A Simple Twist of Kate

Imagine a person you’ve never met before, yet you’ve seen them hundreds, maybe even thousands of times.

You know their age, their relationship history, where they’re from, how much they earned on their last job, perhaps even their weight. They, on the other hand, have neither seen nor heard of you before. You are a complete stranger to them.
But today is different. Today the role you’re playing is a familiar one: a friendly, impartial face amidst a sea of intruders and sycophants, patrons and paparazzi, yes men and nobodies. You’re their bartender. And you’re here to help.

I’ll never forget the first time I served a big celebrity at my bar. I was hunched over the sink behind the bar at a trendy SoHo restaurant where I was bar managing and suddenly I looked up to see Kate Moss peering at me from between the beer taps. She was smiling a little and said hello as soon as we made eye contact. For an instant I forgot where I was, and wondered if I had met her somewhere before recently. Obviously, I knew her, but how on earth did she know me??

She spoke again, “ I have a bit of a sore throat and was wondering if you had something back there for it. Maybe a-what’s it called…a Hot Toddy?” Suddenly jolted back to reality and context I realized I was in fact her bartender and it was my duty to produce a drink for her. “Sure. Would you like whiskey, brandy, or maybe… rum?”
“Whatever you think is best” she said. Her being British, I settled on a nice scotch diluted with warm water, fortified with a bit of honey and lemon. I stirred it up and handed it over. She took a sip and as she complimented me on it I found myself feeling strangely disoriented again. Not because I was star struck, I’m from New York and had met or been around numerous celebs since I was 8 years old. But there was something in the dynamic of this exchange that seemed odd to me. Here was a very well known celebrity who is often forced to shun and avoid public attention. A supermodel that has had to contend with being recognized wherever she goes. She must tolerate being approached by strangers who want things from her and who approach her as though they know her because they know her image so well. Yet on this day, at this moment, she has come to me seeking something, and she recognizes me, or at least the role I play behind the bar. My image as the bartender is one that is familiar and for a bewildering instant, the typical social dynamic is inverted and it’s as though we both inhabit the same stratosphere. We are breathing the same oxygen and Kate Moss is my friend.

Well ok, not really, but it feels that way.

You see, being a bartender means that, in a sense, you become a public figure. People know you. For the duration of their stay at the bar, you’re their buddy, their confidante, their matchmaker, their life concierge. Like the song on the TV show said, “Where everybody knows your name…” And your name is “bartender.” Participating in this charade of friendship with your guests can be annoying at times, as can, I imagine, being a celebrity. Guests, especially regulars, can start to feel like fans. They want know what you’re up to when they’re not around or not at work. They can sometimes push the envelope by making judgmental comments on your appearance or demeanor. They expect things from you, and they keep coming back for more. At the end of the day though, this is what you want, and what you need. Fans. A loyal group of people to sustain you when it’s slow or when you’re bored. To get you through the lean times. You may start to feel a hint of contempt at the familiarity and routine of it all but ultimately the show can’t go on without them.

Kate Moss sipped her Hot Toddy and resumed her conversation with her agent or whoever she was there with and when she was done, she paid, said thank you and left. I plummeted back to earth and landed with a dull thud, returning to my quotidian rituals of polishing glassware and cutting fruit.  But for a brief glossy moment I was on stage. I breached the paper wall of that magazine cover, and was recognized and awarded. With a tip.

Cocktail Epilogue:

Hot Toddy

½ oz. brandy, whiskey, rum or combination of two

1 teaspoon clover honey

½ oz. fresh lemon juice

Combine in a mug and fill with hot water or tea.

The Sum of All Cheers

You awaken, slightly bleary eyed. Upon realizing you’re alive, and which end of the bed your head is resting on, or even that you’re in a bed at all, you begin to reflect on the events of the previous night. You may struggle to remember the name of the person next to you, or the location of your phone, and who the owners of the various and sundry business cards and cocktail napkins with phone numbers on them in your pocket are, and… “What the hell is that stain on my shirt?!?”

Never has a journey lasting 12 or so hours seemed as perilous as the one taken on New Year’s Eve. The occasion is singularly fraught with sharp turns and pitfalls:  the requisite kiss at midnight can escalate and lead to much more than you planned, a celebratory toast can easily turn into multiple shots and a trip through a drunken wormhole. I have witnessed many a New Year’s Eve train wreck during my years behind the bar. So while not typically a fan of lists, I have struggled to carefully choose and share with you here some humble suggestions on how you might scale the ladder of revelry without tumbling down a chute of bad decisions on New Year’s Eve.

