I remember several years ago interviewing Leo Robitschek, the mastermind behind the Nomad Hotel bars and formerly of the fine dining temple Eleven Madison Park, and asking him about his philosophy in creating his world class bars. I share his sentiments in that every great bar should put equal emphasis on everything they sell. Both of us have spent most of our careers plying our trade in restaurant bars, which typically offer more options to the guest than, say, a small local cocktail bar that may specialize in selling mixed drinks and little else. Nothing wrong with that.
But in a restaurant environment, by their very nature, there are more things to sell and therefore a greater pressure to have a greater knowledge about all those items. It’s a lot to absorb and I get that this ‘fine dining’ world is not for everybody, even though I would encourage any young bartender to always seek out working in such venues, as your product knowledge and nuances of service will become far more advanced and finely tuned.
One thing that did strike me about his approach was to look at every category of items that he sold and try to serve each item as if that was the only thing he sold. His owners at the time tasked him with creating cocktails that were “at the same level as Milk & Honey”, the tiny speakeasy that was renowned for their refined, simple and finely crafted classic cocktails that were known around the world. Keeping in mind that almost no restaurant bars were looking at their cocktail programs in this way like he was.
Take as another example, coffee and tea service. Many restaurants and especially bars that serve either often don’t put much time or effort into thinking about serving them in a professional, unique or thoughtful manner. Why not? If you sell it, then why not serve it in the best way that you can? Now I understand that if you work in a dive bar that happens to have coffee then serving it with petit fours and a gold spoon would look ridiculous but hopefully you get my point. Make the right choices for your concept and clientele.
The overriding philosophy here is to be thoughtful in everything you do. For everything that you serve, serve that item as if it’s the ONLY thing you sell; as if it’s your speciality.
“If I serve, say, a mezcal, then I want to present it in a way that perhaps looks to a traditional serve as they might do in Oaxaca with the a side of orange slices and sal de gusano. And while it may seem passé to serve tequila with lime and salt, that is actually how it is served in many Mexican cantinas so who am I to argue with that?”
Serve tea as if you’re a tea house. Serve beer at the right temperature and in the right glassware etc etc. The world’s best bars dissect everything they do on a daily basis (at least I do) and always look at ways to improve, evolve, adapt and innovate.
They also have very exacting standards that set them apart and at Dante as an example, we had an entire section in our ‘Bar Bible’ dedicated to what we called ‘perfect serves’. These service rituals I took great pride in and the guests always noticed and appreciated the gesture. Nothing is left idle in this pursuit of excellence and your customers will always leave knowing that you take every part of your bar operation seriously. It doesn’t have to be expensive serviceware either. Just buy the best that you can afford.
These perfect serves would outline (with photos) how the staff should serve everything from a glass of water (seriously) to a cup of tea, to a gin & tonic, to a Martini to a shot of mezcal to a glass of ice. It’s only under such a strict and disciplined system can you know that your staff are going to adhere to such high levels of service and make every drink consistently. And consistency is the cornerstone of any great, successful bar.
If I serve, say, a mezcal, then I want to present it in a way that perhaps looks to a traditional serve as they might do in Oaxaca with the a side of orange slices and sal de gusano. And while it may seem passé to serve tequila with lime and salt, that is actually how it is served in many Mexican cantinas so who am I to argue with that? The thing I find gratifying about this is that is also requires a lot of research and study to a) find out how certain drinks are served in their homelands and b) look at ways to innovate on that serve to make it different than other bars in your city. It crosses tradition with a modern approach and I’m all about that.