The Bartender – Customer Dance Routine: The Drink Ordering Process

Sorry I’m a little behind on the post but the Saratoga races are keeping me busy – many betting opportunities which require proper study. I’d like to examine some of the facets of ordering a drink, whether it is a customer, employee, owner or even the seemingly simple act of making a drink for oneself. Georgetown veteran Vince O’Donnell expressed it best: “Keep them light and keep them coming.” Often bartenders poured a larger drink for preferred customers as a perk, but like many of us Vince enjoyed the interaction with the ‘tender and the larger drink caused longer consumption times, which delayed that follow-up conversation. Most regulars drank with a repeated pattern, but certain customers had a random flight plan for their cocktail trip, a path which prevented the bartender from replacing finished drinks in a robotic manner.

A waiter from the Kennedy Center named Tony was a great bar customer at Marshall’s but confounded analysis of his beverage dance card. He could jump from cocktails such as martinis or manhattans to J. Walker scotch to wine with a meal. After his dinner he could move to Irish Coffee, cognac or another liqueur. He often had the stamina to continue full circle and back to the pre – dinner scotch, but with the occasional rough end. One such night he attempted to leave by the back but needed to stop in the walk-in for a break. Unfortunately Danny and Tuffy lost track of him and locked up for the night, which included the walk-in where Tony had camped. The day kitchen staff were treated to a different sight the next morning when they opened – at least Tony was cool and rested for the day. It was interesting to watch Dan make Tony’s drink assortment, since he had more variety in his orders than Tony ever considered – even when Danny and Tuffy decided to take a break and climb “on the wagon.” They took a few liberties with the concept – shooters and cream drinks didn’t count as alcohol. This regimen soon led to the creation of a new cocktail, “The Gorilla Tonic,” which consisted of the white liquors, Kahlua and cream shaken on ice. At best this seemed to be an evil combination of a Long Island Iced Tea and a White Russian and at worst a Class 3 felony in certain jurisdictions.

Ordering drinks was usually easy but stopping the process could be a problem – if your customers were the Black Watch. This infamous Scottish fife and drum infantry group was appearing at the Kennedy Center and therefore were drinking at Marshall’s after the event. They were doing a good job reducing the bar inventory and then closing time tried to interfere with the fun. Two thirty in the morning was to this group of professional and passionate drinkers like noon to a bunch of lifeguards – they were just hitting their stride. Bartender and owner both decided that they were not arguing with these Highlanders, whose motto was: “No one provokes me with impunity.” So the bar stayed open and relative peace ensued. When they finally departed much later that morning the bar at Marshall’s resembled one of the historic regiment’s many battlefields –  except the dead soldiers here were empty bottles.

Bartenders deal with a diverse clientele and although the customer is always right, the bartender decides who is considered a customer. During a busy fall Saturday, legendary Georgetown vagrant Sky King hit on a winning plan to become a pseudo-customer. Although he was often high on drugs and alcohol, that day Sky possessed enough lucidity to attempt the purchase of a drink at the bars of Clyde’s and Nathan’s –  he had succeeded at this endeavor in the past when the bar was empty and the staff in a generous mood.. He had managed to clean up enough to gain entrance even though he was well known to the busy bartenders – Wingo and Dickie Webber. They realized that any time they wasted this day while trying to escort him away from their bars would cause a loss in service to their many customers and tips would suffer accordingly. The simple solution was to give Sky King a ten dollar bill and tell him to go get a drink elsewhere. The homeless entrepreneur was able to accomplish this ten dollar misdemeanor blackmail several times before the distracted bartenders finally phoned each other and realized they were the victims. By then Sky King had taken his tips for not being a customer and made a volume purchase at Dixie Liquor for a liquid picnic under Key Bridge on a beautiful afternoon.

