Special/Signature Issues » The Bar Guide

Throwing It Back

War stories, favorite hangouts and the curse of the pink taco: Some of Richmond's most experienced listeners step up to the mic.

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We've all heeded the advice of a sage. Someone whose wisdom and, more important, experience, far surpasses that of our own. Maybe we needed help with a relationship row or a sticky work predicament. Perhaps an entire life overhaul was in order. Many of us, in that time of desperation, have also turned to a bottle and a person who many consider a professor at life: the bartender.

This notion of bartender as psychologist always seemed a bit contrived to me, especially considering that many bartenders have just as many, if not more, problems as the patron sitting across from them. Perhaps it's not so much that your bartender is a great dispenser of advice, but that he or she is a great listener. The bar is their home, and fortunately for the sob-storyteller, they cannot leave their home from the hours of 5 p.m. to 2 a.m. This is a less fortunate scenario for the bartender much of the time.

I figured it was time to let the bartender speak and time for the customer to listen.

This is how we ended up at Julep's Southern Cuisine in Shockoe Bottom one Tuesday afternoon, mixing it up with some of the city's well-known bartenders around a big table, fueled by cocktails from Julep's award-winning mixologist, Bobby Kruger.

I asked questions, we recorded the answers and a nice buzz was attained by all. Here are edited excerpts from our conversation, which was over three cocktails long (about an hour). And no, we did not discuss our relationships with our mothers, our love lives, or that weird rash on our inner thighs. We'll save that for other bartenders.


Jack: In terms of the state of the bar scene in Richmond, do you think it's improving, options-wise, quality-wise? Do you consider Richmond a good bar city, say compared with larger cities? How do you feel about being a bartender in Richmond?

Dane: There are so many restaurants all over town, I think it's great. You tend to find a lot of times where people will bartend together then go their separate ways, and you find a very close-knit group of friends as far as industry goes. … And when you go out in Richmond you have more options than any other place, as far as I've lived. Per capita we're number two in the country to San Diego for restaurants.

Page: I like having the different options. You can do your little dive Fan bars with the eclectic crowd; you can put on some high heels and look nice and go downtown. But like you said, the community of bartenders is so tight in this city, considering that when I started [in '97] there was maybe half as many bars, I think, that were open.

Jack: So the actual number of bars here has grown over the past decade?

Page: Definitely. [Others express agreement.]

Bobby: I think what we're lacking here is some sort of real — like we were talking about the RVAlution thing [a Tuesday-night, 18-and-older,  dance party at the Hat Factory] — nightclub, dance club kind of feel here, and Richmond has never been able to support that.

Kat: One that doesn't have a bunch of young children running around.

Bobby: Exactly, or it's always in transition. A place opens, and then it closes.

Otto: But that's Richmond, we're 50 years behind the times. You play house music and people are like, “What the hell is this?” If they don't hear it on Q-94 they don't want to hear it all. You go right up the road to D.C. and they'll have five DJs slated for one night, and you'll know a few lyrics out of every 15th song … but everybody has a good time and they dance. And here it's not like that.  … When I used to work at Star-Lite, for three years in a row I played the same three songs at last call. And people would get so excited even though it meant it was the end of the night.

Page: They love Journey in this town.

Bobby: Neil Diamond …

Dane: “Closing Time” … [laughter]

Jack: What about drink trends? What changes have you seen? For the better and in many cases, for the worse?

Tony: I think everything reinvents itself at some point. When I first started bartending all I ever made was Long Islands, blue motorcycles, because that what everybody wanted. As I grew and matured as a bartender I started [branching out] and doing other things, but at some point it's always Long Island, blue motorcycle, green dinosaur. … Even at Wild Ginger, I'll get older people who will come in and say, “I don't know what I want. … Let me get an old fashio — nah, let me get a Long Island.” How do you go from an old fashioned to a Long Island? … And when Red Bull came out that started a craze for a little while …

 

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Julep's mixologist Bobby Kruger makes everything from scratch.

