Mario Grado’s Vintage 53 is an exquisite blend of industrial décor, incredible wine and food, and heartwarming inspiration.
Owner Mario Grado’s interest in wine started when he was just a kid. His family didn’t drink wine often (and didn’t drink beer or liquor at all), so whenever Mario saw his parents setting out bottles of reds and whites, he knew he would be spending the day with great friends and family. He began to look forward to seeing those bottles because he knew new memories, good laughs, and funny stories were about to be created and shared. Once Mario was older, it was no surprise that his very first sip of alcohol was none other than red wine!
Finding an enjoyable glass of wine was a little challenging at some of the local bars, though. Watching bartenders open a mini bottle of Sutter Home and pour it into a glass wasn’t exactly the finer experience he was hoping for. He wanted a place to socialize, relax, and take a breather from the beer-sloshing crowds. Mario and his friends eventually found a wine spot they loved, but it closed after just 2 short years. While it was in operation, Mario says he used to sit, look around, and imagine how he would create a wine bar, if he could.
Wanting to open up new opportunities for himself, Mario went back to school and pursued a business degree. During his program, he used his idea for a wine bar for the basis of required projects. This allowed him the opportunity to essentially write his entire business and financial plan under the supervision of his talented professors. After he graduated, it was intimidating to think about executing this plan on his own, though. It was hard to imagine walking away from a steady job with steady money and investing in a long build-out process.
Then, last April, another unimaginable thing happened. Sadly, Mario’s father was tragically killed in a car accident. Mario’s father was one of his biggest supporters, and had always encouraged him to pursue his dream of opening a wine bar. His father was so supportive, in fact, that he made plans to leave Mario with more financial stability upon his death. Mario chose to turn tragedy into possibility, and thought what better time than this to take a leap. In honor of his father’s birth year, 1953, Mario officially made the decision to open his business – Vintage 53.
This past July, Mario traveled to Nashville for a month to help his mom pack up. His parents had just recently moved there to retire, and with his dad gone, she didn’t have a reason to stay. When he returned he met with his financial advisor, who recommended a storefront in St. Charles as a potential location for his business. Mario visited the spot, but ultimately decided it wasn’t for him. As he was walking to his car, he noticed they were breaking ground on a new development on First Street. He quickly jotted down the information from a banner on the fence, and immediately pitched his business idea to the developer. During their conversation he learned about the future phases of the development project, and felt that First Street in St. Charles was quickly on pace to be strong competition for Geneva’s famed Third Street. He didn’t want to be anywhere else!
Mario officially decided on the location on August 11th and began executing his plans. Actually, he had purchased the piano that now sits inside Vintage 53 right before this! He plays the piano, so he figured that if his plans to house it at his wine bar didn’t work out, it would still be a good purchase.
Mario says that he quickly learned that his pretty little business plan actually did JACK for preparing him for the demands of starting a business. He’s learned more about starting and operating a small business in the past few months than he did throughout his entire college program. While the structure of his business degree laid a strong foundation for this new challenge, he had to learn to think on his feet and roll with the punches.
Mario explained the most difficult part of the build out process was wearing all the different hats for space design. He went into it with a good knowledge of wine and a vision for the vibe, but he had no idea how to design a kitchen, or factor in UL standards and wattage while selecting lamps he wanted. While he’s had to return a few kitchen exhaust fans he ordered incorrectly, everything has come together beautifully. Even with the holdups and delays, Mario enjoyed the entire process so much.
The interior of Vintage 53 can be described as modern, rustic, and industrial. Open shelving stacked with bottles of wine contrast the brick wall behind the bar, and gray upholstered panels framed by rich wood back the bench seating along the walls. An open air ceiling, Edison bulb lighting, and gorgeous leather couches finish the look.
There are a lot of unique pieces featured throughout. Mario didn’t want people to walk in and see décor they’ve seen elsewhere. He says to be honest, he could’ve just decorated with items from Pottery Barn and kept it simple. But, he wanted Vintage 53 to be unlike any other place, so that meant reaching out to companies all over the country for custom pieces.
