The AA List

Who are the best bartenders in Dallas?

Ah, to be the best.

Fools try to earn the sobriquet through years of dedicated labor. The younger generations, their attention spans schooled by technology and sound-bite journalism, simply proclaim themselves the best at their craft.

It worked for Barry Bonds, Deion Sanders and every rapper who ever booked time at a recording studio.

Between these two extremes is the most august measure of greatness. Yeah, local publications--Dmagazine and the Dallas Observer among them--run annual "best of" compilations. But those lists lack the rigorous standards of applied research, the thorough observation, the extensive testing and the painful mornings-after of a Burning Question "best of" piece.

We employ no technology other than a slick Waterman pen, "borrowed" years ago from our editor, and an old-fashioned legal pad. And rather than ask bartenders to declare their worthiness, we poll more than 300 random barhoppers, develop a rundown of contenders, then wander into bar after bar in a lengthy, liver-consuming fieldwork process.

We're kind of like Lewis and Clark. Except we get lost more often, and our notes are generally indecipherable--but those are minor faults. The Jeffersonian explorers faced only vague threats: dismemberment by Sioux warriors, shredding by grizzly claws, camping in the Donner Pass. The Burning Question crew, on the other hand, guzzled bourbon drinks at four bars on one not very memorable night and managed to enrage an entire bridal party with an ill-timed remark, barely escaping brutal emasculation.

So, who are the best bartenders in Dallas?

Well, patrons have different expectations of the men and women behind the bar. Some people look for conversation, some for speed, and a few just wish to sit quietly. The best bartenders learn to distinguish a guest's particular needs. "You know when you can joke and when to leave them alone," says James Pintello of Sevy's Grill. "You do make mistakes, but this business is really about reading the guests."

"With experience comes learning how to deal with people," The Londoner's Ian Green agrees. "And if diplomacy fails, tell them to fuck off."

The various bars around the area also demand a range of skills, from the head-down, drink-slinging frenzy of Deep Ellum establishments to the upscale quietude at Al Biernat's. Jessica Sheridan of Patrizio in Highland Park prefers the laid-back atmosphere. "I could do either," she says, "but I prefer this. It's less transactional and more one on one." Others thrive when patrons stack up at the bar and waitstaff shout order after order. "I get extra energy when I'm five, six, seven deep," claims Garett Bratt of the Candle Room. "That's what drives me. I couldn't work in a bar that wasn't volume."

Bartenders also struggle to balance quick service with knowledge of alcohol. "Making good drinks is appreciated," acknowledges Phil Natale of Sense, "but I don't know how important it is. If the service is good and the attitude is good, the drink doesn't have to be that great." Indeed, machines--or even monkeys--could be programmed to shake up a decent martini. Bartending requires more human traits: awareness, patience and communication.

Still, says Adam Salazar, who tends bar at four local establishments, product knowledge is critical. "What's the difference between grain and potato vodka?" he asks rhetorically. "Eight out of 10 guys at a bar can't answer that question."

Ultimately, according to Chris Michael--another "hired gun" for several bars--"a good bartender should have a combination of all the skills: speed, product knowledge, food knowledge, humor." Employing those traits attracts a steady crowd of regulars.

"Have that immediate rapport," Green says, "and instead of staying for one drink, they stay for three or four. And come back the next day."

The following bartenders will keep you coming back:

Adam Salazar, Seven, Reservoir, Nikita, Sneaky Pete's. After more than a dozen years slinging drinks at the city's most popular venues, Salazar draws quite a following. He works quickly, maneuvers easily through any conversation, displays a gregarious smile and makes a great drink. "You're talking about the best of bartenders," says John Beeler, drinking one night at Seven. "If he wasn't here, I wouldn't come here."

Phil Natale, Sense. Second place goes to another well-rounded bartender. He's pleasant, fast, engaging and reads customers better than most, always keeping a wary eye on the Burning Question crew. His expertise ranges from sake to wine to classic cocktails. "The thing is not to rest," he explains. "Take care of new clientele, stay on top of the industry and have fun."

James Pintello, Sevy's Grill. "The Rake," for his old-school charm with alluring females, reminds us of Bogart-era bartenders. He works afternoons for the most part and is, after 27 years in the Navy and 18 behind a bar, the epitome of old-school. At one moment, he's a wise-ass neighborhood server, the next a worldly gentleman.

Ian Green, The Londoner. If you walk into a pub, you want someone like Green behind the bar: someone witty, someone who treats every patron, whether draped in Prada or off-the-rack blue-light specials, as equal. Knows a good Guinness pour, too.

Chris Michael, Dragonfly, Nikita. The philosopher king of Dallas-area bartenders, Michael blends streetwise cockiness with a surprising bookishness. In the right context he may spew biblical passages or bits of Goethe or astute observations on popular culture. He's also a damn good bartender. "He's very attentive," says Greg Haynes Johnson, sipping drinks at Nikita. "I've followed him around through five or six bars."

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