Toasting an eventful first year

Tim Schuyler Hayman (center) welcomes guests to Scopo Divino.

Tim Schuyler Hayman (center) welcomes guests to Scopo Divino.

By FAITH WHEELER

Some may mistake it for a hole in the wall, tucked away near the bustling corner of California and Divisadero, but to those in the know, the Scopo Divino wine bar has become a neighborhood institution during its first year in business. And the food has turned out to be just as important as the wine — surprising even owner Tim Schuyler Hayman.

So you had never been in the restaurant business, and then you had the idea to open a wine bar. Has this place met your expectations?

It has been astounding. Last year around this time we were awarded “Best Wine Bar” in the Bay Guardian’s annual “Best of San Francisco” issue, and it has been crazy ever since.

That came just a few months after you opened?

Yep, we opened in July of last year, so you can say we hit the ground running very hard. We noticed that on Mondays and Tuesdays, when we were closed, people were poking their heads in. So last November we expanded to seven days a week. No one expected us to be more than just a bar that serves wine, but it turns out our food program is also really good — more than anyone imagined, including me. Then we added brunch on Saturday and Sunday.

To what else do you attribute your success?

We have a great manager, Kent Liggett. He used to be the GM at the Elite Cafe and owned 1550 Hyde, another wine bar, for eight years. People knew him there, so he’s recognizable to the locals. I come from a marketing and advertising background, but I’ve hired a team of people who probably have nearly 100 years of experience in the industry.

What else have you added?

We’ve added a lot of music — now four days a week, including jazz on Sundays. On Monday we have a comedian-singer who’s sort of naughty, risqué. Monday needed something, and we wanted something different. The locals love it. We have an amazing number of repeat customers.

How many labels do you carry?

Around 40 by the glass and about 80 labels in total right now in our wine library.

How do you choose your wines?

We do wine from where wine is done well.

Why not just stay in Napa?

Because Napa doesn’t make the best Riesling; Austria and Germany do. Barbera is better in Italy. We’re not being frou-frou about wine, but we are trying to educate a bit. We’re not pompous. We are approachable and fun. We try to make an emotional connection between wine and where you are.

We call our most popular flight a “wine therapy” session. It’s a customized flight to meet your mood. Someone comes in and we ask them about their day and what they like. Sometimes we hear, “I’ve had a terrible day but I do like rosé,” so we try to pair wine with mood. It kind of peels back the boring in wine and gets to the reason they’re here. Then if two guests want the flight we can pit them against each other: So I might say, you try the Sancerre from France and you have the Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand.

It gets people talking and soon they’ve forgotten about their bad day.

Tell me about your clientele.

When we moved in, there really was not much here. We quickly became an anchor in the neighborhood. By starting the Upper Divis Merchants Association, I got to know people, and put myself in front of our neighbors so that we could build a sense of community and help each other out. I didn’t want to just come in here and open a wine bar; I wanted to be a part of the neighborhood. It’s a super friendly neighborhood. People tell me they don’t often talk to their neighbors, but they do when they come here.

Is it the wine? 

It’s the atmosphere. The staff — we have a really cool staff. We have a group of knitters who come every Thursday night. They love server Shonn Sopko. He’s absolutely gorgeous and an amazing server.

Do they knit while they’re here?

They drink when they’re here.

Tell me more about the community you’ve created.

We’re surrounded by schools, so we have happy hour deals for the teachers. We’re also surrounded by hospitals — UCSF, Kaiser, CPMC. Most people there get off at 3 p.m. — and they don’t have to wait for happy hour since ours starts at 3. Dollar oysters every day. And 20 percent off beer and wine during happy hour — that’s 40 percent to our club members. We have a few hundred people in our wine club, who always get a 20 percent discount when they’re here, and 25 to 35 percent off bottles to go.

What about your food program and new chef?

Armando Mayes — nicknamed “Tiny” by Donna Scala of Scala’s Bistro — is our new chef. He’s been here four weeks. He’s a 26-year veteran, worked for Reed Hearon for 10 years and was at Rose Pistola in 1997 when it won the James Beard Award for best restaurant in the country. Immediately before joining us, he was in San Miguel Allende at The Restaurant.

What’s his vision is for this place?

To focus more on Mediterranean food and to add a little spice. Dinner is really our secret sauce. Some restaurants have secret items on the menu; we have a secret menu — it’s called dinner. It’s a bit of a challenge. People see a wine bar and don’t know we do dinner or brunch. Our bar menu, which has great cheese and charcuterie and housemade focaccia, is what people expect. But they have no idea we offer full service dinner until 10 every night. It’s ambitious. But the food has been a pleasant surprise for everyone involved. Once people eat here, they’re always impressed.

Do you have signature dishes?

It’s a well-rounded menu, based on comfort food. There’s only one entree over 20 dollars. I call it a California take on international cuisine, but it’s really just our take on comfort food.

What’s the toughest thing about running the place?

Maybe it’s the hours. The biggest surprise has been the guests. They have been amazing. People are so gracious. We have so many regulars.

So now you’re the mayor of Upper Divis?

A little bit.

Are you ever going to take a day off?

I did take a day to visit my mom in Sonoma. That was the first day in a month.

How about a social life?

You’re looking at it. (Laughter.) My mom wants me to date.

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