Bobby
: Firefly …

Kat: Tuaca …

Page: Van Gogh …

Jack: This is a good topic. Richmond likes its shots, so right now what do you guys see as the shot fad of the moment?

Bobby: Pickleback? That's huge right now. [A shot of whiskey followed by a shot of pickle brine. See last week's Punch Drunk column for more.]

Dane: Well our friend Page invented a shot called the pink taco that's just destroying the city.

Jack: That's everywhere. [Jack notes: The pink taco is cherry vodka, sour, Sprite, splash of cranberry or grenadine. Page describes it as a cherry kamikaze.]

Otto: I hate that shot. Every time someone says that to me I'm like, Paaaggge!!! [laughter]

Dane: We try to push other shooters but it always goes back to the pink taco.

Tony: Any flavored vodka and Red Bull is popular. [Everyone nods in agreement.]

Otto: There was a definite change in the nightlife when Red Bull came on the scene. To me, that was like a distinct epoch change. Before that, when it was beers and shots, the nights ended a lot earlier. People would drink beer, they'd get tired, they'd go home. And the end of your night would be you seeing your friends from other bars that closed. … And whoever held out the longest would have the best night because all the bartenders would show up.

Tony: … [With Red Bull] you're going to bed at 6 in the morning, just wide awake, no shirt on, sitting on the curb. … “Damn, how did I get here?”

Otto: Where is my shirt?

Page: Where is my car?

Tony: Yeah — you're at Sheetz, you're at WaWa, you're at some after-hours bar. You turn around and it is 7 in the morning on Saturday, it's like kids going to soccer games and moms going to yard sales, and you're like, I am still hammered. … I want McDonald's.

Dane: If you think about Red Bull too, it's also almost doubling everybody's tabs. … You're with your friends now, and you're ordering all these bombs, crushes, whatever —

Otto: Eight dollars a pop, nine dollars a pop, 10 dollars a pop …

Dane: — Instead of spending 40 bucks your tab jumps up to 90. And, you're drinking more because you're still awake.

Page: You have people drinking Belvedere [vodka] and Red Bull. (That's $14.) I'm like, sweet.

Dane: And how many more people a night are asking, where's that ODC place [a private after-hours bar], because they're not ready to go home?

 

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Jack Lauterback: Richmond likes its shots.

Jack
: Along the drink lines, what's a drink that when someone orders it just makes you cringe? Whether it's a complicated drink or it's the person who generally would order that drink, what drink do you hate making the most?

Tony: There's only two that I truly despise. The mojito. From April to September, it's like a rush. And then it's the old fashioned.

Bobby: You just don't like to muddle. [laughter]

Kat: It's gotta be a lemon drop. People always are like, oh, this doesn't taste right, you didn't make it right, or you didn't give me enough sugar. Or I'll make it exactly the way it should be [and they won't like it]. … Even when I take the time to rim the glass with sugar and put sugar on the lemon, and they'll just squeeze the lemon. …

Jack: The bar has got to be dead if I'm sugaring both. …

Otto: I hate white Russians.

Page: I was going to say I hate any milk drink.

Otto: It's going to mess up your tin, it's going to mess up your dishwater.

Bobby: I hate it when people order frozen drinks from me.

Tony: I don't even apply at those bars any more. If I go in there and I hear a blender, I'm out, in the middle of the interview.

Otto: When Metro [Grill] opened they used to have a sign that said, “Our Blender Is Permanently Broken.”

Dane: It's like clockwork, my blender is broken at 9 and I'm out of mint. [laughter]

Jack: Mojitos don't bother me anymore. At Havana, the bar back muddles about 40 at a time, because we do so many of them. Making 300 a night is pretty easy.

Page: That's like margaritas at Banditos. I wish I had a dollar for every margarita I've made.

Otto: I'm around 10 million at this point.