Sometimes it can be an effort to get a drink, even if you work there. There has always been a battle for the waiter to get the bartender’s attention away from his customers and make drinks for the tables. Luckily at Nathans, the day bartender Jumps was always near his bar phone – in case of calls from the customers of his other business. When in great need the waiters could call the bar phone and place the drink order for their tables. Joe Bolivia told me of a waiter years ago who went to greater lengths for his tables. At that prehistoric time, many bars operated on a strict cash and carry system and the waiter was required to comply as well. He would take the order and place it with the service bartender and pay the amount in cash before serving the drinks to the table; this meant he had to get the cash from the customer first. It was a complicated process which kept the cash register correct and the owner happy. This particular waiter got smart and would leave the bar, go across the street to the Legion Post and buy beers at a cheaper rate. Then he would charge the customer the bar ‘s price and pocket the difference – as long as the bar area was very busy and no one noticed his delivery system.

Even when the bartender made his own drink it was not always a smooth preparation. Class Reunion bartender Dennis Reilly had a unique requirement for his simple scotch on the rocks; he wanted fresh ice, which meant the busboy had to take Dennis’ glass and hold it in the ice machine until a new batch of cubes was pressed. He loved fresh ice for the scotch but needed the busboy to wait for the glass to catch the machine’s newest product. Fortunately his customers were happy with the ice already resting behind the bar. The Third Edition featured a short lived, crazy bar tandem of Carlos Meyer and Tony Walsh on Sunday nights. When unsuspecting customers ordered certain drinks, Carlos would make shots for the two bartenders to down before proceeding to the customer’s order. Things would proceed smoothly for a while then someone would make another request on Carlos’ secret list and Tony would have to have another shot with his partner. My strategy was to arrive near the beginning of their shift, grab a good spot to observe and watch the festivities until collateral damage from their cocktails finished my evening.

You would think that the owner would have a clear path to placing and receiving the order. In the 1970’s, Saturday lunch at Chadwick’s in Georgetown was pretty slow in the summer. Owner Mike Kirby would bring his young son occasionally – they could eat at the bar without the usual madness there and his son considered it a big treat. One beautiful Saturday I was working the bar with a waiter, busboy and cook. We had served fewer than 10 customers during lunch and no one for over an hour. We were very bored and the night staff was not due for at least another hour. So what to do but assemble at a nice table set with cold beers and a deck of cards – then put champagne buckets on our heads while we dealt hands of Indian Head Poker. This is a game which can only be tolerated if the players are drinking, preferably heavily. Each player puts a card to his forehead so the others can see it – everyone sees all cards except their own and we bet who has the highest card on their head. After a few hands and a lot of laughter Mike Kirby and his son enter the bar and see no one working until they look back in the dining room and see the insanity at table number five. He just shook his head and they left quietly. We never heard a word from Mike directly, but manager Dennis Brown did have a pep talk with each of us in the next week. The next lunch order at the bar for Mike and family was very orderly.

Finally a story on the difference between a bartender and a mixologist in today’s bar world. Top DC bartender Jim Ross has worked from the early days in Georgetown at Clyde’s to his long tenure at the elegant K St. steakhouse, The Prime Rib. A regular posed that question to him and he responded with the details of a recent night at a trendy restaurant bar in town. He was early for a dinner with friends and sat at the empty bar. The heavily tattooed, young bartender patiently ignored him several minutes, then gave up and approached Jim for his drink order. Jim asked for a Vodka Negroni on the rocks – sounds fancy but just Vodka, Campari and Sweet Vermouth over ice. This young mixologist then went through an overwrought process: tonging oversized ice cube into shaker; pouring all 3 liquors into jiggers before adding; shaking the mix instead of the proper stirring technique; straining into a inappropriate glass with another large cube. So Jim says: Mixologist – 10 minute prep time, improper technique and $20 cost; Bartender – 3 minute prep time, proper technique and $12 cost. We’re getting old here – just make the drink and given the choice I’d like a Bartender to make mine.

