Stars of the bars
A good bartender knows how to make the drinks, but a great bartender is also a diplomat and entertainer
Having a good bartender is as important as finding a dentist, a mechanic or a doctor. Just about anyone can pour a shot, but a true bartender is both a diplomat and an entertainer. A career mixologist is a master of the trade who has spent years refining his craft. What separates a bartender from a star-tender? Three local bartenders whose experience matches their good humor explain that there is a lot more involved than plunking a cold bottle on a napkin.
“Let’s just say I was 21,” laughs Erika Johnson when asked how old she was when she started pouring drinks. She’s been bartending at West Second Street Bar, 118 West Second St., since 1996. Just recently, Johnson transferred to Gringo’s Dining Room, the new bar and Mexican restaurant recently added to West Second Street Bar. She enjoys her new role as a bar and restaurant manager.
“I have a Margarita …” she pauses, and one gets the feeling that she might reveal a tangy secret. “It’s made with Partida tequila, Partida agave nectar, fresh squeezed lime and a splash of water.”
“Erika is very friendly, very nice and makes a hell of a drink,” says customer Ron Golis, who has been coming to West Second Street Bar for a decade. A good bartender makes customers feel like stars by remembering the customer’s drink, and they return for the personalized service. “I get greeted with MGD,” adds Golis.
Johnson has a tip or two about mixing drinks.
“Study up on your liquor book,” she advises. “Anybody can pour a good drink. Not everybody can make a drink taste good.”
Old school diplomacy
Donny Schwartz is old school. He pulls the olives out of the jar with tongs, not his fingers. He owns his bar, and not just in the business sense. As the owner and proprietor of Abby’s Highway 40, 424 E. Fourth St., Schwartz has filled the place with Reno memorabilia.
“I collected all of it since I was a little kid,” he says. Even the name of the bar is a mixture of personal and local history. Abby was the name of Schwartz’s father, and the bar is located on a section of the old U.S. Route 40 that is now Fourth Street.
“I am a boring, crusty old man,” he laughs. The lights of the bar reflect off his head, giving him a smoky halo. After 32 years of bartending, he has seen it all. “The bar business ain’t like it used to be,” he says, “but it has moments of greatness.”
If you look down the bar, his patrons range from bikers to college students, and he maintains the same friendly banter with all of them. Bill Monteiro has been coming to Abby’s since it opened 11 years ago. “This is my first stop, and I end up not going anywhere else. Donny’s a comedian.”
A man pops his head in the door. “Can I ask you what time you got?” he yells to Schwatrz.
“Time to get a watch,” responds Schwartz, grinning.
A good bartender is a good host. Randy Belford tends bar at Simon’s Café & Lounge, 6135 Lakeside Drive. Simon’s has the feel of an old-world bar. People play dominoes at a corner table. Everyone seems to know each other, and the entertainment from the bartender is as engaging as the prime rib that you can eat right at the bar.
“I don’t have coffee beans, but I do have bacon,” quips Belford, setting a bottle of Sambuca on the bar. “Isn’t that what you do when you don’t have coffee beans?”
Laughter erupts around the bar. The patrons hang on his every word. Belford has a quiet, deadpan sense of humor. He doesn’t talk much, but when he does, people laugh.
“Two rules,” he says firmly, “no arm wrestling, no throwing things.”
“Randy’s got personality,” says customer Micha Stevens. “He makes you laugh. He knows how to talk to you. It doesn’t matter if you’re eight or 80.”
Chris King agrees. “He puts up with me, he knows how to deal with customers.”
Belford chortles and picks up King’s empty bottle, replacing it with a new one. “Great,” mutters King, “now he thinks I have a man-crush on him.”