I have this image in my head of the perfect bartender.
He’s tall and thin, handsome; wears a collared shirt tucked into jeans. He’s always carrying around a dish rag, making sure that spot where he’s about to serve the next chilled pint of rich amber beer is spotless.
He’s equal parts therapist, philosopher and comic. His teeth are a perfect white when he flashes that smile.
He makes you wanna go where everybody knows your…
Hold on a second, I think I’m just describing Sam Malone.
OK, so maybe growing up watching “Cheers” has warped my perception of what makes a great bartender. Or maybe it’s that the show so permeated the culture it forever changed the role and style of a bartender.
I recently spoke to three veterans behind a North Fork bar to see what they think makes a good bartender. It turns out that Hollywood notion of the barkeep who can talk to you about anything, is familiar with his or her clientele and can guarantee you’ll enjoy your night out isn’t that far off.
“If you ask 100 people, ‘What’s your favorite bar?’ One hundred percent of the time, whether they know it or not, it’s going to be the place where they feel most welcome,” said Evan Bucholz, owner and mixologist at Brix & Rye in Greenport.
He credits not a bartender, but rather chef Tom Schaudel with indirectly teaching him that. Bucholz said when working for Schaudel early in his career — which spans nearly 20 years — he would watch as the legendary Long Island chef went from the kitchen to the bar and held court with his customers.
“He was just super gregarious and he kind of set the tone for the whole thing as being just so welcoming and inviting,” Bucholz said. “He gave me the idea that maybe 10% of this stuff is drinks and 90% of it is interactions with people.”
Tim Staron, who manages the bar at Legends in New Suffolk, agrees that having a good rapport with clientele is essential. If you can’t connect with people, he said, “it’s going to be hard to find success in the business.”
For Staron, who’s worked at the waterfront spot for 22 years, most of them behind a bar where games are always on the television, that means having a wide range of sports knowledge. He describes himself as a fanatic, so it’s not that much of a challenge for him, though as a Jets fan he’s had to learn to take a good ribbing over the years.
It also helps to know about pop culture and current events, bartenders will tell you, but none of it is essential. Personality is the fundamental trait driving the connection with clientele.
Helen Cruz at aMano in Mattituck says she never watches television and couldn’t tell you one thing that happened in any game last night, but she still manages to form a bond with the people she mixes drinks for.
It often starts with them being curious about her.
“The one thing people always ask me about is my accent,” the Honduran-born bartender said. “Then it goes from there. They want to know what it was like where I’m from and what brought me here.” (In case you’re wondering, love brought her here. While that particular relationship didn’t work out, she jokes that she fell in love with the North Fork instead.)
Bucholz speaks of the bar being a “third place,” a philosophy he adopted from St. John (pronounced Sin-Jin) Frizell, owner of Fort Defiance in Red Hook, Brooklyn, where Bucholz worked before returning to the North Fork. “He’s always talking about this concept of the [bar as a] third place, the place between home and work, where people congregate and exchange ideas,” Bucholz said. “You’re bumping into people that aren’t in your immediate circle, having experiences that aren’t your immediate chosen experiences.
“There’s something very neighborhood about that,” he said.
He points to North Fork bartenders like Andy Harbin of Andy’s or “One-Eyed” Bob Paquette of First and South, both in Greenport, of “having that in spades.” The bartenders he recalls coming of age in neighborhood watering holes like Finnegan’s Wake (now Cuddy’s) in Jamesport or the Broken Down Valise in Mattituck also naturally grasped this concept, Bucholz said.
While personality is key, you do still have to know what you’re doing. Staron said it’s not exactly about making the perfect drink, but being consistent.
“You want to make sure your cocktails and your service stay at a high level,” he said. “You want to make sure you’re giving it your best.”
Cruz, who’s worked at aMano for 13 years, said that means checking your own troubles at the door, which isn’t always easy to do, but is crucial.
“Who cares what kind of day I’m having? I’m there for [my customers],” she said, adding that it’s important she truly listens to people, particularly if they’re looking to vent. “I sometimes joke that I should charge what therapists do,” she said.
To be a great bartender, you ultimately have to love the gig, all three agree. For Staron, a dad to two young sons, and Bucholz, who has a pair of daughters, peeling away for a night at the bar has its challenges. But Staron said the bar is the closest thing to a social life he has. The rest of his time is for family.
Bucholz said his daughters have asked him if he still likes going to work every night.
“I say, ‘You know, I’d rather stay with you and play, but I like my job. I’m good at it. I like the people that I work with. And we have a good time,’ “ he said. “ ‘So don’t worry about me when I go to work. I’m having a good time all the time.’ That is still true, even through this year. So I think I’ll stick with it.”