From Behind the Bar

Tales from our resident bartender.

From Behind the Bar: On Hospitality

About the Author: You may have seen Michael Neff behind the bar at New York's Ward III and The Rum House. He'll be stopping by each week to share insights on cocktails and the life of a barman.

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[Photograph: Ken Lund on Flickr]

New Orleans is a beautiful city, and I was lucky enough to spend a few days there recently. I was traveling on business, but since I work in a bar, that business involved cocktails. For those of you who haven't heard of it, Tales of the Cocktail is an annual bacchanal/convention that brings together people from all over the world to learn about, sample, discuss, and generally celebrate spirits and how we use them.

The event is headquartered at the storied Hotel Monteleone, which is conveniently located around the corner from a much earthier establishment, Acme Oyster House. Their specialty (besides oysters, obviously) is a massively decadent po' boy sandwich called The Peace Maker. While my nights were occupied walking the streets drinking Abita Amber from a plastic cup, each day started sitting at the Acme Bar and fortifying myself with fried shrimp and oysters on a roll. Yes, I want tartar sauce. Of course, I'll take the coleslaw. Absolutely, I'd like to wash that down with a cold beer.

The French Quarter was overrun with cocktail-types for five days, to the delight and chagrin of actual working bartenders who operated the establishments we all would frequent. Delight, because bartenders are famous for being generous tippers, and can often be compassionate customers. Chagrin, because we can also be royal pains-in-the-ass if things aren't going the way we think they should. The last thing any bartender on the planet needs to do is instruct a New Orleans bartender in the making of a proper Sazerac, but I saw it happen. The consequences were amusing for me, but embarrassing for the poor sap who thought to open his mouth. C'est la vie.

Of the bartenders I met working in The Big Easy, the man behind the bar at the Acme was by far the most impressive. Big and burly, with waist-long dreadlocks, he poured beers (often), made cocktails (occasionally), served up food (constantly), and ran an incredibly tight ship while keeping his cool, and making sure everyone had exactly what they needed.

What sold me was how he presented the check. He would look his guest in the eye, shake their hand, and say, "Y'all come back and see us any time." On my second visit, he said, "I'll see you back here tomorrow, right?" And he was right. I went back every day, in no small part due to the experience I had watching him work his bar.

What most people call lunch, I call breakfast, and it's a meal I tend to prefer alone. As I enjoyed my day's fortification, I had plenty of time to reflect. At the exact same time our fancy New York cocktail bars were being nominated for awards celebrating how awesome we are, this man was working his own brand of magic, brilliantly demonstrating that many of us miss the point.

Think about the last time you were in a bar where you were not known, and the bartender reached out and shook your hand. How often will a mixologist look up from the execution of his "mixology" when someone new bellies up? The phrase most necessary, but least often heard, in cocktail bars is "How are you enjoying your drink?" If we changed the yard-stick on how bars are measured from cocktails to hospitality, many of the establishments that won awards that weekend would find themselves soundly drubbed by little dives in places like New Orleans, Wichita, and Phoenix.

This is unfortunate for cocktail makers and imbibers alike. I love making cocktails as much as I love drinking them, but their creation is not my primary job. The first purpose of every bar, cocktail or otherwise, is to provide an enjoyable experience for our guests. It starts and end with hospitality. Period.

We forget that to our detriment. The cocktail has been elevated to culinary heights, which is a wonderful thing for all of us. The problem arises when they are elevated past the level of those who drink them. I am lucky to have trained many people who will go off in to the world to be fantastic bartenders. This process takes years sometimes, and the last thing I ever talk about is how to make cocktails. Compared to consistently delivering genuine hospitality to every single guest who walks in the door, day after day, making cocktails is a piece of cake.

My trip was illuminating. I tasted new spirits, compared notes with fellow travellers, and generally immersed myself in the collective culture of cocktails in this country. The best thing, though, was watching the bartender at The Acme. He reminded me that the bar for true hospitality is set very high, and I am grateful for the reminder. Hopefully, everyone else was paying attention as well.

Related: 12 Sips and Scenes from Tales of the Cocktail »

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