  1. Know whether you’re coming or going. Map out in as tangible terms as possible, where you are going, how you will get there and more importantly, how you will get home. Taxis and Car services like Uber will be in very high demand, and in the case of Uber, will implement surge pricing of up to 50% more than they would normally charge. Personally, if I’m traveling alone, I ride my bike and secretly scoff at all the people struggling to get cabs. Also look into public transportation options near your home and destination, the bus sounds corny or  like something for old ladies until you’ve been standing in the cold for an hour trying to get a taxi.
  2. Pace yourself. This is especially true if the party you’re going to has an open bar. Even if the open bar ends before 4 don’t be a booze camel. You’ll be wasted by midnight and have a terrible rest of the evening.
  3. Be nice to your date and don’t try to upgrade. New Year’s Eve is also the number one night for breakups. People get a bit hammered and say things they don’t mean or they succumb to the pressures of the evening and lash out at the person closest to them when things don’t go as planned. Take a deep breath and remember, it’s the end of the year not the end of the world, which leads me to my next point.
  4. Don’t chase perfection. It doesn’t exist the other 364 nights of the year, and it doesn’t exist on New Year’s. Sometimes it’s best to settle for a decent night than to chase the mirage of an epic one.
  5. Use the buddy system. Make a pact with a responsible friend or two and look out for each other, if they leave with a stranger make sure you politely get the person’s info, if they take offense you have permission to massively cockblock them.
  6. Eat hearty beforehand. Because, Duh.
  7. You don’t have to hook up with someone. That expression “it’s better to regret something you have done than something you haven’t done”? Not on New Year’s it isn’t.
  8. Don’t accept drinks or a rides from strangers. Unfortunately some people’s idea of a good time involves victimizing other people. (Also see #5 and #1 again)
  9. Get a phone leash. You will lose your phone at least once during the night.

10. Plan your New Year’s Day. It’ll give you some perspective and help you realize that you want to have a good day the next day and avoid that shameful walk and the cold comfort of your bathroom floor.

So there you have it. A bar’s eye view on having fun and staying safe on the biggest party night of the year. Enjoy, drink, and be wary.

Cocktail Epilogue:

Champagne Cocktail

4 oz Blanc de Blanc champagne
1 white sugar cube
2 light dashes of Angostura bitters

Method: place sugar cube in the bottom of a champagne flute and dash with Angostura bitters. Slowly add champagne by pouring down the length of a bar spoon. Watch the sugar excite the effervescence in the glass, and sip and enjoy while stirring occasionally.

Drinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

Secret [see-krit]: faithful or cautious in keeping confidential matters confidential; close-mouthed; reticent.

In this time of NSA eavesdropping and data mining, of leaks and whistleblowers, let us take a moment to consider privilege. Not Attorney/Client, nor Doctor/Patient, but something perhaps even more treasured and ubiquitous. Let us consider the privilege that exists between bartender and guest.

 Those of us that frequent bars and restaurants entrust our bartenders with a great many things. We often do this without even really thinking about it. There are the material things: the bartender holds your credit card when you run a tab, we’ll safely guard your phone that’s charging and not read your text messages. When you ask for a Ketel One and soda, you get a Ketel One and Soda. When you are at a table and request that obscure $32 Age D’or Calvados that pairs perfectly with your dessert, it goes without saying that the contents of your glass have not been surreptitiously replaced with some spirit of far lesser quality. You take for granted that your bartender is washing their bar tools and their hands thoroughly and frequently, and, when visiting a craft cocktail bar, that all the garnishes are market fresh and have been carefully chosen and maintained. The social contract and guest-to-host dynamic in our bars affords us a certain civility and comfort and on this we heavily rely.

A good, observant bartender bears witness to a great many private things and hears a great many secrets. We know where the bodies are buried and who did the burying; we know the numbers and the data behind them. We know what’s cooking in the kitchen and in the office. Bartenders are exposed to all these things, yet as professionals we are all sworn to obey the prime directive of bartending:  Discretion.

My favorite example of this involves a legendary NYC bar owner and colleague of mine. Even though he is incredibly knowledgeable and fluent about wash lines, the science of shaking and the importance of the surface area of ice cubes in cooling your cocktail, he is equally  concerned with preserving the sanctity of his bars as places where all his guests, be they famous or just a face in the crowd, can feel well looked after and have their privacy maintained.

One particular night at his bar he had a guest he had never seen before drinking with a friend. This person happened to be drinking the cocktail equivalent of a Dead Man’s hand in Poker: a drink invented by Ernest Hemingway called a “Death in The Afternoon.” After having several of these, he promptly passed out at the table and was abandoned by his friend. In search of a relative or significant other he could contact to come retrieve the fellow , my colleague scrolled through his texts and recent calls. He found  the number of the guy’s girlfriend, but not before discovering some salacious texts from a second girlfriend. He promptly deleted the incriminating texts to save the guy from the wrath of the first girlfriend and then contacts her. She asks him to put him in a cab, which he does, but the driver will not take him home alone in such an unresponsive state, so he  rides home with him. Along the way the guy soils himself. In spite of this, he takes the guy to his door and left him safely in the care of his girlfriend . He played Alfred to his Batman and fulfilled his duty, he saved him from himself and asked for no reward

It also pays to have a short memory. I once worked with a guy who, like a lot of bartenders, worked two bar jobs. Both places were owned by the same person and, while differing in concept, they shared a similar clientele. One was a French-American bistro and the other a trendy subterranean Russian-Inspired cocktail bar. Said bartender had a male regular that he knew quite well. This gentleman liked to frequent the bar at the bistro with his wife and the cocktail bar with his mistress. At one bar he’d laugh raucously and passionately grope his paramour, and at the other he’d enjoy a more placid date night with his spouse. In visiting both places it was implicitly understood that his bartender would never disclose having seen him with another woman, and further that he even visited him at the other bar at all.

While thoughts of such deception may seem distasteful, this guest felt very secure in doing this because he trusted his bartender.  It is not our place to judge or comment on such matters it is simply to serve and provide a safe harbor from the stress and strife of life outside those swinging doors. Regular or rookie, this benefit is afforded by bar professionals to all of our guests. One veteran bartender I know follows this code to such an extreme that if you walk into his bar with someone he’s never seen you with before he will behave as though does not know you. More than once when walking into his bar I have been greeted with a blank stare found myself feeling like the star of another remake of “Total Recall.”.

