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News and Features
11.04.09

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Phaedra

Photograph by Dina Scoppettone
Never Surprised: From left: Michael Roberts, Lisa Norelli and Chris Kelly, seasoned bartenders and expert human behaviorists.

The Secret Life of Bartenders

They hear it all.
They see it all.
If you catch them just right, they'll tell it all.

Interviews by Rula al-Nasrawi, Curtis Cartier, Brian Harker, Traci Hukill, Jessica Lussenhop and Austin Sardella


TO thirsty patrons, a bartender is a hero with a thousand faces: analyst, confessor, entertainer, clown, crush, captive audience, authority figure, giver of all good things, withholder of same, fount of wisdom or trivia--even friend, for all we know (and hope). When we walk in the door and perch on that bar stool, we see someone with godlike powers to make us happy. Someone wise. Someone who's got it all together.

So how's the view from the other side of the bar? Well, let's just say the entire spectrum of human behavior is on display in all its glorious abundance. The bartender who's surprised is the bartender who's new. A person can't help but learn a thing or two about human nature from watching this spectacle on a full-time basis. In fact, bartenders may be the most reliable anthropologists working today. We convinced a half-dozen of them to share their wisdom with us.

Name: Cory Atkinson
Bartender at: Blue Lagoon
SANTA CRUZ WEEKLY: What sets the Blue apart from other clubs? Why do people come to the Blue Lagoon?
CORY ATKINSON: The same reason some people don't come: the diversity. On any given night you might have a bling'd-out hip-hop dude standing next to a hot transvestite who is standing next to a charged-out punk who happens to be standing next to the kid with the fixie bike locked up outside. But it's not just that. Each night the music content is different. On Friday we play metal and punk rock, Saturday hip-hop with local DJs, on Sunday it's goth or industrial music, Monday it's rock & roll or indie. Thursday is '80s night, and that's one of our most popular nights. So we have different crowds every night.

I go to all the bars, and I have friends at all of them. It's easier for some people to say that something like the Red is your favorite, because the Red is the Red--you go on Thursday and it's exactly the same as it was on Tuesday. People have to figure out what it is that they want and we'll provide it, but it depends on when they show up. People will come in on Friday and say, "Where's the hip-hop? Where's the DJ?" And it's like, well, you're early.

Who's your favorite musical act you've seen at the Blue?
We have hosted some great bands over the last few months. National touring acts such as the Black Lips, Riverboat Gamblers and the Dickies have all found their way to the Blue Lagoon. From our great local scene we have had everyone from the Chop Tops (rockabilly) to Teraton (metal) to Slop Opera (hip-hop).

What's your favorite drink? What do people usually order?
My favorite drink--I like chilled drinks--is anything from a Washington Apple to a Kamikaze--that's vodka, triple sec and lime juice. That's the base for a lot of drinks. If you add cranberry, that's a Cosmopolitan, but if you add Chambord you get a Purple Hooter. A lot of people want something basic, so I don't stray too far. People usually want something strong that doesn't taste strong--that's where fruit juice comes in--so people usually like a Cosmopolitan.

What's the craziest thing you've seen happen at the Blue?
We used to do Flaming Dr. Peppers--a lot of bars still do this. You light a shot on fire and drop it in a Dr. Pepper and the alcohol keeps burning. It's more of a show drink, with the fire and everything. But a lot of people, a little tipsy, you know, they spill the fire all over their arm. A guy spilled a shot over the whole bar once and we had to pat it down with towels. That was the last straw.

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Photograph by Dina Scoppettone
Just Dandy: Nick Gyorkos, bartender at Crepe Place, considers dancing on the bar to be bad form. But he's happy to make you a pina colada.

Name: Nick Gyorkos
Bartender at: The Crepe Place
SCW: What are some bar behavior dos and don'ts?
NICK GYORKOS: Don't order your drink over other people while the bartender is making a bunch of other drinks and the bar is like four deep. Always tip your bartender, and if you think you know what you want, know what you want.

To keep ourselves in your high esteem, what drink should we never order?
I think there shouldn't be a drink that you shouldn't order. At a good bar with a good bartender you should be able to order whatever you want.

What, in your opinion, is the smoothest way to pick up a girl or guy who's sitting at the bar?
With both hands.

What are some unconscious cues patrons give that tell you something?
They put down an empty glass if they want another drink, usually.

