Steve Shur, behind the venerable Boston College Club bar. At my urging, he thoughtfully contributes a personal essay this week.
Why it's best to visit bartenders rather than bars- by Steve Shur.
“I visit bartenders, not bars.” I first heard those meaningful words spoken by “the Yoda of mixology” Gary Regan a few years ago in a seminar at the Museum Of The American Cocktail in the wonderful city of New Orleans. During a very tiring Jazzfest week it was amazing I made it to the seminar at all, but I was not going to miss the chance to meet anyone compared to Yoda. In the seminar I remember Gaz talking about his favorite bartenders from all over the world. When Josh Childs asked me to contribute to this blog I figured it would make sense to talk about my favorite bartenders since, frankly, they are a huge reason I am a full-time bartender which has been the best job I’ve ever had. Loving what you do for work is something we all should be able to say although few people can. I am grateful I can, and it is in large part due to some of the greats I have met along the way. It is impossible to name all of the people in the industry who have influenced me, but they have all played a part in what has become both an obsession and a career that I truly love.
Being a bartender was my first job out of college back in the 20th century (great cocktail), but it wasn’t until the 21st century that I finally realized what the key to being a great bartender was: making people happy. In 2008, while in New Orleans during Jazzfest, my girlfriend Michelle and I decided to have dinner at the legendary Arnaud’s restaurant. Not necessarily because of the great food or the rich history of being open since 1918 or for the chance to get the fiery Café Brulot for dessert. The main reason we went to visit was because of an article I had read in the Boston Globe about a specific cocktail Chris Hannah had made for the writer called the Curari, a libation made with rye whiskey, ruby port, Amaro Cora, and orange bitters. The descriptions of the writer’s experience had me more than curious, making it an absolute must to make Arnaud’s.
We were sat in a beautiful dining room adjacent to Bourbon Street with a jazz trio belting out classic jazz standards which created a most pleasant atmosphere that could never be forgotten. Our waiter approached us and asked us what we would like to drink. My response was basically a busy bartender’s nightmare which went something like: “Yeah, I saw an article about a drink that some guy makes here but can’t remember the name of the drink or the guy...” The waiter knew I was talking about Chris so he escorted me to meet the weeded barman and had me repeat my embarrassing request to him while he was trying to make drinks for the extremely busy restaurant. Chris didn’t have time to look at me much but, to my amazement, assured me he knew which drink I was referring and told me it would be right over to my table. Shortly after I returned to my table the drink arrived with a napkin doubling as a personal note from Chris. He included the name of the cocktail’s creator (Ted Haigh aka “Dr. Cocktail”) and the recipe. This was as impressive as the taste, which was a fresh new experience to my inexperienced palate. We had been at the restaurant for less than 10 minutes and my experience was truly special before I had even looked at the extravagant delicious-sounding menu. I enjoyed the cocktail so much that when the waiter came back to serve me another cocktail my request was simple: “Have Chris make me whatever he wants.” Not the best thing to tell a busy bartender when sitting at the bar, but telling a waiter there is no guilt to worry about. Soon came another fascinating libation, another napkin, another note with the drink’s history and recipe, and another terrific experience. Our 3-hour dinner was perfect in every aspect including the Café Brulot for the finish. Before I had even ordered any dinner an important rule of the service industry had been demonstrated: “Good service can save a bad meal, but a good meal can’t save bad service.” This place was great on both ends.
When I returned to Boston there was a new door to enter into the world of bartending--not only some new concoctions but a new way to make a guest’s experience special. Since then I have strived to make my customers happy and have written many a recipe on many napkins.
About a month later a few friends and I went to the Green St. Grill in Cambridge to test out a large portion of their illustrious cocktail menu. Misty Kalkofen was there that evening, very busy and smiling wide every time she approached us to take our many requests. Everything we had that evening was exceptional of course, most importantly my first Old Fashioned: simply but perfectly made with whiskey, sugar, water, and bitters. I inquired about the history of the drink and got not only everything I needed to know on how to make one of these gems but Misty, knowing I was a bartender, told me about Tales Of The Cocktail, B.A.R. (Beverage Alcohol Resource) program, and she introduced me to The Savoy Cocktail book. I had just found the Holy Grail all in one visit. In one month, my passion for the industry had multiplied 100 times. I remember telling Misty all about Chris Hannah in New Orleans whom she did not know at the time. “Well, you gotta meet him” I said.
Another experience that must be shared is a visit with Josh Childs at Silvertone a few years ago. My good friend Bruce was in town from Kansas City and the night before he went home I took him to the comfort food speakeasy-like bar we all know and love. We didn’t really know what we wanted to drink so we asked Josh to make us something nice. Two Captain Shaddock cocktails were put in front of us and it was just want we wanted: nice and light, refreshing, and balanced. The cocktail was great, but it was Josh’s casual but professional and friendly demeanor that made us feel exceptionally comfortable, the way everyone should feel when visiting a bar or tavern.
The other night a couple of co-workers and I got out of work at the same time and went to Stoddard’s Bar for a quick cocktail before going home. As soon as we arrived at the crowded busy bar I made certain to say hello to Jamie Walsh, bar manager and friend who always makes us feel more than welcome. We had some stellar cocktails and when I asked Jamie what he was passionate about these days in the industry he took us all downstairs to The Friday Club, a place that will primarily feature spirits and beer from local and independent producers. One cocktail turned into a few and into another great night out.
Exceeding a guest’s needs should be the goal of every bartender. Friendly service is infectious and everlasting and will make people come back and feel welcome. Trying new bars can be fun and a great experience, but when you are looking for a guaranteed good time out for some drinks and maybe some dinner, visiting bartenders instead of bars is always the way to go.
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