Thanks, Chef Soper


Greatest Horseman of Our Time – With a Story From Tony Walsh

Just a brief racing interjection – RIP John Nerud of Tartan Farm – 102 years young

Trainer of Dr. Fager, Tawee, Gallant Man

Owner – Breeder of Cozzene, Fappiano

If you disagree – prove me wrong.

Chef Soper,

I want to add a postscript/personal remembrance from Tony Walsh, who agreed with my assessment of John Nerud.

In the early 1970’s Tony was recently out of the Army and home in Albany awaiting the start of a fall construction job. He was able to get an August job at the track as a Pinkerton Security guard and  was stuck with the late shift from 11:00 PM – 7:00 AM. Overnight, the guards were mostly deployed on the backstretch and watched the barns, especially since Secretariat was stabled there that summer. When the Oklahoma Training Track opened early in the morning, the guards would help direct traffic at the track entrance, making sure the horses made it safely from their stables.

One morning Tony was on duty at the track entrance when Mr. Nerud was bringing in his small string of ponies on the back of his lead horse. Tony was pretty young and full of himself at that point in life –  well before he picked up all his social skills from the bar business. But he had a chance to interact with many of the early morning workers, from trainers to jockeys and their agents. He had settled in to the routine and totally loved the track atmosphere. He had befriended a large, hands-on horseman from South Carolina, who worked several jumpers for races at Saratoga. He had a giant station wagon which the guards used for an occasional late night nap – it was probably the only type of car that could hold the trainer’s immense frame. The jumpers were the primary workers on the training track although a few flat runners also used it.

As I said, Mr. Nerud was leading a small group of flat runners for a work – it was quiet and Tony was stationed at the entrance. The trainer shouted down to him to move away from the entrance. Tony had been in this spot for several weeks and felt confident in his ability to keep this area safe. He waved the trainer to go through, but Mr. Nerud  again yelled at him to move away. Tony said “Don’t worry, I’m Ok.” Mr. Nerud sternly replied “I’m not worried about you – just my horses.” At this point, before Tony started to ask this horseman who he thought he was, he felt the meat hook of a hand belonging to the South Carolina trainer, Archie Kingsley, attached to his shoulder. Archie told him to shut up and move away – “We like you Tony, but don’t mess with Mr. Nerud – you’re lucky he hasn’t had you removed from the grounds already this morning.”

It was a good learning experience for Tony early in his working career – you have to know who is really in charge. John Nerud was all about the horses and was able to maintain that philosophy and focus for decades. He learned early in his career from the great Calumet Farms trainer, Ben Jones:”Keep ’em happy, keep ’em fat, feed ’em good, and work ’em a half mile and they’ll win in spite of you.” He may have even been a better breeder and you can trace Triple Crown winner American Pharoah to his sire Fappiano, who’s dam Killaloe was a daughter of his immortal Dr. Fager.

Read Jay Hovdey’s articles from the DRF archives on Mr. Nerud – you will not argue with my opinion of Mr. Nerud – just as Tony learned not to argue with him.


Tipping Stories

Bob Bastedo was nice enough to send some celebrity tip stories via Pete Bergen. I’ll quote his comments exactly as received:

Waiting tables at Tony&Joe’s I served Bob Hope. He was an asshole and left a shitty tip.

Jay-Z and Beyoncé would frequent a place I worked here in New York. They would start at the bar, move to a table when their party arrived, transfer their tab and Jay-Z would palm me a $100.

Courtney Love stiffed me but flashed me her tits.

Raquel Welch gave me $100 on a $50 tab plus a hug and a kiss. I was useless after that.

Tiki Barber, 10%, and a regular.

Shaquille O’Neal was a regular at Uncle Jack’s. Never sat at the bar but always made it a point to come by and shake hands and say hello .Shaking hands with Shaq is like holding hands with my dad when I was 3. He never knew my name but always called me “big Man”, which is ironic.