Those of us that choose to do this professionally believe in the inviolability of the bar. We work for tips, but that alone does not sustain us, your trust does.

Waitresses can chat about their cramps and their love lives, the owner will grouse about his business partners and the General Manager spending all his money, the GM will complain about the owner being a skinflint and we are privy to it all.  It is priceless information, and at the end of our shift it gets placed into the vault of our memories and we dutifully forget the combination.

 

Cocktail Epilogue:

Death In The Afternoon

1 oz. Absinthe

4 oz. chilled Champagne

Method as per Ernest Hemingway as published in “So Red The Nose” ca. 1935:

“Pour one jigger absinthe into a Champagne glass. Add iced Champagne until it attains the proper opalescent milkiness. Drink three to five of these slowly.”

Interview on Heritage Radio’s “The Speakeasy” with Damon Boelte

Lo these past several weeks, I have been extremely busy opening a new fine dining restaurant in midtown with several luminaries from Eleven Madison Park and The NoMad. The rigors of doing this, along with eating and sleeping, has pulled me far off of my normal update schedule. I did, however, manage to find time to do an interview with Renaissance man and raconteur Damon Boelte for his Heritage Radio show”The Speakeasy.” We spent an awesome afternoon drinking Negra Modelo and eating pizza at Roberta’s in Brooklyn. We also managed to squeeze in a shot of tequila or two, and a mysterious blend of their house “Frozen Drank” mixed with Smutty Nose IPA.

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All in all, it was an epic day filled with a lot of great conversation. The link to the interview can be found here :http://www.heritageradionetwork.com/episodes/4131-The-Speakeasy-Episode-93-Charles-Hardwick

On the page you will also see a link to support their brilliant non-profit efforts. If you are able, please do so, they are doing valuable work!

Follow Heritage Radio on Twitter at: @Heritage_Radio and Damon Boelte at: @SpeakeasyRadio. They rule.

Men Sipping Through Straws

I fell off my bike the other day.

I was riding the wrong way down Elizabeth St. and unaware of the large pothole looming before me. When my wheel hit the edge of it, off I tumbled. Luckily I rolled with the fall and only ended up feeling a little bruised. Like a fool, I wasn’t wearing a helmet and it was a bit painful. Far more painful, however, has been the philosophical bruisings I’ve suffered in witnessing the bizarre drinking habits of the modern American male these days.

Time was when bars were places where men went to do Manly things: to drink, to carouse and chase women, to engage in discourse both civil and raunchy, and to grouse about their troubles. Read Hemingway, or Fitzgerald, watch Bogey, or Gable; for God’s sake, listen to Tom Waits or Leadbelly, and there you will find the perfect essence of life and bar culture distilled down and perfectly expressed. These men of yore weren’t concerned with their carb intake or the state of their prostate. If they were hungry they ate steak and potatoes. They slaked their thirst with a Scotch and water or a Boilermaker, not a Jack and Diet Coke or Bud Light. Their problems and concerns were simple and timeless and they didn’t spend thousands of dollars on psychotherapy. Their shrink was their barber or their bartender. Viagra? It was served in a tumbler. All you needed was a couple of stiff belts and you felt like Rhett Butler primed to carry Scarlett up the stairs at Tara. The doctor’s prescription read: Vodka, Rum, Gin, Rye, Bourbon, Irish Whiskey, and Blended Scotch.

Yes, Blended Scotch.

Before every pisher with 20 crumpled bucks in his pocket assumed aged single-malt always meant a better whiskey, men had the taste, experience and individuality to order what they wanted, rather than what they felt they were supposed to order. And they often ordered blended Scotch. These days too many men order what they feel is sensible and expected; the beverage equivalent of a bicycle helmet in a glass, or a Martini with training wheels. Sam Peckinpah, Raymond Chandler, and Langston Hughes smoked and drank unrepentantly and I believe their work reflected and conveyed much richer experiences largely because of this.

Try for a moment, to imagine Humphrey Bogart in “Casablanca” slumped over the bar at Rick’s Place, broken-hearted by Ingrid Bergman’s return, without a cigarette burning in the ashtray and nursing a Vodka Red Bull. Or Peter O’Toole and Richard Harris regaling their fellow patrons at the local pub over an Amstel light instead of a frothy pint of Guinness, and you’ll begin to understand what I’m talking about. Bombarded by strange, conflicting images emanating from our movie and television screens and our iPads, we men now feel a pathological need to behave like the practical, colon-conscious, offspring of Dr. Oz and Martha Stewart. We do everything we can to avoid offending the public’s increasingly delicate sensibilities. This strange neurosis seems to overly mitigate our drinking and culinary choices and nowhere is this more sadly apparent than in a bar. Bukowski and Pollock, for better or worse, are forever as linked to bar culture as they are to their bodies of work. Moreover, this complex ecosystem informed their work greatly. Quoth John Barrymore in reference to acting: “ There are lots of methods. Mine involves a lot of talent, a glass, and some cracked ice.”

