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Substrate Delivers on Vermouth Cocktails and Cozy Vibes

New wine bar in Optimist Park offers eclectic menu

a photo of Substrate's interior and wine selection, located in Charlotte, NC

In chemistry, a substrate refers to the substance an enzyme or microorganism acts on to produce a specific reaction. At Substrate, a brand-spanking-new wine and vermouth bar in Optimist Park, it’s clear the patrons are the catalysts and the reaction is … we’ll get to that. 

“What do you think about trying this new wine and vermouth spot near Bird tonight?” 

Vermouth? Am I the only one who orders extra dirty martinis and yet has no idea what vermouth actually is? I perked up but was unsure whether or not I felt like acting sadiddy (read: bougie) for date night, especially on the bar’s grand opening night. 

Skeptical, I took a quick scroll on Instagram. Only six posts from January to April, 700-ish followers and four bullet-point style highlights in the bio painted an approachable picture:

  • Blue-collar enoteca now pouring in Optimist Park (Later I learned “enoteca” means wine spot, but “blue collar” had me at Hello)
  • Thoughtful wine, vermouth, & amaro (At this point, I think I’ll stick with what I know: dry white wine)
  • Tiny fish, free saltines (If it’s free, it’s for me)
  • Outside food always welcome (Word to za Bird)
a photo of Substrate's interior design and decor
Substrate’s lounge area (Photo by Aerin Spurill)

I couldn’t decide if their IG was giving “Too cool for school,” “We don’t have to be thirsty, we know we’ve got your attention,” or “You just gotta see it for yourself.” Whatever the case, Substrate’s humble profile and a supes cute stop-motion video had already piqued my interest.

Located behind Bird Pizzeria on East 15th Street, Substrate breathes new life into the corner/commune formerly known as Area 15. Two asymmetrical patios lined by stairs and buzzing with first-timers are oddly stacked beside each other, hinting at a curious interior. It inspires a feeling like you’ve entered a matrix of Tetris and Jenga from the moment you ascend the set of worn stairs to enter the main door.

Moody lighting, dark ceilings, and beaded curtains conceal the plethora of stairways to nooks and crannies filled with community seating and cozy conversation begging for exploration. But my interrogation of Substrate’s innards was interrupted by a mad dash for prime real estate at the bar. 

It was only after hoarding three menus thinking each one unique that I realized the patrons seemingly taking it all in were just as stumped as I was on what the hell to order. 

When it comes to restaurants, best believe I’ve meticulously studied the menu for hours prior, locating backups for my backups. “They’re all the same, babe,” boo said as he watched me awkwardly flipping through menus like I was playing Uno. 

I reached the wine selection and read the first option: “PIETRAMORE PÉT NAT.” I was staring blankly like someone just hit me with a +4. Shit, I should’ve ChatGPTed everything. 

Panic ensued as the bartender returned and asked us what we were having. My studious, non-wine-drinking man already had “$paghett” on his tongue (a High Life with aperol and lemon juice), but alas, “Aw man, we’re out of Miller High Life,” was the response. (On the bright side, High Life is just $2.50, gasp!). With both of us reeling, the panic set in. 

Read More: No Cheese Please, Gimme Cav With My Cab at Bar à Vins

I began to stutter a version of, “So um, the vermouth ‘cocktails’ listed on the black menu…” as I squinted to glean the letterboard menu in the far corner. The moment I thought, “You need air quotes, Aerin” I blurted out, “Oh, what about the red wine and Coke drink?” The bartender’s look of confusion at my short-circuit faded into a smile as he said, “First one of the day!” *deep breath*

a photo of a bookshelf and lounging area at Substrate
Substrate (Photo by Aerin Spruill)

For those who don’t know, this cocktail with equal parts red wine and Coca-Cola over ice is the elusive Spanish “KALIMOTXO” ($8), found on the “Every Day Value” menu. It’s definitely a lighter alternative to a GLASS OF GOOD WINE ($7), especially if it happens to be a hot afternoon in the sun while patio drinking at noon on a weekend.  

I overheard the owner, Matt Green, saying with a rhyme that they also have “dines and tines,” AKA sardines & Saltines (um, my new fave phrase?!) as boo turned and said, “You really forget you’re in Charlotte.” 

He wasn’t wrong; no matter where you stand in the 1,400-square-foot wine playground, the medley of eclectic seating, art pieces, pops of color, and a ready-to-play vinyl queue installation will make you feel like you’ve missed something you’ve never known. 

After studying the faces of patrons sipping vermouths on the rocks sans grimace, I ChatGPTed “WTF is Vermouth” only to discover it’s just fortified wine! The average ABV of wine is 9%-16% while vermouth ranges between 16%-18%. But by that point, we were two Ferrari shots ($8 for ½ Campari and ½ Fernet) too late to diversify our palates. 

But we’ll whINE about that next time. 

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