Archive for the ‘Barroom Flashbacks’ Category

The Best Irish Bartender I Ever Did See

Thursday, March 17th, 2016

T HumphreysOne of the best bartenders I ever met worked at a pub by the name of T. Humphreys in Dublin. I knew him only as Sonny, and he passed away many years ago, so I’m afraid you’ll not get the chance to meet the man. I’m hoping that he’ll live on through reputation, though, because Sonny pulled one of the classiest moves I’ve ever witnessed in a bar, and thereby hangs a tale.

In September, 1973, when I was just 22 years old, I decided to move from Lancashire, England, to New York City. My first marriage had just gone sour, my ex and I had sold a house and a small restaurant that we’d built from scratch, so I had a few quid in my pocket, and Dave Ridings, a friend of mine from Lancashire, had been living in the Big Apple for about five years at that point. I called to tell him to expect me, and he told me to hold on. “I’m about to have a week in Dublin with some friends,” he told me. “Wanna come with me then we’ll fly back to New York together?” It sounded like a plan.

Shortly after that phone call I was in Dublin with Ridings—he liked to go by his last name most of the time—and we stayed with an Irishman by the name of Owen who had been Ridings’ roommate in New York for a while. It was a boozy sort of a trip. The three of us were all bartenders, and hey, it was a vacation, after all. Each night we hit a different bar, or a few different bars, but every night we started out by having at least one pint of Guinness at T. Humphreys.

The locals referred to the pub as Thumphreys, by the way, with the “Th” being pronounced as in “Thistle.”

It took quite some time to get a pint of Guinness at T. Humphreys, since was a perfectionist when he pulled a pint. As is the way with all good Irish bartenders, he’d fill the glass, place it on the backbar until it settled, and he’d top it up at least three or four times, letting the stout settle each and every time, until he deemed it fit for consumption. We’d often order our second pint as soon as we got our first.

Sonny was a quiet man. He made us feel welcome every time we set foot into the pub, but he was a man of very few words. I never saw him have a real conversation with anyone at the bar, but he was loved by everyone who met him.   He was loved, and he was respected. You always knew who was in charge at T. Humphreys. Sonny was in charge.

A wiry little man was Sonny, too. Thin as a stick, as they say. And he dressed in traditional Irish barman fashion, wearing a long white apron, white shirt, thin black tie, and a very smart black waistcoat. He looked every inch the professional barman.

It’s important to keep in mind that all this went down during a very tough time vis a vis English/Irish relationships. It was the height of the Troubles in Northern Ireland. Nevertheless, Ridings and I were welcomed heartily by everyone in Dublin during that trip. I guess that my Irish surname might have helped a little, but when it comes down to it, the Irish and the English get along very well indeed in social circumstances, and that’s what pubs are all about, right?

When I say that we were welcomed by everyone on that trip, I mean everyone except for two young guys who tried to pick a fight with Ridings and me one early evening at T. Humphries. They stood behind us making derogatory remarks about the country of our birth, hoping to goad us into a fight. This was worrisome to me on two levels. Level one: I’m a devout coward. Level two: Ridings was a fighter. Ridings was eyeing me, I was eying Ridings, and we were both waiting to see what would happen next. Ridings was ready to fight. I was ready to run!

What happened next was that Sonny stopped serving. Regulars at the bar were shouting orders to him, but he ignored one and all. He stood behind the bar staring at the two guys who were trying to pick a fight with us. One by one, every single customer at the bar turned to see what Sonny was staring at, and not more than two minutes went by before all eyes in the pub were focused on the two potential troublemakers. They felt the power of all those eyes, finished their pints in double-fast fashion, and they disappeared into the night.

Sonny went back to pulling pints, conversation resumed among the regulars, Ridings and I ordered another round, and T. Humphreys went back to being the fabulous neighbourhood pub that it was (and still is, I’m told). Not a word was spoken about the “incident,” and indeed, Sonny had stopped it from becoming an incident at all.  He had handled a potentially volatile situation without saying one word. That’s what I call a fabulous bartender.

Fabulous bartenders use intuition to figure out what’s going down in their bar, and they react to tricky situations in such a way as to guide them toward the best possible outcome. Some bartenders might have confronted the guys who were trying to make trouble, some bartenders could have advised Ridings and me to leave, but Sonny did neither. Sonny just stopped serving and stared at the people who were threatening to disturb the peace in his bar.

