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--D magazine 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."
OK. We took the trouble to rank the top five. We understand, however, that even the best have their detractors. "It's the team that matters," says Danny Versfelt of Al Biernat's, who works with another longtime bartender, Jesse Nava. "We both have our own clientele." It's something familiar to all servers. "There's always someone better, but I try to be the best," Bratt points out, even while crediting Candle Room teammate Shawn Egerton with superior technique.
"There's her crowd and a crowd that wants to see me," says Ciudad's Leann Berry of Shellie McCasland. "We're totally different bartenders, but we work well together."
That being said, we list the remainder in no particular order:
Danny Versfelt, Al Biernat's. A bartender for 17 years, Versfelt keeps up with new drinks, old drinks and current events. "You serve an honest drink and host a great party, and they'll come back," he says.
David Liberto, Beau Nash. Another old-school type, he values the fundamentals. Yet it's difficult to throw him a curve. More important, his clear enjoyment of the job rubs off on every patron at the bar.
Jessica Sheridan, Patrizio. "It's not like you wake up and stress about it," says Sheridan of her "easy" occupation. No wonder she works with such grace. Her influence makes the Highland Park bar the closest thing Dallas nightlife offers to a Zen experience.
Garett Bratt, Candle Room. A bartender for only five years, he's the least experienced on the list, but it doesn't show. When unfamiliar faces appear at the bar, he quickly introduces not only himself, but all other bartenders, as well. And that's a pretty suave touch for a high-volume slinger.
Will Morgan, Champps (Las Colinas). He strikes us as the perfect happy-hour bartender: cracking jokes, telling fish stories, filling drinks and always scanning the bar lest any glass near the empty mark. "No one else," claims patron Shelly Collins, "has your drink sitting at the bar when you walk in."
Leann Berry, Ciudad. She makes a damn good margarita, can introduce you to a range of tequilas and oozes personality. "If you're having fun, people will have fun," she says. Hell, it's fun simply watching her work.
Bruce Bauman, Green Room. Over the past 19 years, he's seen pretty much everything. Before the crowds occupy his time, Bauman tells stories of brawls, infidelity and other barroom incidents. When it's busy, he slings with the best of them.
Bill Foster, The Quarter. Many bartenders smile readily and meander through pleasant conversations. Foster, on the other hand, refuses to hide a jaded streak--much to his benefit and to his patrons' entertainment. There's nothing wrong with a good drink followed by an honest opinion.
Dave and Jose, The Men's Club. They resemble each other in attitude, awareness of the bar area and geniality. Sit down at their section of the bar, and you may just forget about the surroundings...if you get our drift, and we know you do.
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Sure, there are other good bartenders in Dallas. Indeed, two of the best sit on the sidelines: Ben Caudle, displaced by the sudden closing of Martini Ranch, and Matthew, poet laureate of Dallas nightlife, awaiting the opening of Passport. As we stumbled through the city, drowning brain cells, running afoul of bouncers and...forgot just where we were going with this, but damn we love our work.
Anyway, we recall a standout martini from Geoff Giordano at Mick's Bar, an evening watching the rhythmic Chandie bounce around the main bar at Blue and some stellar drinks from Joanie Norris at Dragonfly. We also like Chris Nichols at XPO Lounge, Scott Blythe down at Billiard Bar, Shana, who works Blind Lemon, Club Clearview and the Art Bar, and the lovely Helen Baridon of Silver City.
Just remember: Bartending differs from one place to the next--even from one year to the next. For, as Michael reminds us, "they used to say a good bartender had a quick wit and a fast lighter. But I guess you can't do that anymore."
Unless you drive to Addison.