Howard Stern, very quiet, very polite and a generous tipper.

Yoko Ono. Wanted desperately to dislike her, but I couldn’t. Sweet as can be. VERY generous  and a hug.

Leonardo Di Caprio. With three other people. Bill was $500 and change. He dropped 10 C-notes on the bar, said “Fair enough?” I said “Absolutely.” Plus this was years ago, he was still dating Gisele Bundchen. Up close and in person she is every bit as stunning as you would imagine.

Pawnshop Rosslyn, circa 1989, Marion Barry, five Remy XO’s and a meal. Tip – zip, zero, zilch.


Thanks to Bob for those memories. We all have had many similar ones locally and I will try to put some together soon. It’s never only the money that makes it memorable – it’s how the perception often differs from reality and our own personal biases. Each of us had customers who didn’t fall into neat categories: nice guy but bad tipper; annoying person but great tipper; interesting public persona outside but totally boring and lame at the bar; mundane job and career but life of the party, probably helped by a d few drinks. That was always a big chunk of the job’s appeal – you saw people at their best and worst without much warning either way.

Chef Soper





Out in Saratoga with Trainers and Jockeys – and Stewards?

Part of the appeal of Saratoga for the horseplayer is the proximity to the sport’s great trainers and jockeys. Not only do you see trainers in the clubhouse boxes but the jockeys parade before each race from their quarters through the outside public area on the way to the saddling enclosure. However, that’s just part of the story –  the entire dynamic continues nightly in the town’s many dining rooms, such as Sperry’s, Siro’s and the venerable Wishing Well just north of downtown. It’s more likely than not that you will be seated next to a trainer, jockey or owner. I was reminded of one of our favorite nights after watching the track honor some of the great older jockeys between races today.

We were having dinner in the bar at Pennell’s Restaurant with DC friend and bartender T-Bird. It was a lively Saturday evening after a big race day featuring several stakes races. This was in the 1990’s and there were about two working taxis in town, as opposed to the many available today. The manager had called a cab for us but we had been waiting 45 minutes without any appearance. We went back in to the bar to try calling again when the manager mentioned that a  gentleman from a group just leaving would be happy to drop us at our hotel.

This group had been celebrating the great fortune of one family member – the jockey Jorge Chavez. He was a solid jockey at the time but was especially pleased to record his first victory in a Grade One Stakes at Saratoga that day. This win validated his up and coming stature in the jockey community and he stayed a top rider in New York for years, earning the nickname “Chop Chop” for his perceived aggressive style. In actuality, his arms were pretty short for even a jockey and it looked like he moved them more excitedly than he actually did. His brother, who mirrored Jorge’s frame, was the wheelman and the four of us greeted each other. On the way to their car we congratulated Jorge on the day’s success and they could not have been more friendly. Of course they are driving a giant Cadillac and as we got into the back seat, they both basically disappeared from sight in the front. On the dark unlit streets. I feared someone who was over served that night would notice our large sedan cruising with two people in the back and no visible occupant driving the vehicle. It was a great Saratoga experience and should remind all that jockeys are regular people who may be small in size but have big hearts.

The next story involves a trainer, a jockey’s ex-wife and a very overrated restaurant. The restaurant was Sergio’s – an Italian hot spot favored for a few years by many gamblers and racetrackers. It may have been located near The Wishing Well restaurant, but was far removed from that Saratoga favorite in professionalism. Five of us waited patiently one evening – and only one evening – for our reserved table to be ready amid a fairly chaotic throng on the patio. Finally we were seated and although we ordered some wine to help calm down, no glasses were available to go with the carafes of house red and white. It took at least 15 minutes for the glasses to appear and then after ordering food we discovered the plates and silverware must have been hiding with the clean glassware.

