The idea of using a wine cellar for purposes other than storing wine goes back a long way.

During Prohibition, for example, the wine cellar at the famous 21 Club in New York City was used as a speakeasy. The door to the cellar, hidden behind smoked hams and shelves filled with canned goods, could only be opened by inserting an 18-inch meat skewer through a crack in the wall.

The police were never able to find it.

Today, that cellar is used not only to store wine but to offer the restaurant’s guests a special dining experience – a seven-course tasting dinner among the restaurant’s thousands of bottles of wine, including the private collections of famous patrons such as Richard Nixon and Elizabeth Taylor. (You can see video of the famous wine cellar at

Opening wine cellars for private dining became a trendy thing to do during the 1990s, and now lots of restaurants around the country include it in their menu of options for private parties. In Boston, 15 Beacon Hotel, a luxury boutique hotel on Beacon Hill, offers a private dining room in a wine cellar with a 5th-century Roman mosaic and wines dating back to the 1700s.

A thorough hunt for wine cellar dining in Maine revealed only two options in this state, but they are two very different experiences. On the high end, there’s the White Barn Inn & Spa in Kennebunkport, where guests using the wine cellar for private dining have ranged from former president George W. Bush to families with small children who don’t want to disturb guests in the upstairs dining room.

If you prefer a more casual place that serves comfort food, Caiola’s on Portland’s West End calls its wine cellar dining room its “best kept secret,” although the secret is getting out as more guests use the space for events such as birthday parties and marriage proposals.



The wine cellar at the White Barn Inn was built in 1998 and seats 15 at a long, two-piece table made of Indian marble.

“The story goes it was one original piece of marble on the top that broke in transit,” said Jonathan Cartwright, the Grand Chef Relais & Chateaux.

Seating includes both simple chairs and a long, J-shaped booth against the wall. Guests are surrounded by the inn’s 7,000 bottles of wine, and they can gaze at a mural of Tuscany painted by local artist Judith Hardenbrook that was commissioned by the late former owner of the inn, Laurie Bongiorno. The floor is Italian marble.

While a jacket is required in the upstairs dining room, there’s no dress code for the wine cellar. Guests can arrive discreetly through a back entrance, or find their way through the inn’s kitchen to the cellar stairs.

“A lot of people comment how they like to walk through the kitchen to get here, and get a glimpse of the kitchen,” Cartwright said. “We have a bakery down on this level as well, so they have to walk through the bakery area.”

For a $150 surcharge, guests rent the wine cellar for large groups (tables larger than an eight-top are not allowed upstairs), small weddings, graduations and private meetings. Good guests who just want to get away for a while might be allowed to use the room without charge if it isn’t already booked.

An evening in the wine cellar might begin upstairs with a cocktail reception at the piano in the bar. “Sometimes people want to start out by the pool and have cocktails, then come in here,” Cartwright said.

The inn also holds the occasional wine dinner in the space.

Guests can order from the regular menu or do a chef’s tasting, but if they do the tasting menu all members of a party are required to order it because of the more difficult logistics of serving in the cellar.

During George W. Bush’s first term in office, the former president hosted staff get-togethers in the White Barn’s wine cellar.

“We have (hosted) couples who just wanted to be quiet and away from everybody, and some people who were quite well known, wanting to be discreet in there,” Cartwright said.

And no, he wouldn’t dish up any details.

While the wine cellar is private, remember that wait staff will still be dropping by to pick up the occasional bottle for a table upstairs. And all that wine tempting you from the cedar-and-mahoghany racks? There are no rules when it comes to touching the bottles. You can look at the labels.

Let’s just say, don’t get any ideas about that $1,400 bottle of Romanee St. Vivant 2006/2007.

“Most of our guests aren’t like that,” Cartwright said. “we don’t have to pay too much attention to that. We like people to look at our wine cellar. We’re very proud of our collection and our storage and our facility here, so that’s important, that people feel relaxed.

“Just like it is anywhere in the barn that people come in, they are our guests, and we expect them to behave like guests, like someone you would invite into your home and really enjoy the home that they’ve been invited into for the evening. So, here is no exception. People often pull out the bottles and check the labels and ask the waiters how they find stuff … things like that.”



Lisa Vaccaro, co-owner with chef Abby Harmon of Caiola’s on Portland’s West End, handles this delicate topic with a touch of humor.

“I address it at every table: ‘I’m counting these bottles,’ just to joke around,” she said.

Guests aren’t allowed to pick up the 100 bottles of wine in Caiola’s wine cellar dining room, but they are allowed to look at the labels. The restaurant keeps its reserve wines down here for now, but has plans to expand the cellar and add temperature-controlled storage for another 200 bottles in the near future.

“The wines that are down here are not on our list,” Vaccaro said on a recent tour. “They’re specialty wines.”

Fast-moving wines are kept upstairs in temperature-controlled coolers, and the rest is kept in the owners’ own wine cellar in their home.

The wine cellar was added to Caiola’s in 2009 from space that used to be part of the restaurant’s patio. Bricks from the patio were used to line a couple of the walls. Originally, the room was intended to be a wine tasting room for the staff, but then a wine distributor asked if he could put on a wine dinner there, and that began the cellar’s new role as a dining area.

Just last week, Caiola’s hosted a wedding in the cellar. It’s also been used for business meetings, birthday celebrations, marriage proposals, and lots of rehearsal dinners. “With the music going,” Vaccaro said, “it’s pretty romantic.”

The wine cellar contains a long table made of two wide planks. Vaccaro made the table herself out of wood that came from either (she can’t remember which) an old house on Washington Avenue or an old barn near Lubec.

On the wall hangs an old window frame decorated with a fabric covered in grapes. And at the end of the room is an arched doorway to nowhere. Open it, and there’s a blank concrete wall. Vaccaro often has fun with her guests by telling them it’s the door to the bathroom.

The wine cellar dining room requires a minimum of eight guests, partly because Vaccaro has to bring on an extra server for the space. There’s no surcharge per se, but guests may be required to spend a minimum.

“It’s attainable,” Vaccaro said. “We want people to feel special, and that there’s something they don’t have to spend a lot of money on.”

Guests can order off the regular menu, or ask for something special.

“For a lot of people, it’s a special event so they want a special treat for whoever they’re celebrating,” Vaccaro said. “They might like a specific type of food. What’s really fun is when they just give us their favorite ingredients – it could be lobster, or a type of fish, or they love beets. They just give us stuff they love. That way we don’t have to create anything on the spot, and they’re all surprised. We just create the menu from the things that they love. They could get some really interesting things, and it makes it fun for the chef and the kitchen to come up with something special and unique.”

The restaurant also holds five-course wine dinners in the space for 12 people, particularly in the fall.

Vaccaro says the this is the first year the restaurant has used the space during the summer; usually, it’s not booked June through August because the extra work during Maine’s busy summer season can overwhelm the kitchen.

The cellar is typically booked four to five nights a week, and Vaccaro currently has reservations for the room stretching into December.

Maybe it’s not such a secret anymore.

“The word is definitely getting out,” Vaccaro said, “but it’s amazing how many people don’t know about it.”


Staff Writer Meredith Goad can be contacted at 791-6332 or at: [email protected]

Twitter: MeredithGoad