This modern preoccupation with “health” seems to involve consuming only decaf espresso, ”lite” beer, and my personal bête noire, Diet Coke. Of the tiny percentage of coffee drinkers that drink coffee for the taste, which of them can say they actually enjoy the taste of decaf?!? Light beer, and Diet Coke, and decaf coffee are unique and unfortunate American concepts and the world of adult beverages is all the worse for them.

Which brings me to perhaps the most misbegotten drinking accessory of them all: the soda straw. Not to be confused with the sipping straw whose primary purpose is to mix or stir your iced drink as you progress through consuming it, the soda straw was until recently under the purview of milkshakes and various children’s beverages. Now it is the equivalent of short pants for your drink. Something that, with the exception of certain types of cocktails: Cobblers, Slings, Mint Juleps, and Tiki drinks, every adult should have outgrown long ago. These days I see grown men drinking a whiskey and soda, or the aforementioned Jack and Diet Coke through a soda straw. Watching a grown man eat a bunless burger with a knife and fork while he drinks his beer with a straw is akin to watching him consume his own entrails. Horrifying.

Do I propose that we eliminate such things as drinking Jack Daniels through a straw, or putting Sweet ‘n’ Low in your Irish Coffee? Far be it from me to even suggest such an audacious thing. I merely suggest that we shun things like Light Beer back to the grimy, dark corners of the beer cooler next to the O’Douls. That the Diet Coke button on the soda gun be rigid and unpressable from neglect, and that the underused can of decaf coffee be so old that Juan Valdez’ moustache has begun to gray. Say what you will about the French, their lifestyle has made it necessary for scientists to study the “French Paradox” in trying to figure out why, despite their consumption of foods that food science tells us are very unhealthy, they actually have a lower rate of heart disease than Americans do. And to oversimplify their findings a bit, they have determined that this has less to do with what they eat and drink, than how they eat and drink. They don’t drink to get drunk. They enjoy themselves. They eat slowly and savor the experience and the company, with balanced tastes and little to no direct concern for carbs and cholesterol, only quality. The American male could benefit tremendously from this uniquely epicurean perspective on life. So gentlemen, let’s get off our libationary tricycles and ride the wrong way down that street.

You might just rediscover your manhood.

Cocktail Epilogue:

The Fitzgerald Cocktail
1.5 oz dry gin
0.75 oz lemon juice
0.75 oz simple syrup
2 dashes Angostura Bitters

Method: Combine and shake all ingredients in a cocktail shaker with ice. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass, or strain over fresh ice into a rocks glass.

A Man Walks Into A Bar…

“A man walks into a bar…”

Those six words have filled many a bartender with dread and angst at the prospect of hearing yet another ancient, unfunny, or worse, offensive joke from a guest sitting at their bar. Bar jokes can inspire the eruption of laughter and the breaking of ice, or unleash the hurling of insults and the breaking of glass. Either way, it’s the bartender’s job to smile and nod approvingly or, if the joke is particularly bad, smirk and pretend that it falls into the “it’s so bad it’s good” category. A bartender is an audience of one that may let you get bombed, but won’t leave you feeling like your joke was a bomb.

I’ve heard a ton of bar jokes over the years. I’ve heard them from people of all professions: cops, lawyers, firemen, mobsters, construction workers, pimps, fellow bartenders, shell-shocked Vietnam vets, and on the list goes.  I’ve heard long one’s and short ones, silly ones and clever ones, chaste ones and crude ones, straightforward ones and ones that make you think. Hearing the words, “Knock , knock” on a lazy day while stirring a Manhattan will always make me perk up slightly, smile with anticipation and say, “Who’s there?,” for it’s the bartender’s job to listen to the unlistenable, laugh at the unlaughable and answer the unanswerable.

And as is the case with everything, it’s all in the timing. Anyone who wants to try and make me laugh before they’ve ordered a drink probably doesn’t have the money to pay and is looking to ingratiate him or herself before sharing this important fact.  So if someone walks up to my bar and the first thing they say is, “Why don’t aliens eat clowns?” my defenses will go up and I will respond drily with, “What’ll you have?” Pose the same question halfway through that first martini though, and I’ll be waiting for the punch line with bated breath. Or at least I’ll pretend to. A funny joke is a good opener, but that doesn’t mean it should be the very first thing you say. (The answer by the way, is because they taste funny”)

Two-liners tend to be the most effective openers, since they have a quick payoff and there is less opportunity for you to be interrupted by the drunk guy halfway off his stool at the end of the bar. Jokes about ducks, giraffes and grasshoppers walking into bars usually end well, as does anything involving Superman, Batman or Wonder Woman. If they contain any three of those, well, you just might make beer come out of someone’s nose.  Men telling jokes to other men are low risk. Most men are acutely aware and sensitive to the fragility of the male ego in this context. However, men telling jokes to women, especially if they’ve just met them, pose more of a risk, but when successful, they can pay off tremendously. The only thing that works better than a good joke for meeting women in a bar, is a well-executed magic trick. (Yes, I’ve seen it done.) Unlike magic though, a good two-liner is easy to learn and not hard to properly execute. Making laughter appear out of thin air can help you advance your cause with the woman a few stools over, and you may curry a bit of favor with the bartender. Even the most cynical and jaded of us will often reward a good joke with a shot or an offer to buy your next beer. A good bar is a microcosm of the social ecosystem we all inhabit, and the right joke can bridge continents far and wide and make laughter rain down upon them.