Sonny, as I said, left us for that long stretch of mahogany in the sky quite some time ago, and Ridings is up there with him now—he died in 2000. I’m pretty sure that Sonny pulled Ridings his first pint when he got to heaven. Hope they’re both there to greet me when my time comes.

with lotsa love from gaz regan sig

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A Somewhat Awkward Situation

Friday, October 17th, 2014

Circa 1975, I’m behind the bar at Drake’s Drum on 2nd Avenue between 84th and 85th street, New York Fuckin’ City.  It’s mid-week, around 2 o’clock in the am. IMG_0050 A transvestite walks in.  He’s huge.  Around six-foot-three or four.  And he’s all muscle.  Rippling with ’em, he is.  He minces to the bar and asks, with  pronounced lisp, “Where’s the little girl’s room, please?”

“Down there on the right,” I tell him, and he makes his way toward the bathrooms.

“Gary!  That was a man!” one of my regular tells me.

“You go tell him he’s a man,” I say.  “He might get upset.

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Barroom Flashback: World Cup Soccer Semi-Finals, 1990

Wednesday, July 9th, 2014

A Lesson in Sports

In 1990 I was a manager at The North Star Pub in Manhattan’s South Street Seaport.  It was probably the best job I ever had in the industry.  I worked alongside Deven Black, the GM, who taught me more about marketing than anyone else on the planet, and my great mate, Stuffy Shmitt, tended bar there, too.NorthStarPub[1]

The North Star was as authentic a British pub as it’s possible to create in the States, due to Deven’s attention to detail.  We served no American beer–just British, Irish, and Australian beers on tap, and in bottles–we had a collection of around 100 single malt scotches, and the menu was packed with authentic British food–pork pies, sausage and mash, fish and chips, etc (the pies and sausages coming from the very best British grocer/butcher in Manhattan, Myers of Keswick).

I’m not a sports fan in any way, shape or form.  I find sports to be boring, boring, boring.  But when a party of four German tourists walked into the pub to watch the World Cup Semi-Final match between England and Germany on that fateful day in 1990, and when they placed small German flag, attached to a pedestal, on the bar, soccer suddenly seemed just a little more interesting to me.

I ran across the street to Pier 19 where there was a shop that sold flags of all nations, and bought myself a Union Jack on a pedestal, similar to the German flag on the bar at the pub.  I sat next to the Germans, slapped my flag on the bar, and battle commenced.

The German tourists comprised an older couple–probably in their late 50s–and a younger couple who I presumed to be their son and daughter-in-law, or daughter and son-in-law.  The younger couple spoke English, the older couple did not.

german flagbrit flag

The match between Germany and England that year, which we were showing on the TV at the pub, of course, was just about as exciting a match as has ever been played, and it has gone down in history as being one or the greatest World Cup matches ever.  As goal after goal was scored by both sides, the German tourists and I cheered and frowned appropriately, and we all enjoyed some very good-natured rivalry that afternoon.

The score was a draw–3-3–when the match came to an end, so the game had to be decided on penalties.  Germany won.  I was devastated.  The older German man, who was sitting next to me at the bar, turned to me, smiled, and offered me his hand.  I returned his smile, shook his hand, and a bond was made.

Then I noticed a mischievous look in my new friend’s eyes.  He pointed at my Union Jack on the bar, smiled, and then he pointed to himself.  Could he have the flag?, he was asking.  I gave him the flag, and the two couples thanked me kindly, paid their bar bill, and left the pub.  Suddenly sports made a little more sense to me.  It’s about rivalry, and it’s about comradery.  All packaged together in one very tight ball.

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It’s Steak and Kidney Pie Day at The North Star Pub

Sunday, April 8th, 2012

(excerpted from the bartender’s GIN compendium.)

I worked at the North Star Pub in New York’s South Street Seaport for almost exactly four years, starting in February, 1988.  They were four of my favorite years in the business, though I seldom worked behind the bar there—I was a manager-type at the time.

The North Star was as English as a pub could be, given that it was over 3,000 miles away from the Green and Pleasant Land, and it was Deven Black, the General Manager of the joint, who had made it that way.  He refused to stock American beer, he boasted a collection of almost 100 single malt scotches, and since the pub catered to Anglophiles and transplanted Brits, he stocked lots of gins, too,  Bombay and Bombay Sapphire among them.  And whenever I think of these gins, I’m reminded of a guy we called Frank the Bank—a Bombay gin man through and through.

