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, March 16, 2013

Revisiting the Bartenders' Bartender

No doubt I will tick off a few of my bartender buddies with this blog's headline. I have a lot of bartender friends. Some were friends before they became a bartender and some are friends through their bartending. Their skills range from good to great. But as with any list, I have one bartender buddy who's the yardstick against whom I measure all the rest.

I fancy myself a student of bartenders. Here's how I see it: A good bartender can help a mediocre place turn the corner; while a bad one can bring even a good joint to its knees. I've sat at bars with both. I may not be an expert, but I'm pretty damn close.

Several years ago I worked in the Darth Vader Building -- otherwise known as Northbridge Center -- in West Palm Beach. On the 21st floor of that building was a restaurant called Rockwell's. Our offices were on the 17th floor, so we were practically neighbors. It was only natural that we adjourn to Rockwell's bar after work.

It was there we became acquainted with Eric Whitehead, and joined the ranks of the Thursday-night happy-hour crowd. This was a loose confederation of lawyers, architects, video production people, and assorted wannabes and hangers-on.  

When Rockwell's eventually closed, a healthy number of the Thursday-night crowd followed Eric to a couple of different joints on Clematis Ave in West Palm. He eventually wound up at City Cellar at City Place. We followed him there as well.

Surviving Thursday-night happy-hour members. When Jennie posted this photo, she asked me what the caption should be. I suggested "The five of us."

It was at City Cellar where our Thursday-night crowd was bolstered by a group of healthcare professionals. These were mostly retirement home nurses and marketing people.

During Eric's multi-year stint there, he worked the main bar, the outside bar and the bandstand bar in the City Place courtyard. At the outside bar, he and his bartending partner served a 50-seat bar that was often two or three deep. When sitting at this bar -- usually on the weekends -- we were guaranteed of not only getting superb service, but a show as well.

 I'd glance down the bar and see Eric pushing shots in front of a couple of cute girls. He'd say, "They're on the senator," and point at me. More than once after doing the shot one of the girls would walk up to me and ask if I was really a senator. "Why yes I am," I'd say. "Vote early and vote often."

I was usually at that outside bar with my buddy Jose. Eric would refer to me as "the senator," and to Jose as "my trusted driver Kato." Those nights were always fun.

When Eric assumed the role of bartender in the courtyard he was lord and master of a 5-foot plastic bar on wheels. He would add a rolling cart on each side, forming a "U." He had a beat-up cash register that looked as if it had washed ashore with flotsam from the Titanic. On a typical Friday or Saturday night, he would push more drinks out of that stupid plastic bar than they would at the main restaurant bar; and that bar was serving $15 glasses of wine. It was something to see.

I sort of lost touch with Eric when he went to work for a big Florida sports bar chain called Duffy's. He went corporate -- never saw that coming -- and wound up moving around to several of their stores.

I was excited a month or so ago when my friend Jennie -- part of the old Thursday-night happy-hour crowd -- e-mailed that she found Eric bartending at a joint on Clematis Ave. Called Bobbi Sue BBQ, it's a smallish place ideally suited to Eric's talents.

I arrived in South Florida on Thursday afternoon, and as is often the case when I visit, we called a meeting of the Thursday-night happy-hour bunch. This time we held the services at Bobbi Sue BBQ.

It was a blast surprising Eric and seeing him again. I was happy to see that he hasn't changed a bit.

As always, it was another night to remember.

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