The Blind Monk in West Palm Beach: Q&A With Owner Ben Lubin

lind Monk owner Ben Lubin certainly knows his wine. 

But for someone who has neither owned nor managed -- never mind opened -- any sort of establishment in his 33 years, it's near unbelievable how well he's done for himself with his new wine and tapas bar in West Palm Beach.

One could argue Lubin actually knows the lay of the land in Afghanistan -- where he served as a captain in the Marines for much of the past decade -- better than the scene he's chosen to set up shop.

No matter: South Florida is still abuzz with gossip on the place, with revelers as far as Miami making the trek to Lubin's hideaway on a quiet side street a stone's throw from downtown Clematis and City Place.

Lubin's overwhelming success is, in part, due to his amazing staff, he insists. That includes house sommelier Krystal Kinney. When the Blind Monk opened last August, she wasn't even on board yet. The petite, unassuming blond was actually abroad -- work-related travel that included drinking wine that would later be the perfect prelude for her latest role: assembling a robust wine menu for Lubin's bar.

No flowery, over-the-top descriptions here -- Kinney makes her recommendations straight and simple, sans all that frilly, extraneous information you might get at other wine bars. Simply tell her what you want (or think you want) and with excruciating precision, she'll quickly find you a match made in heaven. 

Wanting a bit more gab to go with your glass? Attend one of her weekly winetastings on Sundays and Mondays, where she'll put together a customized flight based on your tastes and expectations for just $15.

But make no mistake -- this is not your average wine bar. Lubin is quick to point out that the Blind Monk is not some pretentious watering hole where well-heeled hipsters and uptight affluents come to sip and cast a dubious glance. 

It's a local's spot -- your very own hometown, low-key wine bar. It's the place you come to sit, stay -- and share a bottle. It's a place where you can get a $6 glass or an expensive boutique bottle. 

It's your new destination.

We caught Lubin for a Q&A on one of his rare nights away from the Blind Monk. Here's what he had to say:

Clean Plate Charlie: You've had amazing success with the place since you opened, and there's quite a buzz about the bar. What are people talking about?

Ben Lubin: It took me about seven months to open [the Blind Monk], and I started out with Facebook. I'd post things like paint samples I was considering for the walls so people could give me their input. From the start, there was months of anticipation, and the idea caught on. Plus, I had a lot of advantages. Both my parents are from [West Palm Beach], and my mother is the mayor, so that helped. But that alone isn't enough. I don't think I would have made it this far if I had created a place people didn't like enough to come back to visit.

You left West Palm Beach after high school, but you still grew up in the city and know a lot of people. Would you say locals helped build the buzz?

When I was first trying to get my idea off the ground, I went to a lot of people [in the industry] for help and advice. I asked them everything from where to buy the best equipment to how to approach payroll. Friends like Nick Coniglio [owner of West Palm's E.R. Bradley's Saloon, Cucina Dell' Arte, and Nick and Johnnie's] and Bill Watson [the man behind West Palm restaurants including City Cellar, Rocco's Tacos, and Grease]. And for more than three months, I trained with City Cellar's beverage manager, learning about wine.

You chose a great name for your place. Is there a story behind it?

One day, I was reading about wine and came across the story of Dom Perignon, the Benedictine monk who was known for his blind tastings -- the idea of choosing the best grapes without bias, not knowing what vineyards they came from. A name is so important, so we took that name to help create our interior design. Our chandelier represents the bubbles in the champagne. The table tops made from old wine barrels, the burlap covered columns, and wine crates -- they all pay homage to the simplicity of the monk lifestyle.

What makes the Blind Monk different than other wine bars?

When I came back [to West Palm], I didn't know the scene. I hadn't been [in town] since I left, and I thought, "There's nowhere I really like to go out." As I've gotten older, I believe going out for a drink is about enjoying the company you're with. That said, drinking wine is something very different than taking a tequila shot or drinking a pitcher of cheap beer. Normally, wine is something you share -- you eat and drink -- slowly. You don't meet your friend out for a glass of wine. Drinking wine is an experience. That's what I wanted to do with the Blind Monk: create an experience for people.

