Preparing to shoot a few segments of Big Jon in 5 for BEER2WHISKEY in our upstairs studio at Barley's Taproom in downtown Greenville. That's owner Josh Beebe preparing for his closeup.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

There's a Big Difference Between a Good Drink Maker and a Good Bartender

I spend a lot of time by myself.

Notice, I didn't say, alone.

There is a difference.

I like my own company, so I am not consumed with loneliness when I am by myself. I guess that's good news and it takes a lot of pressure off my cat.

I live in a town where I know damn few people -- at least well enough to hang out with -- and I am single. I am self-employed (insert laugh here) and work out of my home. I have gone as long as 36 hours without interacting with a human being. I use the self-scan checkout lanes in the grocery store so I don't even get to hear the clerk say, have a nice day. My cell phone might not ring for several days in a row.

Prison inmates have more human contact than I do.

I tell you this by way of explaining why, when I go to a restaurant, I don't sit at a table; I sit at the bar.

If I want to eat alone, I can stay home. It costs less and I can eat in my underwear.

Nope, I want to sit at the bar.

If I am in a joint for the first time, I'll pause before choosing a seat to determine which is the service end of the bar. This is where the servers congregate to pickup drinks for their tables. That's where I want to sit. It's where the action is.

I like bartenders. They see a lot of things and talk to a lot of people. My decision to return to a joint rests on its bartenders.

Over the years I have become a pretty good judge of bar-tending talent. Typically I can tell you within five minutes of sitting down at a new bar, if I will visit it again.

Consequently, I am always amazed by restaurant management that doesn't seem to understand just how important their bartenders are to their business. It's about a lot more than just competent drink making.

A restaurant can get away with having a hostess who is disconnected or even a little rude, but the bartender is really the face of the joint. A bad experience at the bar for before-dinner drinks will set the tone for the evening. A good performance later by the server or a delicious meal can't totally undo the damage done by a diffident bartender.

I can forgive a bad drink; I have no tolerance for a surly or rude or indifferent bartender.

Because I like to sit at the bar, I want a bartender with whom I can communicate.

Greenville has several Mexican restaurants that just miss the whole bartender-as-ambassador role a good bartender plays. Evidently the owners teach some family member how to make a gin and tonic, and turn him loose behind the bar. English is clearly his second language. Ordering anything other than a beer or house margarita turns into a frustrating question-and-answer hair pull.

It goes something like this:

"Son ting to drank?"

"Yes. I'd like a margarita, but I want it made with Cabo Wabo Silver, triple sec and Grand Marnier."


"Yes, made with Cabo Wabo Silver, triple sec and Grand Marnier. please."


"I'd like a margarita made with Cabo Wabo Silver, triple sec and Grand Marnier. Please."


"Exactly. That's the ticket. But I'd like it made with Cabo Wabo Silver tequila, triple sec and Grand Marnier."

"El Presidente margarita?"

"Umm, what's in the El Presidente margarita?"

"Cuervo Gold tequila."

"Friends don't let friends drink Cuervo."


"Yes, an El Presidente margarita would be fine, but make it with Cabo Wabo Silver, triple sec and Grand Marnier."

"El Presidente margarita?"

"For the love of God! Just give me a Miller Lite."


You get the idea. Obviously I don't get to eat a lot of Mexican food when I'm in Greenville. I am so frustrated just trying to get the drink that I want, I can't even imagine trying to order a meal that involves anything more than pointing to it on the menu.

I did find a Mexican joint on Main Street that I had never been in before this past May when I had company in town. We were doing an abbreviated pub crawl and wandered in. The bartender was actually an Anglo and had a personality. I haven't been back, but want to give it another go.

The food looked good and I can probably get exactly what I want in the margarita.


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