Each year when we reexamine the people mixing cocktails around the city, a certain, shall we say, insecurity creeps into our minds. Thousands of bartenders work in Dallas and its surrounding 'burbs and most pour a decent drink. By the time the fifth martini begins severing contact between brain cells and critical things like optic nerves and vocal chords, it doesn't really matter who serves the stuff. Besides, you've just noticed that tollbooth attendant from Uzbekistan sitting over in the corner is quite stunning...
What were we saying? Oh, yeah.
The art of dousing inebriates is relatively simple, at least according to Cullen Herendon of Lakewood Landing. "Just pay attention, be friendly, remember what they drink," he says. "Obvious stuff."
Anyone can dump beer into a glass or splash whiskey over a few ice cubes. The best bartenders extend their art through manner and charisma. "To some degree we're on a form of stage," says Ian Green of The Idle Rich. "You have to love the job, otherwise how can your enthusiasm show?" When a patron summons them, they notice. Crowds pack three deep at the bar clamoring for service, and they pick up the pace without showing frustration. And they know how to adapt.
"Everybody's style is different," explains Jose Del Corral of Purgatory and The Men's Club. "It's a matter of figuring out what you have to do to be the best at each place. Here [The Men's Club] it's conversation." (Yeah, at $20 a pop.) "At a high volume place it's being efficient."
So how do we determine which bartenders stand out?
We ask more than 500 drinkers, tally responses and set out to observe each of the finalists in action. In fact, given the difficulty of sorting out all the nuances, the Burning Question crew finds it necessary to revisit each bartender. Several times.
Now here's where that twinge of insecurity enters the picture. Each year our search leads us, for the most part, to highly visible spots, places like Candle Room and Al Biernat's. Certainly, talented bartenders exist at establishments not haunted by the party people. Jack Freysinger at Cool River, he's good. There's a guy at Morton's, too. Oh, and that churlish woman at Lee Harvey's.
Yet working at the hotspots helps to sharpen intangible skills and nudge bartenders to the forefront. "There are a lot of bartenders out there," points out Chris Michael of Dragonfly. "It's hard to get into a good place." Pouring drinks alongside a stellar team in a crowded spot, whether an upscale lounge like Medici or a local dive such as Lakewood Landing, puts bartenders face to face with the nightlife elite. "After a few years you build a following," Michael continues. "That allows you to be comfortable with what you're doing."
The best in Dallas:
Adam Salazar (Republic, Tuesday-Thursday; Fuse, Friday-Saturday; Nikita, Sunday): Elegant behind the bar in stressful high-volume environments but also thrives in quiet settings. Knows alcohol, people and trends. Can spot a thirsty patron across a dimly lit room. Has probably the largest following of any bartender in the area. What else can we add? Guess the big ol' fuzzy ponytail sets him apart, too.
Phil Natale (Sense): Started bartending as a child at his father's hotel, blending whiskey sours, old-fashioneds, Rob Roys and Manhattans. A chef when it comes to alcohol, designing unique cocktails. Studies wine, too. Best of all, he's genuinely friendly and unflappable.
Leann Berry (Ciudad): A sprite--energetic and perky, always bouncing around. Pays attention to each customer, even while dashing around. Stands apart as the city's best "mixologist." Earned praise for drinks charged with pomegranate, passion fruit, blueberries.
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The top high-volume specialists are Shawn Egerton and Chris Moler, both of Candle Room. No one handles a restaurant crowd better than Danny Versfelt of Al Biernat's and Dan Carr of Hibiscus. Prefer the casual pub scene? Then check out Green at The Idle Rich, Herendon at Lakewood Landing and Mike Wallace of The Old Monk. Two stand out for their knowledge of cocktails and precision behind the bar--Ben Caudle, who teams with Carr at Hibiscus and Reagan Jensen of Oceanaire. Great all-around bartenders? Del Corral works at Purgatory and The Men's Club. Chris Michael will happily discuss movies or philosophy while your brain fades into oblivion. Then there are the guys who convince you, through glowing personality and easy wit, that alcoholism is a wonderful thing. We're talking about James "The Rake" Pintello at Sevy's, Santiago Cantu and Perry Robertson of Tei Tei Robata Bar and Sonny Skrakowski, who splits time between the Lion's Den in the Stoneleigh Hotel and St. Martin's on Greenville Avenue.
A few others deserve mention, such as J.D. Reid at Zubar, Rachel Davis (otherwise known as "Pip") of Hurricane Grill and Nadia Lau over at Medici. But it's 4:30.
So we'll leave you with a summation and a really lame joke. The first belongs to Caudle, who reminds us bartending "is a lot of work that looks like fun and a lot of fun that looks like work--or something like that." The final word, however, belongs to Skrakowski.
"How are bartenders and gynecologists similar? They both work where other guys like to play."