Dane: [The worst is when someone orders] four different shooters at one time. You give me three different shots — boom, boom, boom. But if you want me to take four different tins [to mix four different shooters] … you know what? Smack your friends in the face and decide on one.

Page: Women do that.

Jack: That's awful. I won't even do it.

Kat: Bachelorette parties do it every time. … The only thing worse than all that though, is when people come up and say, “I don't know what I want, make whatever you want.” [Universal head-nodding and “yeahs” around the table.]

 

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Otto Bartsch: Red Bull changed Richmond's nightlife scene.

Otto
: Rules of being a good bar customer: Have your payment ready, collate your order, [call your] liquor before mixer.

Jack: OK, for our readers' enjoyment and so it doesn't seem like we're just here to make fun of our customers and complain about mojitos, I want to find out what drinks you order when you're on the other side of the bar?

Dane: A dark beer and a Rumple [Minze].

Page: I drink a lot of different stuff. Sometimes I'm in a wine mood. Typically I'm a Jameson and Coors Light girl.

Jack: What wine are you into at the moment?

Page: I'm really loving the Layer Cake Primativo right now. It's a nice summer red.

Otto: I like tequila. Good, good tequila. My all-time favorite is Don Julio 1942. [Agreement around the table.] If I can't get that I like [Sauza] Tres Generaciones Anejo, which is fairly widely available. If I'm going down from there, any of the Don Julio Reposados or Anejos. … And neat, I like it.

Bobby: A decent bourbon on the rocks. If they have Pappy [Van Winkle bourbon], I'll drink Pappy. If not, Bookers. Or Hendrick's and tonic.

Tony: If it's weight-loss season, it's Amstel Light. Otherwise, it's a flavored vodka and Sprite. I've done enough straight Ketel One to last a lifetime. If the night's going good or … it's a celebration, then I go to a car bomb.

Kat: I usually like to go, if I'm drinking beer, with a good IPA if they have it on tap. Also tequila — my favorite is probably the Don Julio silver. But I also, if I'm trying to save money, like to do the Sauza Reposado.

Jack: Next up, where do you guys go and what bartenders do you like to see when you want these drinks? Two favorite bars, two favorite bartenders.

Dane: Sidewalk is the old stalwart. I can't go wrong with George Amundsen. That little man just really tickles my panties. [Next up is] wherever I'm working at the time — because I have the best time there, the cheapest drinks, the best camaraderie, I know all the regulars. … Bobby might have just become my other favorite bartender with this cocktail I just had.

Page: George at Sidewalk — it's where I spent my night last night. Love Sidewalk, love George. And usually if I actually get to make it out anymore, I try to go to deLux, and I have a few favorites at deLux.

Otto: I really like Balliceaux. It doesn't feel like very Richmond, it feels really kind of like L.A. … I guess bartender-bar combination, I really like going to see Sean Cannon [at the Republic]. He cracks me up, so wherever he's at I'll go see him.

Bobby: I like going to Acacia and sitting at their bar. Their bartender Arthur Grant is awesome. If I'm going to go somewhere and order drink similar to what we do here, that's where I go. And then if I feel like just kind of hanging out I go down to Rosie Connelly's and see Tommy Goulding.

 

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Hangover cure: Tony Hawkins recommends Gatorade, B-12 and a turkey sandwich.

Tony
: Metro. I'm a big Kevin Mandeville fan. He takes care of me — he sees me, gets me a drink, is quick, and his bar is always clean. It's always wiped down, always glass-free, it's always a punctual bar. … Present company, I see Jack at Cha Cha's, I see Page a lot, I've seen Otto at Bandito's numerous times and it's been really bad times, as a matter of fact we shouldn't even be friends, the way he's done me. [laughter] Even the night I lost my Converse. [laughter]

Jack: You lost one Converse?

Tony: I lost one Chuck Taylor. That's another story, another time. … There's a kid named Jason Horcher that works for my family of restaurants at Sushi-O. … He's very creative with his drinks, his drinks are carefully thought out. He has edamame, tulips — things in his drinks that you normally wouldn't put in a drink.

