Since it was opened in 2009 by David and Tamera Dobbs, Imbibe has established a unique presence in town. It's like a wine bar for people who don't really like bars, and places like Wiki's Wine Dive & Grill and Krush have followed in its wake.
I know what you're thinking: Why is Californian restaurant critic Pete Tittl writing about a place not known for its food? As if all I did was eat, breathe and write! A man has to unwind on the weekend. Besides, if it's food you're looking for, go over to Valentien Restaurant & Wine Bar nearby. Or, if you insist on doing your eating and imbibing all under one roof, there is a short menu of "gourmet flatbreads," beyond the cheese, crackers and deli sandwiches also offered.
I can get pretty listy when I start describing why I like Imbibe. There is live entertainment on Tuesdays, Fridays and Saturdays. On the recent Friday night we visited, there was a trio of Men of a Certain Age who were playing things like Van Morrison covers or songs like "Doctor My Eyes."
The great thing is that the music was loud enough to hear but not too loud to drown out the conversation. And the musicianship was sharp -- though I'm sure they have day jobs, they added significantly to the ambiance.
Just looking around the room (all the tables were taken, but I've been there on a weekend where it was more crowded, with many standing around), you could see that most of the customers were groups of couples who were friends, engaging in friendly chatter over bottles of wine. The couches, chairs, tables, lighting (not too dark, not too bright) contribute to what I would call a living room ambiance, an impression that is really a strength for Imbibe.
There's also a patio, but this particular night had a bit of a chill in the air and it was pretty empty. All told, the vibe at this place has got to be a natural blood pressure reducer.
That night I was the only fool with one of those electronic cards that allow you to sample a few ounces of up to 30 different wines. I love those machines, which have been pretty limited in Bakersfield, undoubtedly due to the hefty price I'm told they carry. The old Thai Orchid at Brimhall introduced the concept to Bakersfield and I've used them on out-of-town restaurant visits.
It's like a self-directed wine tasting; you can buy just a couple ounces for $2 or $3, or fill a complete glass if the first taste wins you over.
My companion and I were running through a series of cabernets, then white wines. Never bought a bottle. Didn't need to. Prices ranged from $2 up to $6.50 for what looked to be 2-ounce portions.
Love the wine? Just hit the button three times and you've got a full glass. And you can get wines you don't encounter everywhere, such as The Prisoner, which took us both captive at the first sample.
Beer drinkers have not been ignored, though you don't have the convenient self-service system those of us with the wine cards have (a sign asked customers to let staff fill those glasses).
Besides the wide assortment of beer available for purchase in the deli, they had six on tap the night we visited. There's the local Lengthwise Zeus IPA, and the draft beers included Firestone Easy Jack, Humboldt Black Zantus Stout (11 percent alcohol content!), Allagash Fluxus, The Dude's Grinning Face Porter and Ayinger Celebrator Doppelbock, all at $3 to $5 a glass or $12 to $25 a pitcher.
The food choices are dominated by the five flatbreads (available 5 to 8 p.m. Monday through Thursday and until 9 p.m. Friday and Saturday), including a "margherita" ($9.95), three-cheese sausage ($10.95) and prosciutto fig ($12.95). We sampled the other two, the chicken arugula ($11.95) and bacon and baby spinach ($12.95).
Not wise to order two for a couple unless you're really hungry, but you never can tell with flatbreads. Some places give you long, narrow appetizer portions. This was about the size of a medium pizza, and both were excellent, with a nice smoky essence. The chicken came with artichoke heart bits, white meat chicken, caramelized onions and two cheeses (mozzarella and herbed ricotta).
Well-designed and executed, the arugula added after the baking, giving it more a pizza salad feel. The other flatbread was made special by the use of garlic oil, mozzarella and Parmesan cheese as well as just a crowning dab of crÃ¨me fraiche and pesto.
While I doubt people will be lured here by the menu as opposed to the beverages, this is far more than a perfunctory food offering.
There is also a customized pasta option with a salad for $12, but we didn't sample that.
As far as the wine prices go, some looked cheap and some looked steep, based on what I've seen elsewhere. That's not unusual. Wine deals are really hit and miss at any retailer.
I have to add that near the cash register was an outdated catalog for an event held Jan. 18, called "Taste 100 Wines," with food by Moo Creamery. Cost was $75 for two hours or $90 for three hours as a "VIP Entry." It looks intriguing, though the physical impact of getting to the 100 wines probably isn't pretty, and a name like that sounds like a challenge.
Imbibe can be recommended for a fine wining-and-dining experience. Take a friend or two.