From Behind the Bar »

Tales from our resident bartender.

When the Drink is on You

Editor's Note: It's been awhile since we shared tales from behind the bar with you. Picking up the reins this week, we have Alfie Turnshek-Goins, a bartender who has been working in the San Francisco Bay area restaurant industry for almost 20 years. Take it away, Alfie!

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[Photographs: Wes Rowe]

"That's the best damn Manhattan I've ever had," he said.

"That's the fourth one. It ought to be." I replied.

It was slow, and near closing time. The bar was smacking clean and I was sober as a stump. Nerding out and fine-tuning the amount of vermouth in a mutually favorite cocktail, quarter ounce by quarter ounce, seemed like the appropriate thing to do with the guy seated in front of my well on a Sunday night.

"50/50." he intoned. "Depending on the sweet vermouth, but with Carpano Antica, I'm going to say equal parts of dry and sweet vermouth, with a lemon twist, is my favorite." He was visibly relieved that he'd decided, as if this question had weighed heavily on him for years. He offered to buy me a drink. He had his perfect Manhattan, I had my gulp of tequila. Bars: Solving big problems since forever.

During a night out for dinner, I often feel compelled to observe and catalog the lovely chaos that is a busy restaurant. I can't turn it off. I overhear the woman at a nearby table request a very specific Martini, watch the server place the order, watch the bartender make it, and watch it sit on the bar waiting to be run to the table. I time how long it sat there, and try to gauge her reaction to the cocktail, to see whether or not it arrived while it was still stiffly cold. This attention to detail is great for refining ideas about hospitality, but may not be the best way to experience what it's like to let a meal inspire you.

When I'm out for a meal, if I let go of the control and allow the person taking care of me the latitude to make choices for me, it frequently ends up being a meal that relaxes and refreshes me. I feel revitalized and ebullient. I want to thank my server with a gratuity that not only puts money in his pocket, but liquor in his belly as well. I want to thank him for making me feel so happy—and I want him to join in the fun. The practice of offering to buy your server a drink can be seen as part of the evolution of the small community that is created nightly in a good place. When I'm bartending and a guest offers to buy me a drink, I take it as a sign I've made them feel very well taken care of.

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Back to the guest and the long-running Manhattan dilemma. He wasn't sure whether his favorite version of the Manhattan was made with bourbon or rye, and whether or not it was better with equal quantities of dry and sweet vermouth, or the standard sweet vermouth only. He told me he made the drink at home, but never felt like he could get a grip on it. We made four different versions ranging from mostly sweet to almost completely dry. Afterward, when we shared a drink together, it did two things: one, he realized I might be able to relate to him better after a mouthful of liquor (true) and two, it made him into a regular at my bar.

The exchange of a drink elasticizes the sometimes strict boundary between the servers and the served, creating an atmosphere of respect and conviviality. The way this elasticity affects the atmosphere of a bar is subtle, but important. It makes everyone feel more comfortable; it makes everyone feel a part of something good.

Eating and drinking are some of the most intimate things we do, but often, a server and a guest are complete strangers. That's why our role as servers is first and foremost rooted in sincere hospitality. It's our job to make people feel at ease. Creating a comfortable space during a meal or a single session at the bar is like taking our temporary friendship from zero to sixty. In the best of cases, a connection has been made, and I would argue that it's not necessarily a superficial one.

You've probably seen what a drink can do. A bar owner or host may buy a drink for a guest to soothe ruffled feathers for some misstep, or the practice can be a little more proactive. At one bar I worked at a few years ago, the owner, who would sometimes work the door, would often buy a drink here and there for our customers. A drink for the people who came in several nights a week, sometimes a drink for some people who gave up their spot on the waiting list because they weren't in a rush, and the couple behind them was running late for a movie and was trying to get dinner first.

A drink for being loyal, for showing kindness. A drink to show 'we want to take care of you, we're happy you're here again.' And when the long night was done, the bar owner would call everyone who was working behind the bar together for a "staff meeting" before we closed. This consisted of a round of bracingly refreshing Margarita shots and a toast of thanks for taking such good care of our guests. It showed that he trusted us with booze, and respected our work. Beats coffee by a long-shot, even for a morning meeting.

A drink given is a token. A shot of amaro to thank a bartender for a lively conversation, or the glass of Prosecco to apologize to a guest for a long wait; the best reason for the gift is that it feels natural. Sharing a toast is the liquid version of breaking bread. It bonds strangers and friends together today as it has for generations. Cheers to that.

About the Author: Alfie Turnshek has been working in the San Francisco Bay area restaurant industry for almost 20 years. He will pickle anything once, and is currently the bar manager for The New Easy in Oakland.

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