All the service mishaps continued and we couldn’t order wine quick enough to ease the pain. But it gets worse – a woman who seemed to be some sort of useless representative of the business kept squeezing through too tight spaces between the tables. She concentrated on a table next to ours, which caused her overabundant posterior to spill over our table. We later learned she was Angel Cordero’s ex-wife, which made him better off than us at that point. The man at her table of interest turned out to be trainer Peter Walder, who was beginning his rise to the top of his profession then. Luckily he turned out to be a very nice man, since the former Mrs. Cordero had decided to clear his table by dropping his used plates onto our table. Soon she became distracted and moved to the next victim of her attention. Mr. Walder apologized for her conduct before personally removing his dirty dishes now in our possession. Our companions at the table had evidently been drinking enough earlier to cloud their vision so they basically missed all this action – Danny was only worried about getting the last piece of cheesecake in the house and after that worked in his favor, he decided it had been a perfectly lovely dining experience. But once again a racetrack professional was shown to be a truly classy individual.

The last story took place at the patio bar of Hatties’ after dinner hours. Our DC friend Bernie was working the bar at that time and had a good crowd drinking and having fun. As it grew later and the crowd thinned, I noticed two guys at the bar that had obviously been there much longer than us and were engaged in deep conversation with Bernie. Unfortunately the language they spoke was a mystery to myself and anybody that hadn’t been boozing for hours. They would not have been drunker if Trader Vic had been working with Bernie on “Free Drink Night.” They slowly stumbled their way out of Bernie’s bar and I had to ask him who they were. The racetrack employs three stewards to handle various problems which arise during race days – these guys were two of the three. I guess one of them has to stay sober each night and these customers were the two stewed stewards. God knows what they were discussing with Bernie, but I doubt anyone remembered any details the next day. I hope their vision was clear enough the following afternoon to analyze the fine details of any roughly run races.

Great racing so far this year in Saratoga – good luck.

Chef Soper –





Serving Food “At The Bar”

This is a brief update to the Acknowledgement page in my book. I wanted to list many of the bartenders who did a great job selling food at their bars. Most on the list were from earlier times – when I was a more frequent customer in town. I recently witnessed an effort which merits a mention. I was at Chad’s in Friendship Heights during a busy happy hour at the bar when Pete Bergen caught a request which would have ruined many a bartender’s good mood. I worked with Pete briefly in Old Town but don’t get to Chad’s often in the evening.

A regular asked Pete for 2 egg white omelets with wheat toast. Pete now had to analyze the whole situation quickly: customer’s status, kitchen staffing and ability to execute this mistimed order and the current level of business. He then checked with the chef and gets the okay to proceed. About 10 minutes later the two breakfast plates arrive amidst the wings and beers already populating the bar top. Although the order annoyed me while I sat nearby, the staff and Pete in particular pulled it off without any apparent collateral damage.

To me that’s a professional bartender handing a tricky situation in a cool manner.

Chef Soper

Off Theme – Matt Williams

I’m sure no one else has noticed this – it’s not an official stat of any type. However, our Nats manager repeatedly refuses to pinch hit for the pitcher and then removes him before the pitcher completes the next inning. I’ve never heard it mentioned on TV or written in any publication I read. It shows a total lack of understanding of his pitching staff and more importantly, he does not know how to use them effectively.

Tonight was the classic example. Gio pitches 5 innings but has thrown a lot of pitches, as usual. He hits second in bottom of 5th and makes an out. In the sixth he gives up a hit to the leadoff man and then Williams removes him. I would love some stat nut to figure out Matt’s record and standing among the other managers in this obscure situation. This regularly occurs in close games, making it a big concern.

I’ve never noticed it until his first year with the team. I figured it could be some rookie confusion yet he has multiple bench, pitching and assistant coaches on staff and has become worse at this judgment.

Love to hear any comments.

Chef Soper –

Late breaking addition: So Matt Williams won’t pinch hit Tyler Moore in 6th for Gio but will have him pitch the 9th. So we have a pitcher hitting but not pitching and a hitter being used to pitch. To quote Phil Mushnick: “Nurse!”