Dirty jokes are a matter of taste, but there are some places you just shouldn’t go. Body parts and what might be done with them are best alluded to rather than directly mentioned. However, it is a bar, so some degree of raunch is warranted.  In my opinion, it is best to let the person’s imagination do most of the work and then zing them with a killer punch line.

Case in point, the Willie Nelson joke.

The Willie Nelson joke was told to me by a bartender friend of mine named T.J., and to me it is the perfect bar joke. It’s a two-liner, and while it doesn’t have Batman or Wonder Woman in it, it does have Willie Nelson. It’s clean enough that you can tell it in front of your grandmother, yet still bawdy enough to meet the raunchy standards of the local smoke-filled tavern. Two caveats though: One, while you can tell the joke to men, if you do so, you must tell it to them instructively, as though you are teaching them how to tell it to women. This doesn’t take away from its punch. It’s just a slight modification because the joke is really meant to be told to women. Two, and this is pretty obvious, the person hearing the joke must know who Willie Nelson is. They must be able to picture Willie Nelson looks in all his hairy, weathered, twangy voiced splendor. That means there’s no telling this joke to Sherpas from Tibet or time-traveling vixens from the past.

So, now that you’ve thoroughly profiled your audience member(s) you may proceed to the joke:

Question: “What’s the worst thing you can hear after having just slept with Willie Nelson?” (Pause patiently and give the listener time to try and picture herself actually sleeping with Willie Nelson)

Answer: “Ummm, I dunno.”

The punch line (delivered while leaning in close and whispering into her ear)

“I’m not really Willie Nelson.”

After the peals of laughter have subsided, take note of the shoulders that seem a little less heavy with stress, the posture that is a little less defensive. For a few moments you have pulled aside the drapes of cynicism, and opened a window to hospitality and conversation.

It is said that alcohol is a social lubricant. But humor oils the skids of social discourse. Nothing takes the edge off like a good joke.

Now, somebody please get this duck off of my head?

Cocktail Epilogue

Grasshopper

1 part Crème de Cacao

¾ part Green Crème de Menthe

2 parts Cream

Combine all ingredients in a cocktail shaker along with ice. Shake vigorously and strain into a chilled cocktail glass.

A grasshopper hops into a bar. The bartender says to him, “Y’know you’re pretty famous around here. We even have a drink named after you.” The grasshopper says, “You have a drink named Irving?”

Source: Unknown.

The Bubbly and The Green Dress

The story behind the creation of the Bellini, and how the drink got it’s name, is fairly colorful and interesting. Yet perhaps even more interesting, is the story of how Harry’s Bar, the place where the drink is said to have originated, was financed in it’s beginning. Something involving money lent to an expat American (the eponymous Harry) in Venice during the depression. It’s all very Hemingway-esque. Which is ironic, since Harry’s later became one of Papa Hemingway’s favorite haunts.

My own personal Bellini story is a bit more R-rated, but it is, I assure you, quite colorful and exemplifies the kind of spontaneous, “No two days are ever the same” shenanigans unique to the life of a bartender.

I was somewhat wearily throttling the stick on a late Saturday night, while entertaining a few dead-enders and an old friend who lived nearby. This particular friend had been having great difficulty meeting and finding success with the opposite sex. So from my discerning perch behind the bar, I decided to make him something of a personal project of mine. I encouraged him to read some books on social interaction with women, to work on his appearance a bit, and to use the bar whenever he wanted as a sort of flight-simulator for chatting up the female species. He took advantage of this with varying levels of success during pretty much every shift I worked.

Part of this evolving makeover also included him wearing different and slightly flashier clothing and accessories in order to attract attention from afar and to stand out in the crowd of all the similarly clothed, male, Dockers wearing sloths who usually populated my bar on the weekends. Among his more favored accessories was a white fedora-style hat with a bold patterned band. The accoutrement worked rather well, and he began to have a lot more women approach him to flirt and strike up conversation. This is, in fact, what happened on this particular Saturday night shortly after a group of about 6 people came in and ordered a round of drinks. There were a few women in the group and one was wearing a very short, and very tight, green, one shoulder dress. tan, barelegged and propped up to an impressive height in a pair of wedges, she had dark blonde hair and garnered no small amount of attention from the malingering guests at the bar. This included my friend, whom I will call Dennis.  As the group began to order their respective drinks, I could see Dennis considering his conversational points of entry and doing the necessary mental calculus required before approaching a strange woman at a bar. The groups round consisted of the usual assortment of vodka sodas, etc. with the last two drinks standing out slightly. One being a Maker’s Mark on the rocks and the girl in the green dress’ order: a Bellini.

A Bellini? At 3 am? I hesitated and thought about suggesting something more appropriate to the hour and setting but I learned long ago not to argue or even try to understand these things. As I rummaged through my low-boy fridge to find the white peach puree, checked the expiration date and then began to mix her cocktail, I noticed her grab the glass of Maker’s Mark while the other guys back was turned and take a huge gulp of his bourbon. My mouth dropped agape momentarily as I stirred the puree into the Prosecco. I was both stunned and impressed.

I probably should have been concerned, but then, there was the matter of that dress. While I stirred and began to pour, Dennis feebly struck up a conversation with her, using some sort of mundane but ultimately effective opener. Broken clock theory at its best. She bit and they were chatting pleasantly as I served her cocktail.