Kat: Of course other than my own bar, because it's cheap, I love the Republic. It's my favorite place to go, if I go out. It's the best place I've been in a long time. I just love A) the smoking side, and B) that every time I go in there I see all kinds of people that I haven't seen in a long time. … Other than that I go wherever the karaoke is.

Tony: Republic might be my new favorite bar too. There's also the after-hours spot just two doors down so when Page kicks me out, I can just go right down the street. [Tony later mentions Sara Butler from Bandito's as one of his favorite bartenders.]

Dane: I gotta add Joe Carter from F.W. Sullivan's to my favorite list of bartenders. [Agreement around the table.] Every time you walk in and you see Joe, no matter what's going on in his life … he's going to make you feel like you're the only person in the bar. He listens. He's the Dr. Phil of bartenders.

Jack: Next question. If a visitor asks you for the one bar that's quintessentially Richmond, where do you send them?

Dane: My nose is so brown right now but I gotta suck Republic's ass because it's the melting pot. They have such a superstar staff already. … As soon as you walk in you don't even feel like you're in Richmond, but you know you're in Richmond. You see all walks of life.

Otto: It's true.

Page: Gosh you guys, I won't be able to get my head out of here.

Jack: I think you can make a case for Star-Lite and Bandito's along the same lines.

 

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Dan Acton says the pink taco shooter created by Page Cassada, right, has taken over the city.

Page
: I was getting ready to say the same thing.

Tony: I would send them on a [bar] crawl more than anything.

Otto: You have to go to Sticky Rice, because you gotta see the hipsters. You've gotta go someplace that has a patio, either Star-Lite or Sullivan's.

Kat: New York Deli has a patio.

Otto: You gotta send them to Buddy's almost — because it's Buddy's.

Page: The [Shockoe] Slip is gorgeous too, so someone who has never been to Richmond could hit a few places down there. It's beautiful.

Dane: Start on 12th Street and head on down the hill …

Jack: Should we send them to Caddy's? [Laughter and a resounding, “No.”]

Tony: I don't think anyone understands what Caddy's is, other than me. …

Jack: I go there all the time.

Tony: … It's a South Side dive bar. It's a karaoke bar in Midlothian that belongs in the Fan. I don't mind it, it's OK — it's drunk people, it's singing, it's shit I know. I'm OK with that. … I think you gotta send them to Avalon.

Otto: I think you're really making a better general point, and that is that there isn't one type of bar in Richmond. There's something for everybody.

Bobby: I send a lot of people to Lemaire.

Jack: Beautiful bar, definitely.

Bobby: Great bar and the Jefferson is quintessentially Richmond.

Jack: My editor wants to me to ask you some hard-hitting stuff here, so I'll break it out. Say whatever you want.

Dane: Uh-oh, more drinks …

Jack: Actually yeah, you guys want to do some shots?

 

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The bartenders make sure their discussion doesn't run dry: Enjoying drinks made with egg yolk, gin, rosemary, simple syrup, maraschino liqueur, lemon juice and sweet vermouth.

A resounding yes. We break for 10 minutes, during which Bobby makes us some new libations — shots made of egg yolk, gin, rosemary, simple syrup, maraschino liqueur, lemon juice and sweet vermouth. Bobby also makes an old fashioned with an orange, cherry and peach marmalade and Four Roses small batch bourbon. And then there's the Paramount, a cocktail of fresh watermelon sour mix, Patron, Cointreau, ginger syrup and smoky sea salt. Most, if not all of this, is made by Bobby from scratch.

Jack: OK, now that the wheels have been further greased we'll continue. Hangover cures: Shoot.

Tony: I drink Gatorade before I go to bed, take a B-12 vitamin, eat a turkey sandwich.