Tips and Cash at the Track

Cash was always king behind the bar and at the track. An overflowing tip cup and the chance for some easy money fueled the regular traffic from Georgetown’s saloons to the Maryland racetracks from the 1960’s through the 1980’s. Bartenders had the perfect schedule for a lifestyle of busy nights pouring drinks and lazy days at the racetrack. Friends with normal jobs could join them on Saturdays but weekdays were for bartenders, the unemployed and the occasional lawyer with a gambling problem.

I began this format early, before my bar employment began, by cutting college classes with a few friends and keeping my evenings free for poker games. But Joe McKay beat me – he started as a student at John Carroll H.S. in DC. and even ran into some of the faculty at Laurel Racetrack. Like me, he had some early success which helped cause the predictable overconfidence. At least he was able to use the track as a term paper subject in high school – my professors in the GU Math Dept. preferred more academic material. I believe most of my horse playing friends made the effort to form their own opinions at the track but the culture seemed to be a continual incubator of “hot tips” on horses that couldn’t lose. Other than the occasional gem that leaked out from Andy Beyer or another bettor with some inside knowledge, most info floating around the track was best ignored.

After a tough day watching the dollars leave their pockets like war refugees crossing a border, Mike Kelly and Vinny Baretta were running out of opportunities. They played a double into the great turf runner Manila and got a decent price in the fist leg. It wasn’t paying a lot but they had it twenty times each until the “sure thing” on turf decided to get beat at about 1-5 odds and cost them the double. Now they were left with one hope to get even – a hot tip on the last race from a reliable source, who noted that his horse was so live he could win while racing backwards. Unfortunately their tip horse had a chance to look at all the others in the race since he finished last. Tapped out and despondent over their fortunes, MIke finally realized the problem – the horse had been running forwards as opposed to the tipsters prediction. At least their tale of woe would produce some complimentary drinks later from a sympathetic bartender in town.

I’ll finish with two Saratoga stories featuring good luck and plenty of cash. About ten years ago Dan Marshall and Jim Shappell arrived in Saratoga during our regular Labor Day visit. Marie and I always love to see DC friends make the trip and this was no exception. They were having a great time dining, drinking and wagering and their fresh energy was welcomed. Then Danny decided to amend a trifecta bet at the window to include the horse wearing the same number as appeared on his high school football jersey – for luck. Of course the late addition to his ticket produced a winning ticket paying more than $15,000 dollars. In all the travelling confusion he had forgotten his ID, which is needed to cash the ticket. So now Jim had to cash it – and fill out all the tax paperwork with it – and Danny was able to stuff his blue blazer with the cash.  Drinks, fun, food and more drinks ensued, although we had to remind him to take the blazer with him, after he had removed it on the hot night. At least a night of partying helped free some space in the jacket’s pockets and lighten the load.

Let’s move up to this past week at Saratoga. An unnamed elderly woman plays a quick pick superfecta at the betting window next to old DC friend Bernie Poirier. This a little known wagering option in which the machine spits out a random set of four numbers for the wager, much like a lottery ticket machine. I’ve never seen anyone do this but she obviously knows how to work it since the ticket was good for $44,000 before being taxed. The teller at the IRS window was explaining the procedure and requested she provide her address where the check could be sent. She eyed him curiously and asked in her most innocent voice ” Oh, you mean I could write a check to pay for my bet?” He replied earnestly “No ma’am, you need cash for that.” Now she had him in her clutches –  like a Russian chess grandmaster a move before a checkmate –  and said “Exactly, I bought the ticket with cash and you can pay me in the same way.” I know Danny had an effort fitting the $15,000 in his blazer years earlier, so I hope she had enough pockets or a very big bag – or maybe several DC troublemakers to assist in drinking her profits.

More winning stories in the near future, Chef Soper