As the two of them drank and talked, she playfully removed his hat and put it on, unintentionally proving that it was an awesome accessory to everything else she was wearing. Further, she proved herself to be quite insightful and observant when; upon noticing Dennis’ discomfort at being deprived of his hat, she made a bold pronouncement about his seeming to “Need the hat to feel complete.” “What do you mean?” he blinked, as I stood there slack-jawed at her perceptiveness. “ I just feel like you need the hat. Like you feel as though it’s the source of your power. Some sort of crutch maybe.” Whoa. This girl was quickly making mince meat out of him. Dennis was reeling and clearly out of his depth, so I decided to extend a hand across the bar and try to pull him back into shallower waters. “Waitaminnit.” I piped up. “You women are the last people who should talk about needing a piece of clothing as a source of power.” She turned toward me serenely and said, “What do you mean?” I continued, pontificating, “Well you have all these things you use to look better, smell better, appear taller, sexier, and you use them to get all of kinds of extra attention when you go out.” And then I made one of the best conversational maneuvers of my entire career behind the bar. “Like that dress for example.” “This dress?” she said, stepping away from the bar so we could survey her from head to toe. By this time, her friends had made their way outside to the smoking patio and the only ones at the bar were me, Dennis, and our inscrutable middle-aged Chinese barback Min who stood nearby waiting for the keys so he could begin locking up the joint.

We all looked her up and down and figuring I had her cornered logically, I smirked with satisfaction and prepared to gloat. “Yes.” I answered. Suddenly, with what seemed like preternatural speed, she reached down, pulled her dress over her head, completely off, and flung it aside. She stood there defiantly in nothing but a pair of wedges and a G-string.

Talk about playing your trump card. I was rendered mute, something that rarely happens to me behind the bar. Min looked like he just won 10 grand at Mah-Jongg and Dennis tongue rolled out of his mouth and out the front door. She seemed calm and sober as she said superfluously, “I don’t need this dress.” She had a beautiful, toned, sun smooched figure. As I took everything in, I believe I managed to stammer, “You win” or something to that effect. A little observant time behind the bar will quickly teach you that women are much smarter creatures than men, and with a flick of her wrist this woman had just proven it. She outmaneuvered us all. Game. Set. Match.

There were a few more conversational acrobatics as she put her dress back on and then, for her closing argument, removed it again, this time along with the g-string.  Later, during her nude bartending lesson, she told me that F. Scott Fitzgerald was her Great-Grandfather and she proved this by almost drinking the bar into bankruptcy. (After a display of such audacious wit, drinks were most certainly on the house.) I have no idea where her friends went, but after I tossed her almost forgotten g-string into the cab I escorted her to, I locked up, and was left with a memorable and humbling lesson in gender dynamics.  And you can’t put that into the tip bucket.

Cocktail Epilogue

The Bellini

2 parts White Peach Puree

3 parts Prosecco*

½ part Marie Brizard Peach liqueur (optional)

Combine ingredients (without ice) in a mixing glass and stir. Then pour into a chilled champagne flute.

-Invented in 1948 by Giuseppe Cipriani, founder of Harry’s bar in Venice, Italy.

*As always, proportions may be adjusted slightly according to personal taste.

 

Love’s Leaver’s Lost

Losing things can be a tremendous nuisance. There are the tangible losses that sting: a scarf, an umbrella or a cell phone. And the abstract losses: your innocence, your inhibitions, and perhaps, your self-respect as a result of several booze-induced bad decisions. Alone or accompanied, you wake up and wonder, “What was I thinking?” The bar is a place where you willfully go hoping to lose something intangible and perhaps unmentionable, while praying that your belongings and daily mentionables don’t tumble out of your purse or pocket along the way. After all, a hat or scarf can be replaced, but that favorite hat or scarf that you bought during that trip to Ireland, and all the memories associated with it, cannot. You walk through the door courting a kind of self-inflicted amnesia, and you do so at your peril. You wager on your future and the quality of your evening . Win big, lose small, and most of all, know when it’s time to go home.

The best bartenders know a lot about losses and gains. They recognize that the bar is a kind of casino where bets are placed; often by people who don’t even know what game they are playing.  In the abstract, you can win big in the form of closing a big business deal, or you can meet the love of your life. You can also come so painfully close to success with either that you will want to cry like a baby when it is suddenly snatched away from you.  We are the Croupier, the Pit Boss and Casino Manager all rolled into one. Things get lost or left behind, people spend far more than they intended to, and we dispassionately bear witness to all the comings and goings. When the item is something material, we store it, label it like an archivist and (usually) hope it gets back to it’s rightful owner. When it is something we covet however, this becomes more of a challenge. The woman whose shameless flirting seems to grow in direct proportion to her date’s lateness or dull conversation. The new iPad or digital camera someone left behind. These things can inspire no small amount of temptation. But I feel pretty secure in saying that our guilt at keeping an item from the lost and found directly corresponds to its material value. It is the cheap and mundane, the crass or comical things, neglected and easy to replace, that we consider fair game.

Take umbrellas for example. I haven’t bought an umbrella in twenty years. I’ve had all sorts come into my possession. At one point I counted an accumulated two dozen umbrellas in my apartment. I eventually gave most of them away and all but two I don’t have anymore. Why? Because I left them in a bar somewhere. Believe me, I am more likely to buy an Aston-Martin than I am to buy an umbrella.

