When asked to evaluate the art of bartending, few people mention the drink itself.
"It's not the drink, but your actions behind the bar that matter," claims Manny Murillo of the Library Bar. By that he means a combination of attitude, customer service and attention to waitstaff. "You can get a good drink anywhere."
No one wants a mediocre beverage, of course. Yet in our research for this story, which each year involves conversations with several hundred drinkers and a few weeks of bar visits, only a couple of people referenced crystal clear martinis or perfect Jack and Cokes. Discussing Sense's Phil Natale, we heard "personable," "sincere," "honest" and other non-alcohol-related accolades. When checking out Charles McCrocklin of The Palm, one patron's "he talks about literature and philosophy and food and drink" typified remarks.
"When you have a good rapport with a bartender, you feel good about being there," explains Sally, drinking at Beau Nash.
Bartenders echoed Murillo's comments. "I can show anybody how to come back here and make drinks," claims Glenn Hartzell of Stolik. They speak of interaction and vibe--or even speed--rather than mixing.
"You gotta be able to communicate, understand what they're looking for," says Mike Wallace of The Meridian Room and Old Monk. "And that's true anywhere you go."
Naturally, the Burning Question crew tried to prove them wrong by ordering unheard of quantities of alcohol. We point this out so you'll know that dedication to a job well done is a calling we take seriously. It's not intended as a mea culpa for the scarf-dancing incident at Del Frisco's, which we know nothing about, or for the radishes supposedly thrown in the general direction of a rival journalist dining at Oceanaire--almost certainly not our doing. Yes, we have a vague recollection of an encounter with Drama Room's Marilyn Monroe mannequin. But none of this stuff appears in our notes and therefore presumably never happened.
Fortunately for us, bartenders deal with erratic drunks as a normal part of their work.
"The goal is to saddle chaos, and it's hard to do," says Jimmy Hall of Martini Ranch. "You have to orchestrate it all into one happy event, make sure everybody leaves with a smile."
So, who are the best at their craft?
Well, in creating this year's list, we considered recommendations, speed, interaction, knowledge of liquors, consistency, accuracy, flair, even the quality of each drink. We also noted how each bartender fit the atmosphere of the bar and his or her role in maintaining that particular vibe.
We decided to rank only the top 10. The others are listed in no particular order.
Adam Salazar, Republic, Seven, Sneaky Pete's, Nikita: It may take retirement (or a horrible ponytail accident) to knock Salazar off the top spot. While he believes knowledge--of products, guests and systems--critical to solid bartending, his true skill is consistency in any environment. Need someone to bang out drinks, to chat with customers, to serve discerning tastes? Salazar handles it all. "I think experience helps a lot," he says. "But if you're lucky enough to get a job at a hot spot, you'll develop a following." Indeed, dozens of people we spoke with visit certain establishments only because he covers the bar.
Phil Natale, Sense: Also a well-rounded bartender, he recommends wine, knows the intricacies of sake and still manages to serve great martinis or pour a perfect beer. Patrons, however, remember his attitude and attention to detail. "Look," he explains, "I could half-ass it, but people notice." Instead, he greets each person approaching the bar, empties ashtrays and remains on top of everything around the bar. "Those are the things that work."
Ian Green, The Londoner: Walk into a British pub and you expect to see a smartass behind the bar. On one visit, a customer asked for a Chopin martini, slightly dirty. "I wouldn't pour olive juice in Chopin," he advised and began listing the reasons, concluding with "and we haven't got Chopin, anyway." He insults regulars with a smile and welcomes newcomers--just so he can rag on them, too--the perfect bartender for his establishment.
Shawn Egerton, Candle Room: "You can always learn something from somebody else," Egerton says of bartending. He operates in a fast-paced environment, yet his co-workers consider him a great technical bartender, turning out consistent drinks. Even when slinging away, he ensures patrons remain comfortable.
Leann Berry, Ciudad: She's creative, for a start--always working on some new concoction, such as a pomegranate and pineapple margarita. Knows her tequilas, too. Yet Berry stands out for her personality. "She's real good about making people feel at home and have a good time," says Shellie McCausland, who bartends alongside Berry.
Chris Michael, Dragonfly: The leading philosopher on the Dallas nightlife scene, Michael also slings with the best when working the poolside bar. Find him on a slow day and he'll discuss biblical verses, current literature, avant-garde film, Third World peoples or anything else.
Danny Versfelt, Al Biernat's: This guy once worked at The Loon, so he understands a strong pour. Hell, we'd like him for that alone. Yet he's also well-versed in the classic cocktails, good scotch, bourbon, cigars--everything necessary for life.
James Pintello, Sevy's Grill: Ditch work one day (we did, several times) and stop in for a drink. Pintello, now 60, covers the afternoon shifts, for the most part. What makes him so good, besides servicing an afternoon buzz? "After 27 years in the Navy, I can make up stories like you wouldn't believe," he explains.
Mike Wallace, The Meridian Room, Old Monk: "I'm just blunt and straightforward," he says of his style behind the bar. "Some people seem to like that." Of course, he also pours with a heavy hand. Some people appreciate that as well.
Glenn Hartzell, Stolik: Few bartenders focus as much on consolidation as Hartzell. Even on slow nights, he strives not only for perfection but to shave seconds off drink delivery. "If I can't do it right the first time," he says, "that's a problem."
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We also like David Liberto of Beau Nash, a perennial favorite. Chris Moler at Candle Room works best with his head down, slinging drinks left and right, although Zeus at The Lodge may be the city's fastest bartender. "He'll make you dizzy," says Dave, drinking at the bar. "You can't watch him for long."
Dan Carr at Capital Grille reads guests well and shakes a great martini. Library Bar's Manny Murillo mixes classic cocktails in a cramped space. Over at the Green Room, Bruce Bauman holds down weekends, serving both the upscale restaurant guests and the rowdier Deep Ellum crowd. Dave and Jose at The Men's Club are equally talented--and never let a person wait for a drink.
A majority of the bartenders mentioned thus far have toiled for more than a decade. Jimmy Hall at Martini Ranch is a comparative rookie, with only four years of experience. He remembers your drink, however, even if some time elapsed between visits to the bar. On the other end of the spectrum, Charles McCrocklin at The Palm settled into his position back in 1985 and worked a few other joints before joining the West End steak house.
Also watch Shana Stephens at Tucker, Canadian import Hallie Clayton of both Drama Room and obar, Michael Law over at Manhattan, and our favorite (just because he never smiles, rarely utters a kind word and still turns out a good party), Bill Foster from The Quarter.