Top Tenders

Way back in the days of classic film noir, reporters spent their workdays hanging out in squalid taverns, knocking back whiskey and blurting vintage slang, piecing together stories in a haze of alcohol and stale cigarette smoke.

The Burning Question crew misses everything about those days. Except for the hangovers and the herringbone suits, of course.

This week's question allowed us to get back to our roots. OK, we still spend a lot of time in bars, but this topic required much diligent research and an unwavering desire to find answers. Note that CNN willingly rushed from Terre Haute the moment Timothy McVeigh keeled over. But managers had to throw us out of several bars long after closing time, such is our dedication to a story. We talked to hundreds of drinkers, visited dozens of bars, racked up unbelievable tabs (which someone will eventually have to pay) and missed several days of work suffering flu. Somewhere along the way we also misplaced several articles of clothing.

No single element defines a great bartender. Patrons value chattiness, silence, strong drinks, weak drinks, intimacy, distance and a range of conflicting attributes. Oddly enough, the mere act of serving drinks rarely comes up. Bartenders understand this well. "You can get a chimp to make drinks," says James Pintello of Sevy's Grill. "Ninety-five percent of this job is interaction, making people comfortable, making people happy."

So, who are the best bartenders in and around Dallas?

Ben Caudle, Martini Ranch, Dallas. Patrons rarely learn or remember a bartender's name. Many people, however, mentioned the "guy with long hair at Martini Ranch." Caudle questions uncertain newcomers calmly but with great intent, each answer revealing crucial bits of information about the patrons' drink preferences. He pounds the shaker furiously through the air, jabs olives deftly and produces one great martini. Some bartenders joke with customers and spur on the crowd. Caudle, however, reminds us of the Winston Wolfe character from Pulp Fiction, with better hair. "You can't hide here," he states. "If you've had a bad day, you better get over it. But that doesn't mean being jovial all the time. Whoever you are, you have to be that behind the bar."

Ian Green, The Londoner, Addison. Green relies on an engaging personality--cordial, boisterous and informal. "A bartender should be naturally warm and friendly," he says before turning to a noisy comrade with a "Will you fucking shut up? I'm talking," followed by a big grin. Caudle and Green operate on two ends of a spectrum, the former focused on consistency and the latter on entertainment. Caudle is a technician striving for perfection, Green a frenetic master of improvisational theater. He works a hectic bar space, bouncing from a Guinness to a black martini to a cheap tequila shot while trading friendly jibes with customers. "I just do what I do," he adds. "Does it make you want to come back to the pub? If there's no warmth, they won't come back."

Will Morgan, Champps, Las Colinas. If Caudle and Green represent the two poles, Morgan basks somewhere in the middle. He is personable without flash, knowledgeable but unwilling to rest solely on his mixing skills. When it comes to anticipating orders, no one beats this guy. He hates to see an empty glass, which resulted in the Burning Question crew spending much of one evening trapped at the bar, unwilling to leave alcohol on the table. The Bush twins would love him. "As a bartender, I look for speed," Morgan says. "It takes eyes in the back of your head." Patrons indeed describe him as an omnipotent type, pouring you another before you ask, presenting your tab shortly after that last empty glass clinks against the bar.

That kind of perception requires focus and experience--Morgan is a six-year veteran behind the bar. Caudle, too. Green has racked up nine years, both in the United States and Britain. The most difficult part of bartending, according to Morgan, is the immediacy. "Everything is now," he says. "That's the toughest part to get used to. You're surrounded, putting your head on a swivel, keeping cool." Drink knowledge--recipes, methods, flavors and so on--also creates some concern. "There are probably 40 different ways to make a martini," Morgan complains. "Same thing with a margarita. To be comfortable you gotta know 200 drinks or variations of drinks." But Caudle rounds it down to the basics. "In reality you probably make 30 to 35 drinks on a consistent basis," he says.

"I know three drinks," Green says with a laugh, "rum and coke, gin and tonic and Guinness. Honestly I'd have to sit down and write them all out, I don't know."

Scott Blythe, Whisky Bar, Dallas. Blythe knows his liquor. "You have to constantly refamiliarize yourself with the alcohols," he explains, "what they taste like, where they're from and so on." Working as a bartender off and on for the last 15 years and serving namesake drinks at Whisky Bar makes him something of an expert. "Scotch is easy," he claims. "I could probably rattle off 150 of them."