The picture above is of Quentin Crisp, a man who I am proud to say was a friend of mine, a Pearly Queen who entertained us when we held events at the North Star, and myself, circa 1990

The food at the North Star was also unequivocally British.  We served authentic Bangers and Mash (the sausages were made by Peter Myers, a Brit in the Village who owned a grocery store called Myers of Keswick), and we also offered Shepherd’s Pie and Fish and Chips and the like.  Steak and Kidney Pie, though, was not on our menu—it’s a hard sell in New York—but we offered it as a special from time to time, and quite a few of our regulars, lots of them were Brits who emigrated to New York to take jobs on Wall Street, ordered it every time we chalked it up on the blackboard.

Here we see a few of the regulars at the North Star on St. George’s Day, 1990—we made everyone wear the newspaper hats, and gave them all pretty line drawings of St. George slaying the dragon, and crayons with which to color them.

One of the regulars, a Canadian guy who worked at The Royal Bank of Scotland, handed me his business card one day, and asked me to call him next time we served Steak and Kidney Pie.  This made me ponder, and it wasn’t long before I started to compile “The Steak and Kidney Pie List.”  Every time the chef decided to feature the dish I’d get on the phone and call around twenty people whose numbers I’d gathered after seeing them order this British specialty.  Most of the people on the list were high-level bankers and the like, so it was seldom that they actually picked up the phone.

“Tell him it’s Steak and Kidney Pie Day.” I’d instruct whoever answered the call.

“I beg your pardon?”

“He’ll know what you mean,” I’d say before hanging up and dialing the next number.

The ploy worked quite well.  Not everyone on the list would show up every time I called, but we’d see, perhaps, a dozen Steak and Kidney Pie fans walk through the door on the days when we featured the dish.  One day, though, this brilliant marketing scheme very nearly backfired.

Frank the Bank, as he was known, was a true Brit.  He was a very successful banker who had come up from being a street kid in London.  Frank the Bank had a keen sense of humor, everyone loved the man, and he was a huge fan of Steak and Kidney Pie.  Frank called me over to his table one day as he was scarfing his lunch, and he told me what had gone down at work that morning after I’d spoken to his assistant.

“I was in a meeting with my ‘boss of all bosses,’ a guy from headquarters in London.  I’d told my assistant that I wasn’t to be disturbed under any circumstances, but she walked into the meeting anyway, and she shoved a note into my hand.  I opened it up and read the words ‘It’s Steak and Kidney Pie Day.’  She thought it was a code for some potentially important banking thing,” Frank told me.

“What did you do?” I asked.

“Well, I love my assistant, and I didn’t want to get her into trouble so I looked my boss dead in the eye and told him that I had to leave immediately.  I didn’t explain a thing.  I left him thinking that something incredibly important personal thing must have cropped up, because otherwise there was no way I would have dared to leave him like that.  Then I came down here for my Steak and Kidney Pie,” he grinned.

You’ve got to love a guy like Frank the Bank, right?

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Bloody Marys with Dave Wondrich, Harry’s New York Bar, 2005

Thursday, January 12th, 2012

This piece was written for the Museum of the American Cocktail’s web site in 2005, and it marks the occasion on which I first discovered that Dave Wondrich is such a cheap bastard.  Don’t get me wrong, though.  I love Wondrich like a brother, and I find that time spent with him is time that’s very well spent indeed.  And the fact that he’s so damned cheap gives me, well, it gives me something to rag him about.  And because I’m so very, very generous, I even allow Dave gets to weigh in on the subject at the end of this piece.

Bloody Marys with Wondrich, Harry’s New York Bar, 2005

I’m sure that Gilles, the bartender who served Dave Wondrich and me during a recent visit to the birthplace of the Bloody Mary, makes wonderful mixtures of vodka, tomato juice, lemon juice, and various sauces and spices, but I’ll probably never know for sure.  Not a fan of the drink, personally. Wondrich neither. We opted for Sidecars instead. The drink was, after all, invented in the City of Lights, though nobody seems to know exactly where. At least we knew what we were doing–more than can be said of the two women from Boston who sat at the bar drinking Bellinis believing they were in the birthplace of that wonderful drink. No doubt there were people in Harry’s Bar, Venice, sipping Bloody Marys, too . . .