I don’t smoke, but I have dozens of cigarette lighters. Bics and butanes, large, small, plastic, aluminum, I even have a $500 DuPont lighter that I probably should have sold on Ebay long ago. Scarves and jackets, a couple of amazing raincoats courtesy of the unclaimed lost and found bin; I could build a façade of accessories that would make Ian Fleming proud. But please don’t think me a thief or cold-blooded opportunist. In every one of these cases I have at least waited the requisite 2-4 weeks before taking possession of the orphaned items. I confess to being a bit of a calendar watcher on occasion, but at least as often, I have gone on the internet, or Facebook, and called credit card companies and told them to inform the card holder of their lost item.  Certainly, that lambs wool sweater feels far less itchy with a clear conscience.

Some things that get left behind are just plain weird. Opening a stranger’s bag can be akin to opening the prize packet inside a depraved box of Cracker Jacks. Someone once left a beautiful leather golf bag behind and upon opening it I discovered, among other things, a nice, but weathered dop kit that, along with the usual toiletries, contained a diabetics insulin testing kit and several syringes and medications. Worrying about the persons safety should they not get their meds, I scoured the bag for anything that might identify the owner, but to no avail. I was once haunted for months by a woman’s lost Korean passport with all sorts of difficult and complicated stamps and visas stapled in it. Try as I might, I couldn’t find her via the internet or any other source and she never called or returned for it. The documents are probably still in that office right now.

But it is the birthday parties that yield the most colorful left behinds. The half-consumed customized cakes, and tons of delicious designer pastries. Kooky balloons withering on their strings, the thoughtfully chosen oversized cards with scores of signatures that the drunken birthday celebrant completely forgot about. I once had a guy celebrate his birthday at my bar. Kinda hip looking in a Maroon 5 sort of way, he intended to move to a table but wound up having such a blast at the bar that he just stayed and reveled the night away as his friends continued to give him all sorts of various and sundry gifts. When he left, many of them were left behind in a bag (they were unwrapped) and a partial list included: an iPod Charger, a bottle of 1999 Dom Perignon, a bottle of K-Y warming lubricant, and an enormous 12” black dildo called “The Emperor.” I suspect the last item  may have explained his hesitancy in calling to retrieve them. We kept everything for quite a while until one day, the dildo mysteriously vanished along with a never-been-kissed Jehovah’s Witness cocktail waitress of ours. The timing may have been a coincidence, but at the end of the day, I’ll never know. I can only view it as the detritus of a night well enjoyed, that in some mysterious way, rippled outward and made a few lives better.

When the evening ends, the inventory of things lost and found can begin, and one hopes that they are only vague and ethereal. A few cares and inhibitions, perhaps a forgotten stop or two during your bar crawl.  This along with a few dollars and you can happily declare that you’ve at least broken even. If it’s a tooth or a pair of underwear, well, it still could’ve been worse. William Shakespeare must have just awakened after a long night out when he wrote, “Praising what is lost, makes the remembrance dear.”  Indeed. And if you’re lucky, we may just be holding on to it for you.

Cocktail Epilogue

The Casino Cocktail

2 parts Old Tom Gin

¼ part Maraschino liqueur

¼ part fresh lemon juice

2 dashes Orange bitters

Combine all ingredients along with ice in a cocktail shaker, shake vigorously and strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with a brandied Maraschino cherry.

Source: New Diners Club Drink Book, 1968, by Matty Simmons

On Golden Voice and Cuervo Gold

I have been bartending for a long time; longer than I ever expected, in fact. And  during that time, I’ve seen many things. Things both sublime and ridiculous, tragic and trivial, horrific and hilarious. And that was just on Saturday nights.

The unwritten code of the bartender calls for great discretion regarding what we see or hear, but there are a few stories that , however discreetly, must be shared. And so, while preserving the privacy of most depicted herein, I shall plumb the depths of my elephantine memory and  offer you, Dear Reader, a tale of Mexican beer, a shot of Tequila and a bizarre brush with genius.

It was probably my third bartending job at a nondescript but popular staple of the East Village, a 24 hr. continental restaurant. It was the sort of place that had a good burger and fries, but also a pretty decent shrimp scampi, and some surprisingly good vegetarian fare. Even though I had only been bartending about 3 years or so, I was sure I knew everything I needed to know about bartending. However, I also knew that there were all sorts of characters that made up this world that I moved through, and many of them I could never understand. So instead of trying, I resolved to sit back, serve them, and enjoy the ride. One of these characters was a night manager I worked with at said place. He was a fitness-obsessed Italian-American guy named Jerry who would typically ride one of his two motorcycles to and from work everyday, and who also had a tremendous Asian fetish.

Now, this didn’t mean he walked around quoting Lao Tzu or played Mah-Jongg on the weekends. Basically, it meant that he loved Asian food and he really loved Asian women. A lot of the staff used to rip him behind his back about his simple tastes, but since both agreed with him, I actually thought that, for him, it was a pretty good deal all around. Jerry was a fairly colorful, witty guy, and he often liked to go in the kitchen and cook the two of us fresh Asian stir-fry populated with various noodles and spices he would get from the Asian market next door. At the start of a typical shift, he’d walk in the door wearing his expensive motorcycle jacket and carrying his helmet and disappear into the office briefly, then emerge still carrying his helmet, and place it at home on top of the stereo behind the bar and ask, “You hungry?” I always said yes, because, you know what? He was a damn good cook.

