Close to Trafalgar Square, Corney & Barrow's year-old conversion of a NatWest bank could almost pass for the lobby of an Ian Schrager hotel. Here, designer Claire Nelson used limestone for the floor, teak for the tables, leather for the chairs, an ivory shade of plaster for the walls, and black granite for the bar. It's anything but what you expect from a wine bar. Except that it has a brilliant list of wines. Of 60 on the list, 35 are available by the glass; they are grouped by grape variety, with jaunty tasting notes, served by knowledgeable staff.
The airy ground floor bar eddies with customers meeting over bottles of Chablis and Pinot Grigio; it is not intended for long evenings. Those who want to eat go upstairs, where there is wonderful, earthy European food. Downstairs in the basement is the lounge-like champagne bar, with teak floors, deep- blue walls and beige velour chairs. Drinkers in the know order Billecart Salmon - the same price as Moet & Chandon.
Opera-goers from the ENO over the road have claimed the bar as their own. Although it stocks French, Japanese and Swedish beers, it is not the obvious venue for the funky lager drinker. But that doesn't mean anyone asking for a sea breeze will get a chilly reception.
In the autumn, Corney & Barrow in St Martin's Lane will know the outcome of its application for a late licence. Then it could be the only place to order a bottle of Romanee St Vivant 1992 (pounds 108.95) after midnight.
Corney & Barrow drinks
La Combe de Grinou, 1998
This dry white is grassy and fresh, but with some tropical fruitiness and more weight than an equivalent Bordeaux blanc. The balance comes from the classic Semillon-Sauvignon blend, which makes it very popular. It is unusual in coming from undervalued Bergerac, and goes well with light summer meals. pounds 12.95 in the bar, pounds 5.46 from Corney & Barrow's shop.
Staton Hills Pinot Noir, 1994
Among the best Pinots produced outside France, this has classic strawberries- and-cream flavours and is summery for a red wine, though it is produced from one of the heavier Pinot Noirs. This grape produces wines with less tannin than other reds. The Japanese- owned Staton Hills winery is in Washington State, which has the same latitude as Bordeaux and Burgundy, and a similar climate of cold winters, wet springs and warmish summers. Unlike some of the lighter Pinot Noirs, it isn't served chilled, and is good to drink on its own, or with summer foods, pasta or steaks. pounds 22.95 in the bar, pounds 11.70 from Corney & Barrow's shop.
Chateau de Sours, 1998
Exclusive to Corney & Barrow, this rose comes from the ancient Bordeaux chateau run by Esme Johnstone, the man who founded Majestic Wine. Full- bodied without being heavy, and great for drinking with or without food, it is so good the bar doesn't list any other roses. The wine is made as proper rose should be, by drawing off red wine juice 24 hours after the grapes have been picked. It is made from 100 per cent Merlot grapes, which is unusual for a rose, and has a deep-pink colour and fruity, berry taste. pounds 17.95 in the bar. pounds 8.25 from Corney & Barrow's shop.
Corney & Barrow at St Martin's Lane, 116 St Martin's Lane, London WC2 (0171-655 9800) Mon-Sat 11am-11pm; Sun noon-4pm. Corney & Barrow's wines are also sold by mail order and in their shop, 194 Kensington Park Road, London W11 (0171-221 5122).