So truth is a narrative, right? Especially when telling stories. And all narratives are inherently fiction. I like the dialogue between fact and story, and it’s been a real trip trying to deconstruct memory and reconfigure it into a coherent tale. That’s probably what I’ll be doing the next few posts.
I have been thinking a lot about what constitutes good service in a restaurant or bar, or even anywhere for that matter. Good service is exceeding the expectations a customer has for their experience. Excellent service transports you away from the world outside and leaves you in your own, to do with what you will. Every moment from when you walk into a place to that last step out is a curated experience. It’s astonishing when it all works and you can just sort of submit to the experience.
I had a birthday recently. It was a Sunday. I decided several months ago that my birthday would include going to a Vikings game with some friends and ex-coworkers. This also meant that I got to spend a weekend in Minneapolis. My lady friend and I went down on Saturday, and I had a few lists of things I wanted to do before and after the game. My absolute list, a bonus list, and then a cherry on top.
Almost 2 years ago, now, I had the opportunity to make a drink for the Bombay Sapphire Most Imaginative Bartender competition. I had just left my other bar gigs and gone full-time at Vikre. 2 revered and incredibly talented bartenders from the cities (Nick Kosevich and Rob Jones) came up to judge several cocktails around Duluth. I remember being nervous as hell, but I really liked the cocktail I made. It was muddled chives, a few drops of smoked balsamic vinegar, Kalamata olive oil, lemon juice, honey syrup, a little salt, and the Sapphire. I made the drink, they tried it, and it was weird and savory but fun. They gave me some amazing constructive feedback, we shook hands, they made a point of inviting me to visit them in Minneapolis, I met a third guy (Dustin) who was there recording the proceedings, and then they left. This was one of the first instances when I really felt like a part of a greater Minnesotan bartending culture. It was kind of them to come up and tour some Duluth establishments and get us involved. They remain friends of mine, and I make it a point to visit as often as possible.
I didn’t win. But I gained some insight into a broader culture in MN that is valuable for Duluth. The last few years, some folks from different establishments in the metro area have come up and I have had the pleasure of making their drinks and chatting about the industry. I’ve learned a lot in our brief interactions and had a lot of fun at work, and then after work with some of these folks. It’s inspiring to talk about cocktail ideas and share stories with folks who run some of the most impressive bar programs in Minnesota, if not the Midwest. It’s also humbling as fuck. Constant inspiration.
So when we were planning the weekend, I made sure that Hi-Lo Diner, Lawless Distilling, and Spoon and Stable were on the list. The bonus list was Esker Grove, the new place in the Walker Art center, and Young Joni. Bars run by Jon and Adam, respectively. Those two dudes came up and did a tiki-takeover at Vikre and I got to be the bar-back. It was lovely, and I learned so much. I think the biggest take-away was that we are all just bartenders. We make drinks. We allow folks to have a good time. Hanging out after the event with the contingency from the cities was a blast. Anyway. The cherry on top was visiting an old friend who used to cook brunch when I was bartending. He now cooks at a breakfast joint and I hadn’t seen him in a while.
First stop after making it into the city was Hi-Lo. I was hoping to catch my buddy Sim, but he wasn’t in until later so we just had food and my first birthday shot. We checked into the air b&b and uber’d (ubered? Nah. Life needs more apostrophes.) back to Hi-Lo. We sat at the bar, ordered a few drinks, and then Sim came up and we talked about carbonation for tap cocktails. Nerdnerdnerdnerd… It was great to finally be served at his bar after the handful of times I’ve made him some drinks. Was a lovely start.
We went to Lawless distilling after that. Walked into this dimly lit bar to see a friend of mine, and were greeted by a kind gentleman at the bar, with the windows into the distillery a few feet away. My friend Jeff then knocked on the window and came out and shared a hug. We were served shots of their “pink gin” followed by some hot toddies served in vials heated by a rotisserie. SO ridiculous. Then the tap drinks. Then the weird cinnamon-cedar-campfire hot buttered rum. Then my friend Dustin showed up and we talked about cocktails as a visceral experience and discussed the sensory details that accompany your glass. We had so much fun, and had a solid spiritual start for the rest of the evening.
This is where the dream really begins.
