'Barbarella' in Ballard
Drinking in the Neighborhood's Gentrification
5310 Ballard Ave NW, 297-0143
Tue—Thurs 4 pm—1 am, Fri—Sat 4 pm—2 am, Sun noon—10 pm.
The man behind the bar has a distinctly rockabilly pompadour. He's nicknamed after a midwestern state. Apropos of very little, he offers that his girlfriend is in a burlesque dance troupe. (He's a talkative sort, a smart-ass, funny.) If he were putting a can of Rainier down on thickly varnished, scarred wood, it'd be an ur-Ballard nightlife experience. But the man behind the bar pours wine into futuristic, angular stemware. Given his druthers, cocktailwise, he makes a mean French 75, using Hendrick's ("The only gin that matters," he says). He's dressed all in black, and the bar gleams bright white; he appears to be mixing drinks in a space station. This is Ballard's new wine bar, DiVino.
DiVino shares its monochromatic, designed-within-an-inch-of-its-life aesthetic with Belltown's now-defunct Bada Lounge and lower Queen Anne's Veil. (The all-white thing also recalls the Apartment on First, the uber-gaysexual Manray, and dozens of other bars/restaurants/lounges in other cities.) "It's Ballard meets Barbarella," according to the man behind the bar. "It came from outer space."
In the past few years, Ballard's gained (or had imposed on it, depending on your perspective): a big Pioneer Square–style pickup joint known for its nachos; a tiny, obscure jewel of a cocktail lounge; a loud, loftlike proto-urban upscalery; and a faux-western hipster spot, imported directly from distant Pine Street. (Recently at this last, freshest bar, King's Hardware, the occupants of a car driving by screamed, "GO BACK TO CAPITOL HILL!" A rumble seemed imminent, but did not occur.) The neighborhood's original wine bar, Portalis, opened not so long ago, did well, and moved across the street to a larger space. DiVino, the new-new wine bar, is where the old-new wine bar used to be. People aren't entirely able to keep up: An unrepresentative sample of Ballard residents did not recognize DiVino's name. After the barest of description, however, a high percentage said, "Oh, the Clockwork Orange bar?" The references pile up; the possibility of making sense of DiVino as an experience recedes.
The presence of an establishment like DiVino in a former fishing village seems as inevitable as it does incongruous. With gentrification comes, apparently, one of each type of bar found elsewhere, as if extruded by machine. DiVino's out of place, but not for long. A couple sitting in the corner, fitted onto molded white plastic chairs and silhouetted against an intensely white wall, brings the weirdness into focus: They're both dressed perfectly vintage late 1950s, he in a skinny-lapeled suit, she in an hourglass dress that looks like it was made from floral upholstery. His hair, slick; hers, stiff, bouffant. Lutefisk gives way to an anachronistic West Side Story culture gives way to slick Milanese modernism. Progress knows no logic.
DiVino may have a more legitimate claim on its look than other look-alike places due to genuine Italian ownership (they are the same people that run La Vita e Bella in Belltown, beloved for its pizza). They've exploited their homeland's and the world's contemporary design to an extreme—there's a transparent cube of a wine cellar, sculptural pneumatic barstools, several kinds of mod light fixtures, Calder-esque mobiles, shiny orbs perched hither and yon, backlit panels hung on an exposed brick wall, an oversized quadripartite piece of photographic art. If minimalism can be overdone, DiVino arguably crosses that line.
DiVino's menu: small plates (of course), with pastas and salads and polenta presented in elegant formations on stark white china (ditto). I wished I'd let the server steer me toward the cheese and salumi, which he was trying mightily to do; of more than a half-dozen other selections, nothing was spectacular (except eggplant bruschetta, melty-sweet with caramelized onions), though nothing was dreadful (except cannelloni with terribly salty tomato sauce).
DiVino's got a massive Italian wine list, with by-the-glass selections averaging around $9–$10. (The list of the latter had been pasted over; peeling up the edge revealed that each glass had originally been a dollar or two cheaper, which would've seemed more fair.) And specialty cocktails made with fresh juices—check.
DiVino's even got a tagline: "WINE • CUISINE • INSPIRATION." Outside, giant cranes loom in the night sky. Condos are under way nearby, soon to be full of those presumably in need of food and beverage, and willing to take whatever inspiration or lack thereof comes with it.