In this week's Dallas Observer we profile 30 of the metro area's most interesting characters, with new portraits of each from local photographer Stanton Stephens. See the entire Dallas Observer People Issue here.
When you walk into the Black Swan Saloon, a shoebox-sized bar in Deep Ellum, Gabe Sanchez doesn't ask you what you're drinking. He asks what you're up to. It's a subtle shift of semantics, but it's an effective one. He's retired the age-old chorus of "What can I get ya?" and "What are you having?" for a genuine question with an open-ended answer.
It slows down the pace, and not by accident. Sanchez has been learning how to court a crowd since his days as a VIP host in some of the biggest clubs in Las Vegas. During the day, he went to school at UNLV. At night he worked tables that could set you back $10,000 just to be near the dance floor and have your choice of mixers.
He worked the same job in Dallas, for the Ghost Bar, when it opened in 2006. At its peak, the 33rd-floor club at the W Hotel was a playground for the Dallas Cowboys and other stars, Clint Eastwood and Justin Timberlake among them. But compared with working the high-octane glitz for multiple clubs on the Strip, keeping the crowd feeling very important there was like banging out rum and Cokes. Which is how Sanchez got the idea to open the Black Swan Saloon.
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"It's not about the drinks," says Sanchez, who's 39. "It's the way you treat people that separates you in this industry."
By giving everyday customers just a fraction of the treatment he used to reserve for rock stars -- and pairing the service with affordable, expertly crafted cocktails -- he's earned a reputation as one of the most personable bartenders in Dallas. And he's not done changing the way Dallasites drink.
Back in college, his final project was to design and sell a bar concept to his classmates -- a concept he still wants to make a reality. He won't offer too many details about his plan, but he's willing to drop some hints.
"Picture a basement bar in Tokyo, in 1970," he says. "The kind of place Mick Jagger and Rod Stewart would have crashed while they were out on tour." The idea was good enough to attract investors in Vegas, but Sanchez wasn't ready to strike out on his own. Now he is. Whatever it is, we'll be there, ready to tell him about our day and wait for it to get better.