Wine & Wise Words
with Liz Mendez of Vera
by Lauren Hurt | Photography by Shubha Gangal
An evening spent at Vera is much like an evening spent at the home of a dear friend, particularly one with excellent taste in wine. One woman who perfectly fits this description is Liz Mendez, co-owner and wine director at the intimate Spanish wine bar, Vera
. We had the pleasure of sitting down with Liz to talk about hospitality, owning a small business, and of course, wine. Liz and her husband Mark, the executive chef, are Chicagoans born and raised. They fell in love with Spanish cuisine when they worked side by side at Carnivale and knew they wanted their own venture to be a Spanish wine bar. Vera’s wine offerings are focused on the regions of Spain, France, and Italy and are accompanied by delicious, traditional Spanish fare. Three years later, the restaurant has made quite the name for itself with fans like Alpana Singh and numerous accolades.
Upon entering Vera, the eye is immediately drawn to the bar, where friends gather around glasses of Spanish wine amidst the low hum of conversation and laughter. The lighting is dim and the atmosphere incredibly cozy, which is just how Liz and Mark prefer it. While the Chicago dining scene is full of flashy newcomers trying to make a name for themselves, this locale is a breath of fresh air. Liz believes the secret to Vera’s success is due in part to the hospitality philosophy that she and her husband both share. “It’s not about us, it’s about providing a good life for the people who work here and in turn making people happy when they come to hang out with us.” This is an atmosphere that restaurant goers have gravitated towards, and that has helped Vera to build a loyal following. Liz says, “ I have a regular who makes this joke that we should rename Vera to Hugs Café. Every time someone comes in I give them a big hug. But again, it’s like you are hanging out in our kitchen. I’m going to take your coat, give you a hug, pour you a drink, and feed ya!”
You’ll always have tough days and it’s
all about the people you surround
yourself with... On my worst days, I put on
my best dress. There’s no crying in restaurants!
Liz has spent much of her life perfecting the art of entertaining. As a little girl, she spent a lot of time helping her mother and grandmother host parties. She has continued to cultivate that passion in the hospitality industry for over fifteen years while working in iconic Chicago restaurants including Gibson’s and Carnivale. In a 35,000 square foot restaurant like Carnivale, it’s difficult to cater to each individual guest, but that sure didn’t stop Liz. “ At Carnivale, I tried to recognize regulars and make people feel special in this very vast space. When we came to Vera, one of the biggest challenges was transitioning back to my roots. When you’re on a large stage like Carnivale, you blend in but coming to Vera you have to really lead by example for your staff to make every guest feel special.” Mark and Liz operate Vera while holding to the belief that their restaurant should be an ego free zone. This gracious attitude is something that greatly influences the way they do business. “One of the things that I know is that good food and good service is not enough anymore. It all starts with taking care of the people that work for you because if you take care of them, they will in turn take care of the guests.”
The joy that Liz and her husband have for entertaining through delicious food and drink is undeniable. The two function cohesively as a team and Liz believes they help to balance each other out I order to ensure that everything is running smoothly. Liz says of her husband, “ If one of us is having a bad day then the other isn’t. Over the years, we have learned how to work together really well. He’s in the kitchen and I’m front of the house. A lot of people in small business can speak to this, but if you don’t work with your significant other, you probably won’t see them very much. For us, it works out well!”
We couldn’t have a conversation with a sommelier without learning some of the tricks of the trade in the wine world. Liz knows that many people have trouble identifying and developing preferences for wine. For beginners, Liz has a couple recommendations. “First, drink what you like. Also, drink to learn. If that was what school was all about, we probably would’ve been straight ‘A’ students right?” Liz also urges those new to wine drinking not to over think it. She suggests pairing a snack that you really love with a glass of wine to help you figure out what sorts of pairings you may like. One fun pairing that Liz suggests is champagne and potato chips. Yum!
First, drink what you like. Also, drink to
learn. If that was what school was all about, we
probably would’ve been straight ‘A’ students right?
Liz is not only knowledgeable about wine, but being a small business owner, she has also learned a thing or two about what it takes to succeed in a business venture. “ If you are a woman, you need to find a mentor and you need to be one eventually. Surround yourself with exceptional people and hard workers. You’ll always have tough days and it’s all about the people you surround yourself with. If you don’t feel like you have a supportive community, build one. On my worst days, I put on my best dress. There’s no crying in restaurants!”
Come and spend a cozy evening sipping wine, savoring some Spanish small plates, and enjoying the perfect blend of fine dining and comfort that Vera is known for. Make sure to say hello to Liz, who you are bound to find greeting guests with a hug and a cold drink. We know you’ll fall in love with this gem, just as we have.