconut sake, pineapple and a squeeze of lime  and the Rose Petal Spritz, an all-out combination of every rose-related item the bartender could find. Both drinks satisfied the basic goal of being alcoholic, but neither felt as if they made the most of the literary theme. Like a middling series entry, they were just fine.

Perhaps the most disappointing aspect about The 1894 is its lack of commitment to what it wants to be: a literature-themed wine bar. The current array of cocktails is uninspired both in its tastes and its literary sources. For example, one drink is lazily named “James and the Giant Peach,” when perhaps The 1894 could have made something like “James’ New York Peach Party,” as a reference to both the book and its celebratory conclusion. Instead, the most “literary” quality about The 1894 is the booklet detailing the history of Vroman’s that comes with the menu, a feature likely included in order to distract customers from the enigmatic environment within which they have found themselves.

Once one has finished staring disappointedly at the cocktail menu, one may discover that The 1894 also serves an array of snacks, including meats, cheeses and — everyone’s favorite cocktail pairing — avocado toast. Perhaps The 1894 would have been better served emulating the style of any number of Starbucks cafes nestled in a Barnes & Noble, sticking to the classic coffee and pastry combination — except a coffee shop at the same Pasadena Vroman’s already fulfills this exact role. Instead, it seems The 1894 has higher and distinct aspirations for itself, inviting customers to nosh on a gourmet bacon jelly flatbread while a man over in the shop loudly tries to find that hot new Ronan Farrow book. It is an admirable mission, but the unfortunate truth is that the bar falls short of its own vision. Perhaps if Vroman’s added actual walls to separate the intimate bar from the palely-lit bookstore, The 1894 would be able to provide an adequate dining experience.

Much like a good cliffhanger, The 1894 leaves much to be desired — only the odds of a satisfying resolution are not in its favor. The bar suffers from poor design and a lack of commitment, an issue that no amount of booze or cute drink names can solve (a matter only worsened by the fact that not a single drink references Mikhail Bulgakov’s “The Master and Margarita”). If a combination of book and beverage is what one seeks, they may be better served staying in.