Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The Bartender Wears Prada

In my days in the restaurant industry I've worn many different hats. Donning a suit and tie as a Food and Beverage Director was a bit more cumbersome than the weathered jeans and sport coat worn as a General Manager, and as a barman I've worn a variety of getups behind the stick. But I've never worn a fedora...

Harry Johnson proclaimed in his timeless Bartender's Manual first published in 1860"It is absolutely necessary to be neat, clean, and tidy in dress, as that will be more to the interest of the bartender than any other matter."

Most bars, especially those housed in a restaurant setting, establish guidelines for employee dress. The encouragement of staff members to personalize their style within those guidelines, remarks Rocky Yeh of Seattle cocktail bar Vessel, "allows an outlet to express individuality, creativity, and care towards professionalism."

Though few patrons take notice of the first, and often lasting, impression of the person assembling their drink it is uniquely in this moment when a bond of trust can first be formed.

According to Tommy Klus of Portland's Bluehour and Teardrop Lounge, it has less to do with the libation or technique of the barkeep and more to do with appearance.

"So much of the guest's experience is based on aesthetic. If you see a well dressed bartender, you might expect that you'll get a better drink," notes Klus.

Since the resurgence in classic cocktails, bartenders have become known for their moustachioed, vested, and neo-classicist attire as much as their libations.

"Pride in one’s appearance is also often indicative of pride in your work" states Rocky Yeh of Seattle's Vessel cocktail bar.

But why the vest, arm garters, suspenders, fedora combo?

In keeping with the style of classic cocktail culture bartenders have adopted the style of bartending's heyday. Tommy Klus earned the nickname "Tommy Tweed" after peers remarked that he dressed like an 'old man'. A return to the tradition of bartending pioneers like Jerry Thomas and 'Cocktail' Bill Boothby is evidenced by the trends in dress.

Not everyone shares the same opinion on bar fashion, however. Chicago bartender Benjamin Schiller vented in a recent interview with online zine 'The Spirit'.

"Far too many bars are infested with pompous, vested gentlemen adorned with curly mustaches, ridiculous headware, and perhaps an arm garter or two" rants Schiller, head barman of Chicago's BOKA restaurant.

Suffice to say that Schiller's beef has more to do with substance than style. "Invariably," Benjamin lamented, "they are hocking their own latest and greatest 'riff on a Manhattan.'”
Love it or hate it, this look seems to be here to stay as long as the classic cocktail resurgence continues to focus on nostalgia.

In true northwest style, some craft bartenders of Portland seem to be adopting their own dressed down code. David Shenaut, of Portland cocktail destination and hipster hangout Beaker and Flask, takes his own approach to bar-wear.

"I just wear what's comfortable," Shenaut says, "and I have so many free liquor brand tee shirts I don't have to do laundry for a month this way."

As craft cocktails become more commonplace perhaps this more casual approach will follow suit. Until then keep ordering drinks from the vested ladies and gents at our nations finest cocktail bars, but don't be surprised when the bartender in well weathered jeans makes you a perfect Holland's Pride cocktail.

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