We had reservations at Spoon and Stable at 8:45. We showed up at 8:30. Now, I had become friends with a few of the bartenders (one came up and did a night behind the stick at Vikre with some fun specials) at Spoon, and their bar manager, Rob, was one of the judges for my weird cocktail a year and a half ago. We walked in, told them our names, and they said they had our table ready a bit early. They asked for our coats, and in what must have been some expression of MN-Nice, we refused, not wanting to trouble the hosts who were working their asses off on a busy Saturday night. I leaned on a table by the bar briefly, and no sooner had my elbow hit the table after my jacket came off than a tiny bottle of Miller High Life showed up in front of me. I looked up and Rob, 20 feet away in the middle of building a drink and addressing a customer, simply made 1 second of eye contact and threw me a nod. Between bartenders, that nod meant:
“Hey! Thanks for coming down! I hope the drive was not stressful. Welcome back. It’s good to see you. I know you work in the industry, and aren’t asking anything of me personally. But I appreciate you and I want to do something special. I know you can drink this tiny beer in about 3 seconds. You know I know you’re here, and when I get a second, we’ll chat, but for now, have a drink on me.”
In 1 second. Maybe 1.5 seconds, at the most.
I laughed out loud, and when my lady friend got back from the restroom, we were seated. The host who asked us if we wanted to check our coats followed us to the table silently, and when we got there and saw how uncomfortable we would be with our coats hanging off our chair/booth, he smiled knowingly and handed us a numbered piece of paper, quietly taking our coats without a fuss. The restaurant was loud, not an empty seat in the house, and the buzz sort of added to this weird magical atmosphere. I felt noticed and special, ego be damned.
Alright. Here’s where things get a little fuzzy. I’d like to say it doesn’t have anything to do with the drinks we had at Lawless, but dammit Jeff! A lot of things happened in rapid succession. I am pretty sure I will get some of the order wrong. But here goes:
So we are sitting. There is water in our glasses. We are given menus, she gets a gluten-free menu because dietary restrictions. The server mentions there is a new sommelier working. His name is Nico. I, incidentally, have been at one of the wine-food dinners he curated at Lake Ave in Duluth, and considered him an acquaintance. I laugh, and tell the server he did the wine for one of my favorite meals a year ago. At that moment, Rob appears and gives me a hug, and we pick up where we left off from the nod. He offers to buy us a round of drinks, and we elect to leave our choices in his hands. He leaves, and then Nico shows up, points at my Vikre sweatshirt, and we chat about Duluth a bit, when he’s coming back. We somehow connect over the Rosé dinner I attended. We make it a plan to grab a drink together next time he’s in town. While he is standing there and we are chatting, a tiny, elegant amuse-bouche shows up for both of us, compliments of someone and gluten-free because magically everyone knows about the gluten restriction at our table. And then Rob comes back with our drinks. He proceeds to explain my partner’s cocktail, and I am only catching this out of the corner of my eye. He pulls out a lighter and flames the citrus at the table. You shitting me? This is the bar manager in the middle of the shit on a Saturday night flaming a citrus twist over her drink. He walks away after shaking my hand again and recommending a pasta dish with a charming, “of course that’s what you should eat” shoulder shrug/smile, Nico and I wrap up our little chat and he takes away our wine glasses after seeing the cocktails arrive, and we are provided bread and gluten free snacks with some cheese and butter, I believe.
This is the first 15-20 minutes at our table.
After placing our order for appetizers and the courses we picked, the other bartender, Isaac, shows up and demands a hug, and we chat briefly and jovially about the evening. After he left, we were given a moment of relative silence. We had been successfully transported away from whatever the hell else was going on outside and into this lovely, family-feeling atmosphere.
The rest of the food comes out and it’s ridiculous and delicious, and we are left alone for the most part. Time to chat about what’s going on, and time to observe the insane service choreography that’s going on around us. Our server answered some questions about how many tables are in a section usually, and she was admirably informal while remaining professional.
Dessert. We ordered one thing to share, we received that thing plus another thing someone thought I would enjoy, plus a face-sized piece of cotton candy, PLUS we each got a small cookie tin full of a handful of sweet delicacies, her tin being, of course, free of gluten.