Originally we’d planned to seek out the best Sidecar in Paris–a somewhat formidable task–but time was tight. We were leaving to tour cognac distilleries the following morning, so we sampled the cocktail in only two bars–the Hemmingway Bar at the Paris Ritz was the venue for our second round, or should I say third, forth, and fifth rounds. Two drinks each at Harry’s, and another three, or maybe four, made by Colin Fields’ marvelous staff at the Ritz. (Colin Fields, the head barman at the Paris Ritz, was a guy I’d known only by e-mail until that evening. I was happy to discover that my suspicions were correct–he’s one helluva great guy, and a wonderful bartender, too.)

Personally I’d planned to take it easy, but that Wondrich guy shot down his first cocktail at Harry’s as though he’d been stranded on the Alps for three weeks and a St. Bernard had just arrived. I couldn’t let the lad drink his second quaff alone, now, could I? By the time we got to the Ritz we had food in our stomachs, it was late in the evening, and we didn’t want to offend the staff by having only one drink after we’d traveled so far to be in such an illustrious bar. Besides, we were on a cognac trip, and someone else was picking up the tab, so what the hey . . .

Wondrich and I tend to be pretty much whiskey freaks–he’s a straight rye man whereas I usually favor bourbon–so although neither of us goes so far as to avoid cognac, this trip provided a great opportunity for us both to focus our attention on the spirit of the grape, rather than the grain. Very interesting it was, too. The French distillers really know what they’re doing.

I searched my cocktail database when I arrived home from the trip, and found lots of very distinguished cocktail recipes with a cognac base. The Betsy Ross, Between the Sheets, and the Brandy Alexander, of course–stop rolling your eyes, it’s a great drink if you don’t kill it with too much crème de cacao. Café Brûlot is an incredible drink, too, and if you ever find yourself at Commander’s Palace in the Big Easy (while visiting the museum, naturally), don’t leave without sampling their version. They serve the quintessential Café Brûlot.

Even the Sazerac, one of God’s greatest gifts to us mortal imbibers, originally contained cognac, but the base spirit was changed to straight rye whiskey at some point toward the end of the 1800s, perhaps a result of a shortage of cognac due to the phylloxera epidemic that decimated the vineyards of France around the same time. And then there’s the Stinger, yet another wonderful, if simple, cocktail, that sips very well indeed if it’s made with good cognac and just a touch of white crème de menthe.

Sipping Sidecars, Side by Side
The Sidecar, though, remains my favorite cognac-based cocktail, and the versions we sipped at Harry’s New York Bar in Paris that day slid down our throats easily, releasing a beautiful late afternoon glow that lasted throughout our trip to France–the people in the cognac industry were eager for us to sample as many bottlings as possible, and we were eager to please them. They were, after all, footing the bill.

And speaking of footing the bill, I feel it necessary to point out that Wondrich never did dip his hand into his pocket at Harry’s. “I’ll get these,” I told him, expecting at least a little protestation, but no, Dave thanked me kindly, and reminded me to tip large. We were, after all, representing cocktailians from the U. S. of A. I’ll be seeing the lad again, though, and I’ll be sure to make my way to the men’s room when the tab is presented next time. It’s an art I’ve more or less perfected over the years.

Meanwhile, if you haven’t had yourself a Sidecar recently, mix one up right now, and make sure you use lots of good cognac–the cocktail will be sublime, and the guys in France will be able to bring more thirsty cocktail writers to their wonderful country. Once they’ve recovered from our trip.

Words from Wondrich

Please allow me to clear up one small point. No, I did not make a counter-offer when Mr. Regan offered to buy the drinks at Harry’s Bar. As those who know me will attest, I have NEVER bought a round of drinks in my life, nor, as long as my sinews remain strong and my nerves swift, SHALL I EVER do so in the future.

Nor do I purchase drams or mixed drinks for myself in public houses or keep any sort of spirituous or otherwise alcoholic beverage in my home. Drinking alcoholic beverages is a low, base and therefore disgusting habit, and I do not wish to subsidize those who seek to extend its sway. However, since I have been blessed by nature with an unusual capacity to absorb such beverages without outward marks or inward effects of intoxication, when I find myself in the company of some poor, benighted soul who is hell-bent on self-destruction through liquid ingestion, I consider it my moral and Christian duty to divert as many of that sad sinner’s financial resources as I can from their devilish uses.

Indeed, I sacrifice myself that he or she may live: every drink a lost lamb such as Gary Regan cannot buy himself because he has spent the money it would cost on me is one less mark against his name in the Great Book of Judgment.

I’m glad we’ve got that straight.

And Gilles certainly does make a fine, fine Sidecar. Comes in these nice little glasses, and he holds the shaker just like Old Harry MacElhone used to in the old pictures.

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