He’d then disappear into the kitchen, proudly emerging 15 minutes later to hand me a hot, heaping plate of aromatic and exotic victuals and after the first bite or two, he’d invariably ask, “How is it?”

That night it was particularly delicious, and since it was quite slow at the bar, I sat down to talk to my then visiting girlfriend while I consumed the aforementioned tasty stir-fry. As will become apparent later, it is relevant to mention that my girlfriend was originally from Japan, but then living in London. While we talked, I had the plate on the bar top in front of me yet sort at of a right angle from where she was sitting.

Suddenly, the red phone rang at the service bar, which is where the drink orders are made for the tables. I ambled over, still munching on the last spicy bits of kimchee, and began pouring various tap beers, making vodka tonics, and blending strawberry margaritas (as I said, this was many years ago). After a few minutes of doing this, I turned to check on my girlfriend and noticed that someone else had taken up a seat at the bar right in front of my half-eaten plate of stir-fry. He was staring, not at me, as many customers have the irritating habit of doing, but straight ahead. As I looked at him, I though he looked a little familiar.

Thinking it inappropriate, even in a place as casual as this, for my food to be idling there in front of him, I stopped what I was  doing and retrieved the vittles, putting them somewhere more discreet, and then asked him what he’d like. He ordered a shot of Cuervo Especial and a Corona and during the transaction, I suddenly realized why he looked familiar. I recognized him as a famous singer-songwriter, critics darling, and current messiah of the downtown music scene.

Adhering to another tenet of the bartender’s code, I said nothing that would indicate that I recognized him and I left him to his drinking. Only the tiniest thought that it was pretty cool to have him at my humble bar while contemplating his next album, and the tremendous creative angst he was undoubtedly feeling ever crossed my mind.

Continuing with the slinging of drinks, I glanced over at my special lady friend again and she gave me a very long intense look of the, “my hair is on fire!” sort. It got my full attention because I had never seen that look on her face before. She signaled me over to her by mildly tilting her head to the side, widening her eyes and pursing her lips slightly. I was incredibly curious as I approached her, and when I got close enough she leaned toward me and softly breathed the words, “He ate some of the food off of your plate.”

I stiffened with disbelief and wondered if I had heard her right.

I blinked and looked at her again, my eyes saying, “Really?”

She nodded gravely, and I slowly turned my head toward young Dylan, the only other customer at the bar, nursing his Corona and shot of Cuervo. As our eyes met, I could see that he knew that I knew. And he knew, that I knew, that HE knew, that I knew. I narrowed my eyes at him and he quickly looked away. I looked back at her and she looked at me as if to say, “See?”

Wow.

I then walked past the spot where he was sitting and continued making drinks for the waiters. I needed to think about this because it was very weird. I wasn’t sure what I should do.

Could it be that this handsome, young, angel-voiced rock star, who had a hit record at the time, and was touring all over the world, making television appearances etc. had come into my bar, sat down and surreptitiously eaten the food off of my plate? Strange things often happened at this particular restaurant, but this was bizarre even on this side of the looking glass. I regarded the cooling mess of my celebrity-defiled food, considered the whole situation, and decided I had to say something to him. I wasn’t sure what, but I had to speak out.

But before I could approach him, he sheepishly called me over. I took the two or three steps it took to get there as though it were a funhouse corridor stretched out before me.

“What’s up?” I said, trying to sound cavalier, even though I knew damn well what was up. He began haltingly, “Dude, I’m really sorry about eating your food, I mean-”

I couldn’t play dumb any longer and interrupted him, “Yeah, ummm…What’s up with that? Did you think it was, like, bar snacks or something? ” “No, he muttered.”

At this, I could barely hide my incredulity. “So, I mean, is that just something you do? Go into restaurants and eat off of other people’s plates?” Without a hint of irony or sarcasm, and not sounding like he was trying to be a wise-ass at all he says “Well… yeah.” Flabbergasted, but at the same time, kind of impressed by his honesty, I blurted out, “Well, didn’t anybody tell you that’s considered kind of rude?”

“I’m sorry” he said.

“Uh-huh. Ok.” and I walked away. He had already paid, so he took a last sip of his beer and shuffled, some might say, slunk off, pausing to say again how sorry he was. I simply nodded.

As he walked out, I went over to my girlfriend, who had no idea who he was, and we just looked at each other and shook our heads.  I said to her, “Do you know who that was?” Of course she said no, and since she was from Japan where something like that would probably get you thrown in jail for six months, no amount of celebrity or fame could make the incident seem any more strange and heinous to her than it already was.

I still didn’t totally believe it was him until a month or so later, when he came in again. Obviously recognizing me from the stir-fry incident, a faint and slightly mischievous smile crossed his lips.

“Hey man, I was in here last night and I left my credit card, I just came back to pick it up.”

I remembered seeing a credit card clipped to the register so I went and got it. I held it up to look at it and even though I knew the answer already, I facetiously asked him what his name was. As I read the name, he said the words embossed on the card,

“Jeff. Jeff Buckley.”

Cocktail Epilogue:

El Diablo Cocktail

INGREDIENTS

  • ¾ ounce fresh lime juice
  • 1½ ounces tequila blanco
  • ½ ounce crème de cassis
  • Ginger beer

Method:

Combine all ingredients except the ginger beer in a shaker tin or mixing glass. Add ice, shake vigorously and strain over fresh ice. Top with ginger beer and garnish with a lime wedge.

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