PICTURED: Wendell and Cathy Roberts enjoy Bloody Marys courtesy of bar manager Jacob Toth. Photo by Monica Karl
by Nancy D. Lackey Shaffer
The Twist on Main
454 E. Main St., Ventura
Pre-pandemic, Grapes and Hops had it all: a dizzying array of fine wines (grapes), a decent selection of craft beers (hops), appropriate plates to go with them (cheese and charcuterie platters, hummus, some salads and sandwiches), a sizable footprint and a large, shaded patio that was the envy of neighboring restaurants. It was packed on weekends and weekday evenings alike, prized for its casual ambience and live music (often of the acoustic variety).
It struggled during COVID shutdowns (like every other business) but also took the time to reinvent itself. New owners Teri Formanek and Dave Parsonage made significant changes that have updated the space but also kept the things longtime patrons have loved. In truth, they’ve made it the best of both worlds, and have already become a local hangout since the grand opening in February.
“When we closed to do the rebrand, we had an introspective night. Who are we?” Parsonage explains.
Parsonage had been good friends with the previous owner and a regular at Grapes and Hops. An accomplished musician, he was a regular on the wine bar’s stage, too. As passionate as he was about music, it seemed logical to embrace that idea. Everything fell into place after that.
“That’s when all of this changed,” he says.
He admits that it’s not a wild departure from what came before. It’s still casual and comfortable — the lighting is not too bright, the bench seating against the walls is inviting and cozy, the dark, natural wood grain is comforting. I can honestly say that the moment I walked in, I felt more relaxed.
But look around and you’ll notice the higher quality of the furnishings and fixtures. The old wine barrels, which once served as tables, are gone. A fresh coat of paint has zhuzhed up the place. Parsonage’s collection of instruments have been used to decorate the walls, along with framed album covers.
Grapes and Hops was always a popular spot for live music, so Parsonage and Formanek have enhanced that aspect. A new and improved sound system and better lighting make for a much better experience for performer and audience alike.
With so many changes, a new name was in order. Parsonage and Formanek first hit on Grapes and Hops With a Twist — paying homage to the old while embracing the new — but it was a mouthful. Everyone started shortening it to “The Twist” and the name stuck. It was simple, indicative of the eatery’s new direction and, thanks to Chubby Checker, tied in beautifully with the music theme.
Grapes and hops — and grains
Formanek’s sophisticated sense of style brought other classy touches to the Twist. She replaced old wood pallets with large, glorious mirrors (purchased for a song from a hotel surplus store) that make the space seem larger. The brand-new bar is a thing of beauty, too.
And behind that bar — a full selection of liquors, mixers and spritzers. Yes, the “new” Grapes and Hops was no longer just grapes and hops. Formanek and Parsonage recognized early on that they were going to have to offer cocktails if they were going to continue, and so got their liquor license in July 2021.
To go with the newly remodeled bar, they had a gathering of mixologist minds: four professional bartenders who came up with a craft cocktail menu that could stand up to the competition. And once again, they looked to music for inspiration.
Empress Indigo Gin turns the classic French 75 into a violet-hued refresher called Purple Rain. Bittersweet Symphony is aptly named, with grapefruit, Aperol, sweet vermouth and cola. The beautifully balanced “Imagine,” named for the song by the great John Lennon, is a delicious, frothy blend of lemon, tequila, pomegranate and egg white.
But the bar’s bestseller?
“Dark Side of the Moon,” Parsonage states, proudly displaying a dark purple margarita made with blackberries and basil and elegantly garnished with a rim of black salt. Don’t miss this tart, fruity concoction!
Fear not, wine and beer lovers. These sips may no longer be the headliners, but they’re still valued members of the beverage band.
For beer, there are eight taps with a mix of styles — this is *not* an IPA-dominant list! — plus a dozen or so in the bottle, with hard seltzer, kombucha and cider available.
For wine, think quality not quantity. Formanek notes that previously, the restaurant was offering “700 kinds of wine with around 2,460 bottles. We had 45 vendors! Now we’ve paired it down to 22 bottles, which is manageable, and we kept the best ones, like Rombauer and Ojai Vineyard.”
If you’re feeling hungry, the simple but satisfying fare will do the trick. Flatbread pizzas, delectable sandwiches (the tri-tip French dip is one of Formanek’s favorites), tapas platters, charcuterie and more offer plenty of variety and flavor. Keep an eye out for Sunday brunch offerings, which Formanek hopes to debut May 1.
Make yourself at home
Once operated by a staff of 13, the Twist now boasts 22 servers, bartenders, cooks and dishwashers — all of whom work hard to keep customers relaxed and happy.
“I was an executive recruiter for 21 years,” Formanek says. “My forte is hiring good people.”
She believes that “customer service is number one,” and makes sure that everyone who comes to the Twist feels right at home.
Of course, for most of us, “home” doesn’t usually include two stages for live music (acoustic acts perform outside), a limited but expert food menu and craft cocktails whipped up by some of the best barstaff in town. All the more reason to make the Twist your local home away from home.
“You’ll be a stranger here but once,” says Parsonage, who states that the Twist’s clientele has grown and that many regulars have become friends. “That’s how we measure success.”