What's the most unbelievable thing you ever saw happen at work?
I saw a lady who was maybe on drugs throw herself on the ground in front of the police and make them call the fire department to have her forcibly removed.

What's the most important thing you've learned from your job?
Try to be nice to everybody all the time.

Are we ever your friends, or just customers?
Almost always both.

Is dancing on the bar ever acceptable?
Not while I'm there.

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Photograph by Dina Scoppettone
Kelly Grin: Chris Kelly has seen a lot in 14 years at the Poet & Patriot. He's still adding it all up.

Name: Chris Kelly
Bartender at: Poet & Patriot
Years worked there: 14
SCW: What, in your opinion, is the smoothest way to pick up a girl who's sitting at the bar? What about the smoothest way to pick up a guy?
CHRIS KELLY: It's all about eye contact. Don't be forceful. For girls though, they seem to have a better time being forceful.

What is the wiliest way to get out of a bar fight without looking like a pussy?
I think letting the bartender know what's going on is the best way. In the end, the bartender is responsible for whatever's going on. So just tell me, that way I can go get a bouncer. The worst thing you can do is leave the pub with someone to go fight. I've gotten clocked a few times doing that.

What kinds of things should a person confide to a bartender, and which should you keep to yourself?
Never tell a bartender that you're drunk. We get a lot of kids that come in here and go, "Oh man, I'm so drunk!" That's like an alarm going off saying don't serve me. But always remember if you're going to come in and talk to the bartender, your conversation is open season for the rest of the bar.

Are we ever your friends, or just customers? How can we tell the difference?
People all the time will come in and think they're your friend, but in reality they're just a customer. You might think I'm your big buddy, but it's my job to make you feel welcome, and at the end of the day I go home to my apartment. But still, over the years I've met some great friends working here--people I hope to know for the rest of my life. The Poet is a unique bar, and in this setting we have a lot of regulars, and there have been plenty of people who start off as customers, but end up as friends. It just takes time.

What are some bar behavior dos and don'ts?
I'd say common sense. That will really help you get far with a bartender. Politeness. Say "hello," don't wave money, don't whistle. If it's busy don't call me over if you don't know what you want. And ultimately, just don't piss off the bartender. In this world we have a lot of power, we can make your night great or terrible.

What's the most unbelievable thing you ever saw happen at work?
We had a guy put his body through our front window. He took a swing at a random customer and we finally got him out and we got the door shut and he came and put his body through the window to try and get at us. Then he called the next day asking why we put him through a window!

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Photograph by Dina Scoppettone
To All the Single Ladies: Aaron Kirks, 15-year veteran of Margaritaville, has words of wisdom for the dames: don't get sloppy on the first date.

Name: Aaron Kirks
Bartender at: Margaritaville
Years worked there: 15
SCW: Which drink should we never order?
AARON KIRKS: Mojitos. Mojitos are the worst thing to order from a bartender. If they're busy, never order a mojito, they're a pain.

So bartenders are professional flirts, right?
Definitely.

How can we tell if you really like us? How can customers tell the difference?
They can't. That's the point.

What should girls avoid on a first date?
Just being way too drunk. If you're trying to make an impression, definitely ease up on the alcohol, if that's what you're looking for, if you're in it for the long haul.

Do you like giving people advice?
Sometimes. It depends. If it's a random person trying to vent to me or whatever, I'll offer a little advice, but I try not to get into it. Sometimes people bring a bad vibe, they'll spoil the vibe and customers will get up and leave. Actually, a guy came in here, was having problems with his wife and I had advice. I had just been through a breakup and I offered him some words of encouragement. He was a cool guy, he was pretty happy afterwards.

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Photograph by Dina Scoppettone
All-Seeing: Lisa Norelli wants customers to know that she can see them out of the corner of her eye and hear them just fine, thank you very much.

Name: Lisa Norelli
Bartender at: Moe's Alley
Years worked there: Three
SCW: What, in your opinion, is the smoothest way to pick up a girl who's sitting at the bar?
LISA NORELLI: I'd say buy her a drink. That's so typical, but it is a polite way to have an in rather than just walk up.

What about the smoothest way to pick up a guy?
Oh, that's easy! When you're in a bar, that's what guys are there for!

