What's Behind the Rise of Caviar Bars? | Bon Appétit

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What's Behind the Rise of Caviar Bars? | Bon Appétit

At Heritage Restaurant & Caviar Bar in Chicago, restaurateur Guy Meikle personally walks diners through what might be their first caviar encounter, telling stories to mentally transport them to the Uruguayan farm where he sources his product. His menu includes homemade sour-cream-and-cheddar potato chip ice cream with a scoop of caviar on top. “I want people to know it’s approachable. It’s not scary. Caviar can be a ton of fun,” he says. That same sense of fun is tangible at Caviar Bar in Charleston, South Carolina, an eight-seat affair set on a 19th-century veranda at Zero George Hotel. There, you can grab a sturdy potato chip, scoop white sturgeon eggs straight from the tin, and enjoy the coveted “pop” on the roof of your mouth. Starting at $65, the experience feels luxurious but also playful. “People have assumptions about caviar,” says Zero George’s executive chef Vinson Petrillo. Those assumptions include the notion that caviar is quintessentially ‘80s and must be paired with a stretch limo. Or it’s briny and slimy and gross. 

But Petrillo is something of a caviar evangelist, whose objective, like Meikle and a growing number of other chefs and restaurateurs, is to change the product’s reputation. He wants caviar to seem approachable and exciting. “They think they won’t like it,” Petrillo says of some hesitant customers, “because they’ve never had good caviar. When you have your first taste of the good stuff, a light bulb goes on in your head. You get it.”

In the last five years, those light bulbs have gone on all over the country, illuminating a spate of new caviar bars. While caviar has traditionally been supplemental on expensive, often stuffy restaurant menus, caviar bars are caviar-first—sometimes caviar-only. And although caviar is a splurge (prices vary based on size and color, sturgeon species, and branding), there’s a broad push to make it feel accessible to a new generation. That means bar stools instead of white tablecloths, caviar “bumps” to be slurped off the wrist, and chefs appearing with their sleeves rolled up to talk caviar with customers. Belly up to any of these bars and you’ll find a crowd that’s smitten with sturgeon roe.    

In addition to Caviar Bar in Charleston and Heritage Restaurant & Caviar Bar in Chicago, there’s Huso in New York City and Room 725 Champagne & Caviar in Austin and The Bump Bar in Sausalito, California, where owner Deborah Keane is set on “introducing caviar to the new generation.” 

To contextualize the recent rise of caviar bars, you have to go back a few decades. Caviar has a long, strange trip of a history, rife with Soviet monopolies, poaching, fraud, and black-market product. By the ‘90s, the industry was in serious trouble: Beluga and other types of sturgeon with desirable eggs had always thrived in the Caspian Sea, producing the majority of the world’s caviar, but now those waters were ransacked. During the “caviar boom” of the early 1900s, the US had depleted its own sturgeon supplies. In 2005, after Russia banned commercial sturgeon fishing in the Caspian, sturgeon farms started popping up everywhere. “When I got into the business in 2004, there were six farms on the planet,” Keane says. “A decade later, there were a couple thousand.” 

Before they can be harvested, sturgeon eggs need about a decade to mature. So 10 to 15 years after the fishing ban, caviar, farmed but bona fide, looked on track to become as available as it was back in the ‘80s—when Macy’s sold Beluga eggs for $12 an ounce, and distributor Isidoro Garbarino illegally imported over 10 million dollars’ worth of Russian and Iranian caviar into the US (then went on the run for 23 years before his arrest in 2012). 

Sturgeon farms weren’t as lucrative as many had hoped, though. “Farmers went into the business and didn’t know how to market. Or marketers opened farms and didn’t know anything about farming,” Keane explains. A number of farms wound up shuttering or selling to conglomerates. But in their place, all over the world, new and improved ones cropped up, and continue to crop up, and today’s entrepreneurs have learned from their predecessors’ mistakes. 

Still, “sturgeon farming is hard and it’s costly,” says Marai Bolourchi, Vice President of the California-based sustainable sturgeon farm and caviar company Tsar Nicoulai. What makes it harder and costlier in this country are all the restaurants and caviar brands that source their eggs not from US-based farms, but from the Chinese company Kaluga Queen, the world’s largest mass producer of caviar. 

Nevertheless, bets on the staying power of caviar seem to be paying off. In 2020, the global caviar market was valued at $304.9 million. By the end of 2027, it’s expected to be valued at $530 million. And to the extent that a luxury product can go mainstream, caviar is mainstreaming: Videos from TikTok influencer Danielle Matzon, granddaughter of caviar farm owner Mark Zaslavsky, garner millions of views; she slathers caviar on Fitness Bread, Doritos, or a bagel and cream cheese, and her fans can’t get enough. “Omg THE ELEGANCE,” one commenter gushed. Wrote another, “She makes bougie so casual. And I love it.” 

Another trendsetter, Top Chef winner Buddha Lo, is executive chef at the caviar bar Huso in New York City, where he serves caviar on potato leek soup, scrambled eggs, and beef tartare. “I have 500 people on the waiting list every night,” says Lo, whose winning Top Chef dish was Hamachi with vin jaune and, of course, caviar. 

Not everyone is on board with the over-the-top approach. As chef John Tesar of the restaurant Outer Reef in Dana Point, California sees it, “Why do you need to put it on an ice cream cone?” But whether they’re making caviar hot dogs or popping open a tin to serve with nothing but chilled vodka, chefs and caviar enthusiasts want diners to shed preconceived notions. 

In caviar bars, those run by purists and those run by innovators, the consensus is that caviar is worthy of once again taking center stage. Although the rise of these establishments can be traced back to that 2005 sturgeon-fishing ban, something less tangible seems to be fueling it, too. The caviar bar owners I spoke with all had history with the product. “I’m a ‘60s kid,” Keane says. “In the ‘60s, they were practically giving it away. Pennies on the dollar. A bucket of caviar for $30.”

Meikle, who’s Czech, has fond memories of spreading it on black bread throughout his childhood. “I don’t want to lose that homey feel,” he says. Tesar recalls the caviar pies people were eating on the Upper East Side in the ‘80s, and the caviar his family got every Christmas from his dad’s friend Morris who owned a Jewish deli. Petrillo, too, once worked with caviar in New York and fondly recalls opening two-kilo tins of the stuff and falling in love with the taste and texture. He has passed his love of caviar to his seven-year-old daughter. “She prefers Ossetra to Siberian,” he says. “She asked for caviar for Christmas.”

We may never return to that era, when caviar was so accessible. Plus, plenty of us don’t have childhood memories filled with the stuff. And with nearly six million Americans unemployed, and a possible recession looming, caviar bars can feel at odds with reality. But Keane speculates that caviar, like wine, will become affordable again. “We’ll see this shift in the next two years,” she predicts. “Sure, you’ll have your $100 caviar, like you have your $100 bottle of wine. But that’s not for every day. On the daily, you’ll eat the $10 stuff.” 

Yet maybe the “$10 stuff” misses the point, denying us the romance of an impractical splurge. “When I look out at the bar and see everyone eating caviar,” Petrillo says, “they’re smiling. They’re giggling. They’re enamored.” 

What's Behind the Rise of Caviar Bars? | Bon Appétit

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