Stacy Sheets, Blue Mesa, Addison. Scotch, of course, reeks with tradition and lore. But tequila is a recent phenomenon. Sheets masters 40 different tequilas at Blue Mesa and shakes up one hell of a margarita, possibly the best in North Texas. He perfected his skills over 10 years of tending bar in Austin, Chicago and the Dallas area.

Phil Natale, Steel, Dallas. Both Sheets and Natale work bars based in and dominated by restaurants. "It's different because while people do come in just to drink, really the bar complements the restaurant," says Natale. "You can't let the bar detract from the people having dinner." Still, Natale excels at creating a vibrant atmosphere, greeting customers, engaging newcomers, pulling everyone into the scene. "Really you are onstage and you want to set an upbeat image," he explains. He learned bartending from his father, a restaurateur, and started serving at the tender age of 18 as a way to pay for college and remained behind the bar ever since--15 years in a temporary job. "It's easy to stay in," he points out. "It's fun, and there's the money."

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, bartenders earn a meager $6.25 an hour, median wage. That amounts to roughly $14,000 a year. But bartenders live on tips, and the top bartenders pull in between $600 and $1,500 a week. "And that's in cash," says Michael Tolley, director of operations for ShowTenders, a bartender and drink menu service based in Orlando, Florida. Few report tip earnings accurately at tax time (the average tip is 4 percent, if you believe IRS returns). "They get into bartending, start making $40,000 or $50,000, graduate, look around, and those $26,000 entry-level offers don't look so appealing," Tolley adds.

Julie Hinojosa, The Bone, Dallas. Despite the ready wads of hard cash, Hinojosa plans to retire from bartending in August when she graduates from the University of Texas-Arlington with a bachelor's in chemistry and biology. Yet she still considers her work fun after 10 years (she works the rooftop bar). "You have to enjoy it, or it shows, and people leave," she says. Her forte is high-speed visual entertainment--opening five beer bottles in rapid succession, flipping empties blindly into containers and other little amusements for the short-attention-span crowd.

Mark Trzupek, Ziziki's, Dallas. Few things are more entertaining over a short period of time than saying "Trzupek, Ziziki's" over and over, rapidly, after four or five drinks. We're pretty certain the slurred combination translates into some Russian phrase used to arrange a secret drop. It's difficult to annoy Trzupek, by the way. He smiles constantly, focuses on the customer, and pretty soon you stop blurting out Russian names for female body parts and just enjoy the evening. But creativity sets him apart from the average bartender. "What I really like is when people say, 'I want a drink that's sort of fruity and cold,' or something like that," he says. "It gives me a chance to use my talents."

Lenny, The Dubliner, Dallas. Less-experienced bartenders, and those from other cultures, often struggle to recognize subtle differences in customers--whether they prefer a drink strong or weak, whether they want to chat or not and so forth. Lenny is a relative rookie after working in a small-town pub in the old country and the Greenville Avenue equivalent for just over four years. But he knows his stuff. "You get an idea in the first few minutes what type of person is walking through the door," he says. For customers trying whiskey for the first time, he generally suggests a lowland scotch. "You have different regions," he points out. "If you go with a lowland, you'll get a light, easy drinking whiskey."

James Pintello, Sevy's Grill, Dallas. Unlike the others, Pintello works the day shift. He's also much older, a veteran of 27 years in the Navy and 13 behind a bar. Few can match his knowledge of the world. "I'm relatively intelligent, semi-literate and somewhat well-traveled," Pintello remarks. "I've seen a lot, and because of that I have a chance to read people better. It gives me an edge." There is something invigorating about sitting at a bar in the middle of the afternoon listening to stories set in old Hong Kong or recommendations for bringing out the flavor of sake. Bartenders should occasionally challenge our imaginations as well as our livers, and Pintello manages both.

Sure, there are several other great bartenders in the Dallas area--Matthew at Samba Room in Dallas and Julie at Joe's Crab Shack in Grapevine, for example. When we manage to crawl back to the office, we'll try to convince the editors to allow a follow-up article. Anyway, bartenders know it's impossible to please everybody. "You're dealing with the public, and sometimes you can't win," Green comments. "But if you can make them laugh..."


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