To keep ourselves in your high esteem, what drink should we never order?
Oh, God, anything blended. Or a Bloody Mary. Bloody Mary's almost worse. It's inappropriate to order on a busy night. We make all of them from scratch, so if you order one we have to bring out about 10 ingredients--Worcestershire, Tabasco, tomato juice, all the other spices. If it's not busy I don't mind. If it's busy it's the worst thing. Just get a shot and a beer!

What kinds of things should a person confide in a bartender, and which should you keep to yourself?
They should know that just because we're bartenders doesn't mean they can tell us whatever, because when you work in this industry you gossip a lot. I'd be lying if I said we don't talk about our customers. It's probably not gonna stay a secret if you tell it to a bartender! I mean, if it's something really important, like you're having big money problems, I won't talk about that. But if you're gonna tell me a really inappropriate story about something you did over the weekend, I'm totally gonna share it with my co-workers.

What are some bar behavior dos and don'ts?
Oh gosh, don't wave your arm to get my attention or snap your fingers. It's good for people to know that we see everybody. You think we're not looking; we are. That's what bartending is--seeing out of the corner of your eye and multitasking.

What's the most unbelievable thing you ever saw happen at work?
I recently broke up a chick fight. I had to jump over the bar and grab this girl and hold her while the other bartender got the other girl. Lots of hair involved, their hands were tangled in each other's hair.

What's the most important thing you've learned from your job?
I guess how to deal with stress and kind of keep my wits about me. It's a great skill to be able to multitask. It's gotten to where I have to have that stress. I feed off it.

You flirt for a living. How can we tell the difference?
For me I just flirt with everybody, cause that's what you have to do. So you should just assume I'm not, because I'm working. And maybe we can talk another time.

Name: Shane Peterson
Bartender at: Crow's Nest
Years worked there: Six
SCW: What's the best way to pick up somebody at the bar?
SHANE PETERSON: Sending drinks over and stuff is kind of cheesy, but it depends on the situation. It helps if you have the bartender working on your side, and he kind of smooths things over, says something like, "This is from the gentleman over there." You always have to work with the bartender.

How do you get the bartender on your side?
(Laughing) Tipping well! We always keep track of who tips well, our high rollers take care of us, we always take care of them first. But just being reasonable. People can be kind of demanding in this business.

What drink should we never order?
Bartenders hate blended drinks. Anything blended with more than five ingredients. If you don't know what's in it, you shouldn't order it.

What kind of a drink gets us instant cred with you?
We always like the simple bourbon drinkers, beer drinkers. We like people to want to drink. Lemon drops and stuff, we're like, "Great," but that's OK because it's a pain to make, but they're also an expensive drink. One- or two-ingredient cocktails are great.

Has being a bartender given you any special insight into the human condition?
Definitely. I think bartending has shown me the dark side of drinking, to the point where I actually avoid bars. And everyone comes to the bartender looking for advice. We're not always there to fix your problems. One guy came in asking me about his sexuality, he was confused about his sexuality, and I was like, "That's your business, I can't help you with that."

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Photograph by Dina Scoppettone
Platform Soul: Michael Roberts thinks dancing on the bar is just fine, though he himself does it only rarely.

Name: Michael Roberts
Bartender at: Dream Inn (first the pool bar, now Aquarius)
Years worked there: Two
SCW: What is the smoothest way to pick up a girl sitting at the bar? A guy?
MICHAEL ROBERTS: The smoothest way to pick up a girl is to be yourself and be funny and no pressure. With guys just smile and let him know you're interested and you're home free. Don't be scary crazy (laughing). We are so easy!

What are some bar behavior dos and don'ts?
No cell phone conversation. Do respect your bartender, tip well and behave. And patience is a virtue.

Most unbelievable thing you ever saw happen at work?
Someone pooped in the swimming pool when I worked as a pool bartender. She just walked out of there nonchalantly and there it was! We cleaned it because we're full service (laughs).

What kinds of things should a person not confide in a bartender?
Everything's confidential for the most part. I don't want to hear somebody telling me lurid, strange tales because I'm going to move to the end of the bar. You gracefully walk around it and change the subject.

Is dancing on the bar ever acceptable?
Absolutely. I have before but it was very brief. That's more of a chick thing.

From what you've seen at the bar, what's the best way to defuse a bad date?
To ask for the check and pay it. I mean not abruptly! You kinda have to suffer through it. I guess the best way is to offer to pay the check.

Most important thing you've ever learned from your job?
Just stay calm because panicking just messes up your timing.


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