Imagine, for a moment, a world without bartenders.
A city of sober club hoppers, their vision unimpaired, would doom the latex industry--and that's just one scenario. Envision Deep Ellum lined with antique shops, NASCAR fans sitting up suddenly and blurting, "Hey, them cars is just going around in circles," literature professors finally admitting Steinbeck could have ditched the turtle chapter, Russians...nope, can't imagine sober Russians. Even worse, clean-living suburban families would descend upon restaurant clusters like Knox-Henderson, demanding big-ass homes, segregated schools and kid-friendly chain establishments.
Such dire images bear out the sage words of Chris O'Hagan, Dallas aficionado of all things alcoholic: "A bartender is more than just a sack of protoplasm slinging intoxicants."
Bartenders play a varied, but nonetheless significant role in our lives: confidant, foil, friend, fantasy or servant. "You're a familiar face, a psychologist, someone serving drinks--everything," says Jessica Sheridan, who slings intoxicants at Patrizio's in Highland Park Village. "You are expected to know a little about movies, sports and the stock market."
Each year we ask close to 400 people representing different age groups and income categories about the bartenders they encounter. From these informal surveys we glean names, physical descriptions and random observations regarding skill or anything else of import to bar patrons. Our list, then, includes high-volume slingers, knowledgeable conversationalists, those quick to refill a drink and every type of bartender in between. Finally, we spend a few weeks double-checking our information, a thorough process during which the Burning Question crew consumed about 500 drinks, borrowed sick days several years in advance, familiarized ourselves with the feel of porcelain and slurred pickup lines to other patrons, waitstaff and at least one ornate lamppost.
Who, then, are this year's best bartenders in Dallas?
Ben Caudle, Martini Ranch: Caudle is, quite simply, a great bartender--knowledgeable, intense and almost resolute. Unlike many of the others, he's not quick to smile or flatter a customer. But if you want a great drink, or a lesson in alcohol or the culture of drinking, he's a good person to know.
Matthew, Samba Room: We refer to Matthew as the poet laureate of Dallas nightlife--a tribute to his insight and knowledge of culture, philosophy, business and other things academic. But he's skillful and pragmatic. "It's never been about just one-on-one service," he says. "It's, ëHow do you keep the right people coming back?' A good bartender keeps it from drying up. That's the only way I know to bartend."
Adam Salazar, Reservoir (Wednesday), Seven (Saturday), other places in between: Other bartenders refer to Salazar with a certain amount of awe. "Where Adam is, that's where you want to work," observes Chris Michael of Bali Bar. Salazar excels in high-volume environments, moving with ease through the chaos, serving flawlessly, tending bar on busy nights at several establishments.
Scott Blythe, Whisky Bar: Blythe knows whiskey. If you visit before the crowds, he can walk you through the pedigree of a hundred or more types--the perfect bartender for a Saturday afternoon of scotch and conversation. Yet he excels when the mob descends on Whisky Bar. "Texas-OU, New Year's Eve, I've never seen Scott melt down," claims bar manager Jordan Lowery. "In fact, that's when he's usually at his funniest."
Phil Natale, Sense: Sense is a members-only VIP club. In order to linger awhile with Natale, we tried posing as washed-up, has-been athletes, but management refused to believe we were the Rangers' bullpen. Status matters little to Natale, who sets the mood anytime he slides behind the bar. "It's about atmosphere, service, innovation, ideas," he says. "It's about incorporating the newest and best with my own personal touch and philosophy."
He just makes customers feel at home.
This kind of conviviality quickly becomes dangerous. "I'm the host of the party," explains Danny Versfelt of Al Biernat's. "If I'm having a good time, then the customer is having a good time--and I'm making more money." It's no wonder, then, bartenders assign primacy to atmosphere, dismissing knowledge of alcohol as necessary but secondary. "At some level it's a sense of knowing you're there to make people happy," Bali Bar's Michael counsels. Understanding alcohol, recalling hundreds of recipes and placating the trendy are essential to proficient bartending, of course. "But a good bartender is not so much an expert in alcohol as an expert in people. If it were just about alcohol, you could buy a book."
James Pintello, Sevy's Grill: He works mostly during the day, thus serves diners at the bar as well as seasoned alcoholics. Pintello spent time in the Navy and regales customers with stories set in distant ports of call. Definitely the oldest bartender on the list, but he still moves with dexterity.
Ian Green, The Londoner: A quick-witted jester, Green welcomes regulars with sly insults and a sincere smile. He knows British ales well, naturally, and makes an evening standing at the bar as memorable as the alcohol will allow.
Mary Higby, The Bone: She is affable, but when you order a drink, her professionalism becomes evident. "This is a fast-paced bar," she says. "It's balls to the wall, 100 miles per hour, and when you stop, then you can breathe." She makes a damn good margarita, too.
Will Morgan, Champps, Las Colinas: Morgan hates to see an empty glass. He has, according to patrons, eyes in the back of his head, which makes him some sort of a freak in our book, unless they meant that as a figure of speech. He's generally pouring a new drink just as you finish the old one.
Danny Versfelt, Al Biernat's: You have to appreciate a bartender who knows how to light a cigar properly, can speak intelligently about pipes and mixes strong cocktails--feeds (almost) all our vices, in other words.
Versfelt knows trendy mixed drinks, but specializes in the traditional cocktail and quality service. Despite the proliferation of HBO-inspired concoctions, bartenders say that change comes slowly to their world. "Drink preferences change a little and clientele some, that's about it," Caudle explains. "Everything that did exist always does, and the new things don't overwhelm you."
Chris Michael, Bali Bar: It's difficult to describe Michael. He studies philosophy in his spare time, can spit out Bible verses and understands regional cuisine.
Dave Echols, The Men's Club: "The distractions are obvious," Echols says of his workplace, and the Burning Question crew spent quite a bit of time triple-checking the accuracy of his comment. He responds immediately when a customer even glances his direction.
Jessica Sheridan, Patrizio's: Sheridan glides behind the bar with elegance, although it might just seem that way by comparison (we could barely even stand on our visit). She doesn't call attention to herself, yet patrons gradually adjust their attention to her.
David Liberto, Beau Nash: Liberto engages every customer but never forces someone to wait for service. His attention to detail is astounding, once calling Brennan's in New Orleans for a recipe just to satisfy a customer's taste for a particular version of the gin fizz.
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Tanner Scott, Christie's: Even on a busy night, Scott recognizes at least half of the bar's patrons. "If you care and make people want to come back and see you, you become good," he says.
So much for the top 15. We also discovered a few others well worth mentioning: Michelle Brillhart of Inwood Tavern makes a damn good Bloody Mary; David Pedack, now at Tom Tom Noodle Club, but soon to open Nikita; Gustavo Martinez of Anamia's in Coppell makes people forget they live in Coppell; the Green Room's Bruce Baumann, just because we think he's cool; and Tom Blackmer of The Loon.
Blackmer far outshines other bartenders at The Loon, at least from our experience. On one Saturday-afternoon visit (Blackmer was out that day), the Burning Question crew waited desperately for service. As the clock ticked and the ordeal dragged on, crew members began to drop; their pathetic gasping as clean red blood cells coursed through their veins unnerved us all, and their valor as they struggled to stay inebriated for just one more moment will be long remembered.
Six long minutes we waited for a drink.