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 et.al. 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