#Robert Plotkin

Embarrassment Goes With the Territory

The query for today has to do with my more memorable gaffs behind the bar. Okay, I need to say right here and now I was involved in plenty of embarrassing moments that I just no longer remember. I would venture I committed some miscue or mistake during every shift behind the bar.

Often there was someone other than me responsible for making me do something stupid and regrettable. For instance, I was bartending at El Torito on a crowded Friday night. This was the early ‘80s and business was brisk. Just to show you the mentality of management at the time, on a chaotically busy night, the managers decided to stir things up by running a drink promotion—$.99 for liter of pre-made Margaritas. How many fewer Margaritas do you think we would have sold if they were priced a buck? Right? And if they were priced at a dollar imagine how much more money we would have made in tips? Can you image the degree of drunkenness we unleashed that night?

I suppose the flashpoint for the bartenders was here we were knee deep in the weeds and getting tipped in pennies. Shiny though they may be, the pennies were taking a toll on all of our professionalism. I don’t recollect which one of us started throwing the coins back at the trashed clientele. Honestly it could have been me, but I pass on taking responsibility. The onus for the mishap with the pennies is steadfastly on the puny shoulders of management. Continue Reading

Biggest Changes in Mixology Over the Past 40 Years

A few weeks ago I celebrated the 40th anniversary of my becoming a bartender. My under-the-table employer ran a high volume college bar located just off State Street in Madison, Wisconsin, home of the University of Wisconsin. It was appropriately named University Klub. I guess spelling club with a “K” is what made it so swank.

Anyway, I started out as a bar back. I washed glassware, poured draft beers, fetched buckets of ice and cleaned off the bar top. On game nights the place was jammed to the rafters with hard drinking frat boys and draft dodgers. On non-game nights the place was just seedy and classless, and jammed to the rafters with hard drinking frat boys and draft dodgers. It was a tough place to work. Not many Martini drinkers there.

After about four months, I felt I had learned everything there was about washing glasses, pouring drafts, fetching ice and wiping down the bar top. So after memorizing a handful of recipes in Old Mr. Boston’s Drink Guide, I tendered my resignation and went looking for a real bartending job.

I was lucky. I got hired on at a medium-priced restaurant and started working with a hulking, short-tempered bartender. I spent half my time fearing the man and the rest of the time trying to stay out of his line of sight. He was, however, a fast, efficient and highly skilled bartender from whom I could learn a lot. At first I was relegated to washing glassware, pouring draft beers, fetching buckets of ice and cleaning off the bar top. Over time, though, Lurch let me start making drinks. Despite being a smart-ass neophyte, I gradually learned the ins and outs working the stick. Continue Reading

A First Time For Everything

After spending 20 years behind the bar making drinks and waiting on the imbibing public, I guess it would be safe to say that I committed every mistake that can be made by a bartender.

For example, I was recently asked about the first time a customer ordered a drink and I had no idea what it was. What a pleasure it would be to have slipped that question. The answer was either going to be embarrassing or embarrassing. Unfortunately I think I recall the exact moment when a guest ordered a drink from me and I had no clue what it was.

I was working at a popular restaurant in Madison, Wisconsin. It was the mid- to late 70s, which was well before the so-called resurgence of the cocktail, so I find little solace in that few bartenders at the time would have known how to make this drink. Continue Reading

Are Owners Their Own Worst Enemies?

By their very nature, generalities are flawed than generalities. They are breaches in logic and often hurtful to those being minimized. For example, if I said that all chefs are nuts, you’d be correct dismissing the statement as absolutely false. And while I think we all agree that most chefs are slightly mad, it’s obviously false to conclude that all chefs are therefore certifiably insane.

The same logic applies to the assertion that all bar owners and restaurateurs are their own worst enemies. Regardless how many scores of thousands of frontline employees mutter those exact sentiments on a nightly basis, the statement can’t be true because it’s a generality and prominent exceptions must exist.

It’s true this is an extraordinarily challenging, labor-intensive business. Perhaps there should be prerequisites to owning a restaurant or cocktail lounge other than just possessing the financial wherewithal to open one, but there aren’t. In my estimation what distinguishes a great restaurateur and bar owner is how they conduct themselves when the front doors are open. It basically boils down to their treating employees with the same respect and deference that they show their guests. How rare of a trait is that? Continue Reading

How it Began…

I learned how to bartend at a restaurant in Madison, Wisconsin in 1976. The man who taught me was a venerable, but scraggly bartender named Frank, who tolerated no one, especially know-it-alls like me.

Frank was one of those rare individuals who seemed to be constantly pissed off. It took a herculean effort for him to crack a grin, and even then he looked more dangerous than amused. His notion of convivial hospitality was to return the correct change.

Personality aside, Frank was an Olympic caliber bartender. For a man of his advanced years his hand speed was amazing and he was a blur when making drinks. Each cocktail he made was prepared with precision. He knew seemingly everything there was to know about the liquors and liqueurs we carried behind the bar. He never sent a drink out in a glass that wasn’t hand-buffed and spotlessly clean. His bar top was always, impeccable clean and free of debris. What Frank didn’t know about bartending wasn’t worth knowing.

Obviously I survived his tutelage; although he never seemed to warm up to me, this despite my winning personality and our tedning together for almost a year.

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