This month I learned that downtown Utica is really cool these days.
In the middle of the Auburn Road strip that’s dotted with neighborhood pubs, an Italian restaurant, and a music store sits the 55-seat Vino & Vibes, a new hangout space that’s exactly what it looks like: a relaxing place that has a focus on wine.
Opened in early 2021 by DJ and former WNBA player Deanna Nolan and his wife, sommelier Anna Nolan, Vino & Vibes isn’t your traditional wine bar. It’s an accessible restaurant and bar that offers a relaxed and cool environment to gather on a date, with friends or even to relax alone.
At first glance, these may seem like just a few finger foods to pair with wines and cocktails, but the menu offers more than enough for dining here. My favorite was the build-your-own charcuterie boards from a selection of meats and cheeses that are a mix of standards (Italian prosciutto, for example) and things more rarely seen like drunken goat cheese. Spain. The selection may change depending on what is available from their distributors.
On a recent Thursday – which is ladies night with drink specials and a live guitarist singing 80s and 90s cafe hits – the place wasn’t too busy and the food came out quickly. It was a parade of dishes to share and hearty like a creamy, melt-in-the-mouth baked brie with a big drizzle of honey, nuts and fresh fruit, and a sliced fresh baguette.
The European influence is found throughout the menu, such as the truffle-seasoned fries with a thick, creamy mayonnaise dip. The Italian panini is served in bite-size pieces to share with roast chicken, mozzarella, sun-dried tomatoes, and truffle or vegetarian aioli with vegetables and cheeses. Gluten-free bread is also available.
It’s no surprise the Nolans decided to open a wine bar while traveling through Europe, both with Deanna’s basketball team and on their own.
“We kind of got sucked into the wine culture because wine, overseas and in Europe, is so important and we would go to all the different wine bars, wineries and vineyards,” said Anna, a native from Yekaterinburg, Russia. “We started talking about what we’d like to do after Deanna’s career ended and we both wanted a plain bar. We kind of decided to merge our two loves together.”
She also pointed out that there is something for everyone, including gluten-free options, vegan dishes and mocktails. There is also a full coffee bar.
“We wanted it to be intimate, not rushed,” Deanna said.
In addition to the laid-back approach to wine and chill service, another thing I love about Vino & Vibes are the subtle nods to an era that is coming back into fashion, the late 1990s and the early 2000s. I was so surprised to see a cosmopolitan featured on the specialty cocktails that I had to order it for the good old days.
I’m old enough to remember when the cosmos was at the height of its popularity around the turn of the last century, although it dates back to the early 1900s. I turned 21 about a week before Carrie started dating Aiden in “Sex and the City”. Believe me when I say it was the most popular pink drink on the planet at that time.
While everything old is new again, something should be really good to make a successful comeback and the cranberry, lemon and vodka concoction is very refreshing, pretty and easy to drink. Vino & Vibes is a refined version that tastes the same as I remember, but served in a more modern textured coupé with a flat base, rather than the traditional martini glass.
Besides the cosmopolitan, there’s an espresso martini and you can catch ‘Clueless’, ‘The Wedding Planner‘ or other cinematic gems from over 20 years ago on one of the two TVs behind the bar. While these are flashbacks to the most recent turn of the century, there are also flashbacks to the early 20th century.
The building dates back to 1905. During renovations to turn it into Vino & Vibes, they were in the kitchen replacing old wood and saw newspapers sticking out from under the floor. They ended up being pages from the Detroit Free Press from the 1910s that the Nolans decided to frame and use as decor.
They enlisted Russian designer Tatiana Moiseeva to help with interior ideas from around the world via emails and phone calls. The result is a dining room that mixes rustic industrial chic with feminine touches, like a mandala mural on the south wall.
“We wanted her to help set up the concept and she did it perfectly,” Anna said. “It definitely spoke to us because we’re spiritual and we were like, yeah, that’s us.”
Vino & Vibes Wine Bar
7740 Auburn, Utica
(586) 803-3705 vinoandvibesbar.com
Evaluation: ★★ (very good)
Hours: 3pm-10pm Tue-Thurs, 3pm-11pm Fri, 12pm-11pm Sat and 12pm-5pm Sun. The kitchen closes one hour before closing time each evening.
Prices: Small plates, $3 to $15; charcuterie, $7-$27; paninis, $12; desserts, $5 to $10; coffee and tea drinks, $2.50 to $4; soft drink cocktails, $3 to $4; wines by the bottle, around $30 to $130; wine and sake by the glass, between $7 and $15; cocktails, $10-$13; beer, $4-$6.5.
Reservations: None taken, but large groups of 15 or more can call ahead.
Carry out: Yes, just call or order on site. (No online ordering.)
Outdoor dining: A small terrace on the sidewalk with umbrella chairs.
Noise level: Medium. There is live music on Thursdays and Saturdays.
Accessibility: No barriers.
Car park: Free street parking
What do the stars mean:
★ — good
★★ — very good
★★★ — great
★★★★ — extraordinary
After:Food in the 586: Your Macomb County Food Guide
Restaurant review: This neighborhood is blessed with an eclectic and cozy Alma Kitchen