You've got a pretty dedicated clientele who seem to feel the same way. Who are the people that come to the Blind Monk?

Our demographics are across the board. We've got young, old. People from the Island, people from way out west. People who want a $6 glass and people who can afford the $100 bottle. The other night, we had a guy in a blazer with an ascot sitting next to a guy with long hair in shorts and sandals. And they were having a great conversation. I knew when I opened I could get people in. I just needed to get them to want to come back. That's why I want to appeal to everyone -- for people to come in and be themselves. I created a place I would want to go out.

Where could we find you out for a drink before you brought your own vision of the perfect place to fruition?

There really was no place I liked to go. And I've lived in quite a few places and visited quite a few more. When I came up with the idea [to be away from the downtown scene], people told me I was crazy, that the location was all wrong. But I didn't want to take the cookie-cutter approach. I didn't want the downtown feel. I wanted to be the local place where the charm was in being off the beaten path. I think that if you want to succeed, you have to be a destination. 

You've certainly become a destination for great wine. Krystal is behind all the wine at the Blind Monk. What is it you think she does differently?

We offer great value wines right along with some pricey, boutique ones and of course your well-known labels. We have over 90 by the glass and more than 300 by the bottle, and I don't know of any other place that really does that.

Do you lose out when you're potentially opening that many bottles?

It's amazing, but right now we're operating at 2 percent waste -- and that's all thanks to Krystal too. She does her job well. When people want to come in and try something new, she helps them find what they're looking for. A lot of times, that's also what is popular, and that's what we're opening. And then there are the regulars that are OK with whatever we put in front of them or that come in and want the same thing every time. We also have people who want flights [four different wines for $15], and we will have them trying things they would never think to taste.

You have your "Flight Nights" on Sundays and Mondays, where people can get any four wines (white, red or both) for $15. Any other specials?

If you're "in the biz," beer and wine is 20 percent off on Sundays and Mondays, and every other night 10 percent off. If you "check in" on Facebook, you get 10 percent off beer and wine as well. Our happy hour is daily from 4 to 7 p.m., and that is a two-for-one special on select wines. We also have monthly wine- and beertastings that typically costs around $20 to $25.

You have a very basic tapas menu. Any plans on expanding?

We're a wine bar first. The food is more to pair with the wine than anything else. If you're looking for a dinner experience here, don't. Our focus, our priority, is the wine. We make sure it's served the way it should be -- in the right stemware, at the right temperature. Your reds are going to be at 60 degrees here, not Florida room temperature.

What wine are you drinking these days?

I like a lot of different things. If I'm going to have two glasses, I like my first to be white. But I'm into everything. Cabernet franc, pinot noir, blends. I like more fruit, less earthy.

What's been the best part of the experience opening the Blind Monk?

The people. All the great people that have come in -- especially our regulars. 

Good thing, because we're looking to become regulars too. 

WEDNESDAY, JANUARY 19, at 6 p.m.
Join the Blind Monk for a horizontal tasting of 1978 vintage wines from the French region of Bordeaux. Sommelier Krystal Kinney will conduct this intimate tasting at the bar. Just eight seats are available, so reservations are required. Please call 561-833-3605, 
or email Krystal at [email protected] 
Price is $225.

Below is a list of the wines that will be available at the tasting:

Grand Puy Lacoste (Pauillac)
Pichon Baron (Pauillac)
Haut Batailley (Pauillac)
Grand Puy Ducasse (Pauillac)
Lascombes (Margaux)
La Lagune (Margaux)
Calon Segur (St. Estephe)
Montrose (St. Estephe)
Prieure Lichine (Margaux)

410 Evernia St.
West Palm Beach 33401

Follow Clean Plate Charlie on Twitter: @CleanPlateBPB.

KEEP NEW TIMES BROWARD-PALM BEACH FREE... Since we started New Times Broward-Palm Beach, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of South Florida, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Nicole Danna is a Palm Beach County-based reporter who began covering the South Florida food scene for New Times in 2011. She also loves drinking beer and writing about the area's growing craft beer community.
Contact: Nicole Danna