Bar Keep: How a Bar Becomes Your Own

The staff of Esquire put away plenty of drinks at the bar in the San Domenico--and the bartender became their (somewhat) silent partner.
Magazine Contributor
Articles Editor, GQ magazine
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This story appears in the July 2011 issue of . Subscribe »

All of us at Esquire used to drink at this bar a few years back. It was the key-shaped, '80s-era, marble bar at San Domenico, an Italian restaurant just off New York City's Columbus Circle on Central Park South. It was the closest and best bar anywhere near the office. We'd go there, we'd drink, we'd moan about work. The man who served us was Renato, San Domenico's head bartender. We decided he was the best bartender who ever lived. Two reasons: No one has ever worn a better-tailored double-breasted red jacket, and our glasses were never empty. Which is not a metaphor. Our glasses were literally never empty. We would turn around to look out the window and turn back around to find our drinks heavier. Renato was stealthy to the point of shifty. It was beautiful. So, we drank there a lot. San Domenico was our place.

A place is a useful thing to have. For all of the obvious reasons: camaraderie, joy, etc. But also because having a place pays off when you meet there for business. We had many meetings at San Domenico. It was where we preferred to have meetings. Because having a place in which you are enthusiastically greeted and served indicates to the person you're meeting with that you have done something right over a long period of time. It means you are important somehow. It means you're probably trustworthy and you're definitely consistent. (Also, potentially locatable: If you were to try and pull something, this is where you might be found.) The crucial thing: What seemed to be a neutral territory when you proposed the meeting isn't a neutral territory at all. It's your place--which amounts to leverage. A place is very useful. It's a satellite office, really.

There are ways to get a place. You have to acquire it. You have to hang onto it. You have to employ it. Another crucial thing: Your relationship with the bartender is the spindle upon which the whole thing revolves.

The Place, Literally
The bar can be no more than five minutes away from where you do your business or where you live. Otherwise you won't go frequently enough to establish a rhythm. And consistency is everything. If after drinking there for the first time you decide this could be your place, you have to go back once within the next five days. And then at least twice a week thereafter. (No one said this was going to be easy.)

The bar should have a name that you're not embarrassed to say out loud. Bars with names that are plural forms of common nouns are not desirable: For example, Meet me at Whispers? is not an invitation that can be taken seriously--by a business associate or anyone else.

The place needs to have a placeness. A patina. (A real patina. Not the patina of, say, a Chili's.) A little wear suggests that the place has been around for a while and will probably stick around for a while. (Related, tragic note that undermines this entire essay: The patinated San Domenico ended up closing a couple of years ago. No one could have expected such a development. It moved to a different location 30 blocks south and now calls itself SD26. It's still a good place. Just not close enough.)

The Bartender
The bartender should be a full-time employee, and almost always there. And the bartender should be a bartender. Tending bar should be his career. If after your fifth visit the bartender isn't asking you if you want the usual or just serving it to you, you have not found your place.

The bartender should buy you a drink every once in a while. He just should. If that's not happening, even if everything else is going smoothly, you don't have a place.

Also, aloofness is underrated. The best bartenders are vaguely disinterested. Renato, for instance. Great smile. Funny even. Not exactly chatty though. Bartenders who aren't all that communicative seem to be better at keeping your glass full.

It's important to start things off the right way. Considering it has the promise of being the first drink of many, your drink order should be something that may be prepared and more or less served between the time the bartender sees you walk in and the time you sit down. (This drink will be your drink from here on out. It should be chosen wisely. A beer. Or liquor in a glass. Cocktails are discouraged.)

The key is to not talk loud to the bartender, other people, yourself. And no oversharing. The bartender isn't your confidante or your therapist. Or even your friend. Or any of the people they pretend to be to get you to tip them.

Ask yourself: "Might I be the kind of person who gets denigrated to other patrons by the bartender right after I exit the bar?" If the answer is either yes or maybe, you will never have a place.

If you are particularly well-behaved, the bartender might shake your hand. If you get the handshake, be skeptical. And, until you've collected more information, remain skeptical. There are two kinds of bartender handshakes. There's the handshake that is meant to promote or reward tipping. And there's the handshake that means you have made my shift more pleasant, thank you. Since there is virtually no way to distinguish between them, the handshake is not a reliable barometer of anything, including whether or not you have found your place.

Looking the bartender in the eyes when you order helps with the relationship. Like, directly in the eyes. A lot of people don't do that.

Some people don't say "Thanks" either.

Speaking of other people: With any bar, there are people that have been considering the place their place for years before you started going there. At San Domenico, there was this guy who was there almost every night. He lived in the condo tower above the bar. He couldn't stand us. We didn't really like him either. It was a kind of mutual jungle impulse. But animosity from other patrons is no reason to move on. You just need to make sure the bartender likes you more. That's your goal--as delusional as it may be. Because if you invite business associates into a scene in which you are the most important person--a title silently bestowed upon you by the bartender and the bartender only--they will know it. Everyone will.

The Meeting
Assuming all of the above is working in your favor, assuming the bar has become your place, then any meeting you have there will probably work itself out. It's helpful if it happens early, so you have a chance to sit or stand where you'd like. It's helpful if you don't drink too much before the other person gets there. Other than that, there's nothing more to do than drink the drink that you didn't have to order, poured by someone who doesn't mind having you around, all while sitting in a room that seems as familiar as your office.

Speaking of, if anyone knows a place...


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