Owner Elizabeth Mendez says Vera will have 15 different sherries by the glass.
There’s a flurry of action under the El tracks on Lake Street as husband-and-wife team Mark and Elizabeth Mendez—both formerly of Carnivale, where he was the executive chef and she was the wine director—prepare to open their new Spanish-inspired wine bar, Vera, at the address that last housed the short-lived Addiction Sports Bar.
Yesterday was an employee-training day, but Elizabeth took a break to pick up the phone and give me a progress report on her spot, which is slated to open next Wednesday.
The Chaser: How will Vera be different from other wine bars?
Elizabeth Mendez: First and foremost, the fact that we’re a husband-and-wife team. Our sherry program is also pretty unique: When we’re open, we’ll have 15 different sherries by the glass.
TC: Why are you so obsessed with sherry?
EM: It started a year and a half ago when jamón ibérico [a type of cured ham made from black Iberian pigs, mostly in Spain] became legal in the U.S. Our distributor came by to drop our order at the office, and he had some sherry with him because sherry and ham is a very traditional pairing. It was kind of an ‘aha’ moment. People think it’s too sweet, but it’s actually a wine that can take you from the beginning to the end of a meal, and there are so many types. We want to showcase how food-friendly it is.
The short-lived Addiction Sports Bar space will be Vera’s new home.
TC: What’s Vera’s interior like?
EM: We both like natural colors. The bar is all walnut and made by our friend, the Chicago carpenter Brandon Napier. We wanted to bring out that beautiful grain in the bar—and we also wanted a little pop of color—so we did fern green on the banquette and the chair cushions. We both like Edison lights, and we’ve seen them all over—they give a really nice warm look. We want the vibe to be fun and relaxed, so people feel like they’re coming over to our house for a party.
TC: Have any recent travels influenced your vision for Vera?
EM: We got married three years ago in California wine country, and one of the things we kept noticing there was wine on tap. We didn’t know how feasible it would be to do in the city, but a year later we started seeing some big chefs doing it in New York. So we’ll be serving wine on tap at Vera.
TC: What are we looking at, price-wise?
EM: We want to deliver high-quality food and wine at an affordable price. Wines by the glass will range between $6 and $15. Bottles will range from about $28 to $100. On the food side, a few things, like olives, will be $4, but you can also order rib eye steak for $35 or $40. It’s definitely more about shared plates.
TC: How about the dynamics of the husband-and-wife thing?
EM: Mark’s in charge of back of house; I’m front of house. Carnivale was so big, there were days when we didn’t even see each other. But here we’ll have a nice balance—we can both always know the person in the kitchen or out front has our back.
TC: I heard there was some drama with the original name, Uva—are you settled in with Vera now?
EM: The name change was actually a blessing in disguise. Vera not only has a connection with the food and culture of Spain—the pimentón de la vera is the smoked paprika widely used in Spanish regional cooking—but it’s also Mark’s grandmother’s name. Family is very important to us. My grandfather was a photographer, and I have about 50 years’ worth of his photos—we’re working to incorporate a lot of those into the décor.
TC: What else do you have left to do before the opening? Is it definitely a go for October 19?
EM: Fingers crossed! Right now everything is just fine-tuning. The large work is done, but the ultimate goal is to give the guest a great experience. We want to make sure that the menu and the kitchen are where we want them before we open.