We closed out and I made it a point to go to the bar after dinner. At this point, I am pretty sure nobody even knew it was my birthday. This was just how we were treated. We sat at the bar, full to the brim, and then the Amaro started. My partner and I got into a heated and invigorating discussion about what good service is, and our glasses never emptied. At midnight, she wished me a happy birthday, and Rob then bought our Amari. Rob and I shook hands once more, and made a pact to get the cities bartenders on a bus and up to Duluth, and then we went—wait. No, then we handed in the number and got out coats back, which we laughed about heartily.
Ok. Now that’s a lot of details, but the feeling was just magical. Everything about my experience told me we were valued, and that the people were grateful for our presence. That’s what it should feel like, and that’s something I really want to impart to folks I interact with in my job.
Just a note: I was wearing a hoodie and black jeans. We were the most under-dressed folks in the entire space, but I couldn’t help feeling like we were at the cool kids’ table.
The next day, we made our way to the Vikings game. The performance was woeful and the beer was expensive. It was fun to hang out with the Duluth crew. We made tentative plans to meet up with Dustin after leaving the game and hanging out with some of the Duluth folks. My plan for the previous night, Saturday, was to go to spoon for a quick dinner (ha!) and then make it to Esker Grove and Young Joni. Those two bars never materialized, the opportunity slowly disappearing into the time-warp that was our experience at Spoon. So, when Dustin got a hold of us and suggested Esker Grove, we quickly made our way to the Walker to see what was up. It was a lovely space, the bar and seating area fit the Walker so perfectly. The drinks were exceptional and classy, just nicely executed plays on some classics. Clay-washed Overholt? Yes, please. We had our drinks, and then Dustin was like “Dude, we have to go to Young Joni,” to which I grinned. He gave us a ride, and after breaking the cap to some bitters in his car and subsequently pouring the bottle into a leaky Citadelle barrel (because why wouldn’t he have a few barrels in his trunk?), we made our way onto the roads. Some fun music, good chats, and then we were there. We walked into the alley, found the red light post, and walked into the back bar. Young Joni was like walking into another place entirely. Weird wallpaper, music that was like tiki meets 70’s folk-rock meets a hint of EDM (on a reel-to-reel. Yup.), vintage Playboys scattered across the tables that probably came from someone’s grandparents’ family cabin. The walls had dark wood paneling like a cabin, but behind the wood and between the cracks in the panels, there was this subtle Edison-yellow-warm glow, giving the feeling that we the sun was setting outside, or the cabin in which we were drinking had no need to be weather-tight because it was summer or we were on some Island. Again, transported. The menus had weird and unrelated vintage family photos on every page, followed by a description of each cocktail that was typed on an Underwood and described, not the taste, but the attitude of each of the drinks. Adam nailed it. Every drink was novel and intentional, and perfectly executed. We sat with Dustin, and met some new friends. Let’s talk about rodents in our work environments. Fernet and pho broth? Sounds good. What’s the dumbest question you’ve been asked? I hope our friends end up in Duluth someday soon. I threw around some free drink tickets and we went home after a round of hugs.
The next morning, we made it the restaurant where Marcos worked and had a brief tour of their kitchen. We had breakfast and coffee and chatted about our lives with him, where we were and if we were happy. It was a lovely, relaxed end to the weekend.
Must-do list, check. Bonus list, check (thanks, Dustin). Cherry on top? Yup.
It was an invigorating, inspiring, challenging and relaxing weekend, and I came back to Duluth with so many feelings. Feelings about good service, feelings about cocktail experiences, feelings about friends, and feelings about the industry I find myself in. This was never supposed to be my career. I was supposed to graduate college and go on to be an academic. I was supposed to do a million things, but this is where I find myself, and damned if I won’t go as far down the rabbit hole as I can.
I don’t often make the time to visit the bartenders who visit me. I will be making more time for those connections because they inspire me so much. I feel so fortunate to have made the move to Vikre and been given so much opportunity to create and co-create. I think I feel a part of a culture that is bigger than Duluth. Hell, it’s bigger than Minnesota. As bartenders, we do the same thing, just in different neighborhoods. We share and cultivate experiences with a community no matter where we tend bar.