Well Done

Well Done

Though it has a good name for a dive bar, The Well is not a dive bar. It’s a wine (and beer) bar with dive bar prices, a circular pad burrowed into the lower level of Yale’s still-new Schwarzman Center. As you enter, overhead lights like old-timey marquee bulbs act as a runway for your eyes, steering them through a rim of Brutalist rock and a forest of Pop art high-tops to a contemporary stone bar set with Art Deco-ish lamps.

Like the bar’s interior design influences, town and gown are allowed to mix here. One of Schwarzman’s many purposes is to welcome in the wider New Haven community some of the time, whether through shared dining hours, free artistic performances or a place to enjoy a drink alongside your meal or show. That, of course, is where The Well comes in, though, as a couple of friends and I decided, the bar, open Wednesdays through Fridays from 5 to 11 p.m. when Yale is in session, is worth viewing as a destination itself.

The first clue beyond the interior design was our bartender, Evan Cao (pronounced “cow”), whose service was everything you want: fast, friendly, passionate and knowledgeable. Feeling warm after a winter-coated walk, I requested some white wine recommendations; among others, Cao suggested a “bright” Austrian grüner veltliner ($7) he said had a flavor profile like a Granny Smith apple. And that was exactly right. Served in dining hall-chic glassware, the wine was light, juicy and refreshing up front with a drying tart finish that made the next sip hard to resist.

Cao’s second selection was the Diel de Diel ($9), a German blend of pinot blanc, pinot gris and riesling. He recommended it for its mineral streak, and he was right again while leaving me plenty else to discover on my own. Light in color and heavy on flavor, it was salty and savory but also funky, fruity and a little dry, almost like a mild sour beer.

It also happened to be a great choice for standing up to the three fierce snacks we’d ordered. The Tortilla Chips and Salsa Roja ($4) brought big heat even if the chips alone were quite plain, and the Bavarian Pretzel Bites ($6) were a perfect bar snack: fluffy, salty and, thanks to the mustard, sweet with a little spice. “I could eat these all day,” a friend said, and we all agreed. The consensus on the sticky, chewy Pambazzo Cashews ($4) was less decisive, but only because the flavors were so wildly assertive and challenging. Smothered in lime, honey and Tajín, the nuts were sweet, spicy, salty and sour, punching us hard in every direction.

By the time I finished my second glass of wine, I’d forgotten the reasons behind Cao’s third recommendation. I ordered it anyway: a Californian chenin blanc ($12), made from a grape that’s reportedly versatile enough to go sweet or dry. This wine was desserty and a little floral, with a dominant vanilla note and a trace of lemon.

As we drank and snacked, a handful of policies at odds with standard bar conventions reminded us that The Well defers to a larger institution with its own priorities. IDs are checked and wristbands dispensed no matter how venerable you may appear. You can only pay with a credit card, and you can’t keep a tab open. And because Yale will be closed for Spring Break over the next couple of weeks, so will the bar. Yesterday’s service was the last until Wednesday, March 27.

Still, the wrinkles of such patronage are outweighed by the benefits: the designed environment, the high standards, the reasonable prices and a quirk many will appreciate in a world of excessive gratuity pressure: a billing process that excludes tipping. Cao explained that The Well’s staff, mostly graduate students, earn an hourly wage not dependent on gratuities, though they’re gratified to receive cash tips from customers who feel they’ve received exceptional service.

Come March 27, you’ll have the chance to see that dynamic in action, among others. There’s, well, a well of things to experience at The Well.

The Well
Schwarzman Center – 168 Grove St, Lower Level, New Haven (map)
Wed-Fri 5-11pm (closed for spring break until March 27)

Written and photographed by Dan Mims.

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