Dane: There's no way to really beat a hangover unless you tackle head-on first (before you go to bed). Two glasses of water, two ibuprofen. When you wake up — if you haven't done that — I do a big Gatorade, a 32-ounce Gatorade …

Otto: Gatorade is key.

Dane: A sub with a bread to replace the sugar that you've lost. A sauna if you can get there.

Tony: A sauna is definitely key.

Dane: Sub, Gatorade, Snickers bar. You need to replace that sugar and rehydrate yourself.

Page: If I have to work the next day, and I'm at the Republic, I go straight to Lee's Fried Chicken. I get a jug of sweet tea, and I get the strip meal with mashed potatoes and green beans. And an extra biscuit. Cause you can make lil' biscuit sandwiches. It cures it.

Otto: I get hangovers on the front side. I take B-12 when I start drinking and B-12 before I go to bed. It is the miracle worker of hangover cures. Then in the morning as much water and Gatorade as I can take. And then if I'm really, truly, throwing-up hungover: McDonald's.

Jack: Do you ever run when you're hung over?

Otto: Yeah, absolutely. I do, and suffer through the first couple miles. I feel like a million dollars at the end of it. I imagine I'm not pleasant to be around for those first couple of miles.

Bobby: I do the B-12 stuff too. Pedialyte in the morning.

Tony: Old school. …

Bobby: Yep. Then I hit the gym. I might yack while I'm there but I'll feel better for the rest of the day.

Jack: Kat, what do you do?

Kat: Usually just kind of curl up in the fetal position and wait it out. [Laughter]

Dane: You just embrace the hangover.

Tony: Take it like a man. [Laughter]

Kat: Usually just some water and my Starbucks will get me right back on track. Follow my routine. Just kind of tough it out.

Jack: And there you have it, hangover tips from the people who gave you the hangover in the first place.

 

Shockoe Overblown

Although our discussion was mostly a lighthearted roundtable on Richmond's bar culture, some more serious discourse centered on the recent situation in Shockoe Bottom, which has drawn attention from concerned officials and business owners about 18-and-up parties and the fear of late-night violence spilling into the streets.

The bartenders gathered tended to agree that the clubs and club owners were unjustifiably taking the brunt of the blame. Otto, who has a law degree from Washington and Lee University, says he thinks City Halls's response to it all — considering new ordinances for clubs — has been off-base. “The laws to keep downtown safe are already in place,” he says. “The passage of new ordinances is simply the city's way of making it look like they're taking action.”

One idea he suggests is putting a police station in the heart of Shockoe Bottom, perhaps somewhere near 18th and Main streets. By keeping a constant police presence and not a fluctuating number of officers on certain nights, he says, you'd scare away many of the problems.

On a more macro scale the group agrees that there's no true hangout or dance spot for the underage crowd seeking nightlife fun in Richmond or the surrounding areas, so it's unfair to expect them to have any experience dealing with the club atmosphere when the reach the age of 21.

Tony, who worked for many years at Have A Nice Day CafAc (one of the clubs taking heat for recent shootings outside the club), says that what happens outside of the club, and not on club property, cannot reasonably be blamed on that club. “Every patron that enters the club is checked for proper identification and weapons,” he says. “The club manager and security did all they could to defuse the situation in the club, and they removed all parties involved in said situation. Do you really expect the security staff to police the public parking lot as well?”

Otto also says there seems to be a problem with perception when it comes to safety. “The crime rate is higher in the Fan than it is downtown,” he says. “So why is all of the attention and outrage being focused on the Shockoe Bottom area?”

Some of that was blamed on perceptions about race, such as the spiked police reaction to Chris Brown's recent concert after-party in the Bottom.

“Stop trying to point a finger at a particular race or culture for the violence in the Bottom,” as Tony puts it, “because at the end of the day it's a problem for the human race in our city, irregardless of the ethnicity, religion or culture. A lot of young African-Americans coming together and having a good time does not mean violence will occur. It means we want to have a good time.”

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