You’ll notice the illuminated 5ft giant marquee numbers above the bar, which were custom made by a company in Nashville, and his host stand was made by a company out of Rhode Island. A local Chicago company built all of the tables out of reclaimed wood, and cleverly stamped a discreet “53” in a different spot on each table. Don’t worry – you won’t be the first weirdo to start randomly looking under the table, or along the sides. I walked around to more tables than I’d like to admit trying to spot each set of numbers!
You won’t find TV’s, football games, or news tickers at Vintage 53 - on purpose. Mario says the wants to keep the environment intimate and conversational, and doesn’t want to be one red Solo cup away from being just another bar. Instead, he plans to feature live music from talented local artists on Friday and Saturday nights as fun background entertainment. Mario laughed as he explained that booking musicians has also been a new and unique business experience. He definitely WON’T be doing any sing-alongs like one artist suggested, which Mario said legitimately scared the crap out of him.
Mario has enjoyed choosing wines for his menu, and credits his wine representative for helping him along the way. Mario has had the opportunity to meet a lot of people in the industry, attend tastings with winery owners, and learn the ins and outs of what he is pouring. His wine selection features a great blend of varietals, some familiar labels, and a lot of other unique choices – both by the bottle and the glass.
He explained that he designed the menu in a way that will help people make better wine decisions. Mario says he’s been to wine bars where they hand you a vague list and you end up picking a wine by the price or by a name that sounds cool. He joked that he’s previously said to himself, “Oh, this one sounds super French so it must be good!”
In other cases, Mario felt like he was being taken to the cleaners with pricing. He had a favorite wine at one spot that charged $19 per glass, and he later learned it was only $20 per bottle. Every wine at Vintage 53 has tasting notes, aromas, descriptions, and origins to help people find something they will truly love at a reasonable price. Overall, Mario wants to empower the customer to design their own wine experience. As a self-proclaimed “wine hippie”, Mario just wants everyone to be happy and drink wine! All I have to say is PREACH!!
A few days ago, I had the pleasure of spending some time with Mario at Vintage 53 before the opening. We sipped on a spectacular single-vineyard vintage Pinot Noir and sampled some of the INCREDIBLE small plates talented Executive Chef Franklin Perdue has created. There was literally nothing that I didn’t like, and I can’t wait to try all of the other items on the menu.
We started with the Roasted Red Grape Crostini, featuring Zingerman’s fresh goat cheese, Ames Farm prairie flower honey, and micro red kale. Obsessed!
Next, I sampled the Braised Berkshire Pork Belly, with Ancho-pomegranate aioli, fennel, marinated red onion, and a delicious jalapeño-cheddar cornbread. Honestly, I don’t normally like cornbread, but I loved this version! The Pork was incredibly tender and full of flavor.
Chef Franklin then presented us with a beautiful charcuterie board, customized with a “Vintage 53” logo on the sleek slate. Cheeses included Sartori Dolcina Gorgonzola, Artigiano Vino Rosso, Hook’s 8-Year Cheddar, Point Reyes Blue Cheese, Pecorino, and Carr Valley Fontina. Our meat selection included Olympia Provisions Soppressata, La Quercia Procuitto Piccante, Volpi Pepperoni, La Quercia Pancetta, Serrano-cured Lomo, and Truffle Mousse Pate. It was adorned with crostinis, house-made pickles, sliced green apple, red grapes, and artichoke for pairing.
Last, but definitely not least, I tried the Green Tea Panna Cotta, served with plum "caviar" and honeycomb. It had such a wonderful, unique, and refreshing flavor! It was a perfect way to end our tasting.
Vintage 53 will be celebrating its exciting, official Grand Opening on Friday, March 24th! I've enjoyed getting to know Mario, his story, and experiencing the new place for myself. I hope you're already planning your first visit to this new St. Charles gem - you won't be disappointed! Cheers!
162 S First Street, St. Charles, IL 60174
Sunday - Monday: CLOSED (Available for Private Events)
Tuesday - Thursday: 4PM - 10PM
Friday - Saturday: 4PM - 12AM