Day 13: The Man and the Best Seat in the House

Whenever possible, always sit at the bar. Though I can’t speak to personal experience for every case, I imagine that this should ring true regardless of whatever form of bar you find yourself in.  I guarantee your experience will be that much more fulfilling and engaging if you find yourself in the heart of the action, at the very front of the bar, in what I consider the best seat in the house.

OldEbbittWhenever I am anywhere that has the option to sit at the bar, next to where all the creation takes place, I jump at it. When you’re seated that close to both the artist and the audience, you have a very different experience.

Today I want to talk specifically about the experience sitting at the bar for a good, strong cocktail and some incredibly comforting and honest food. The sushi bar experience, just like the cocktail experience, deserves its own attention one day.

The bar represents controlled chaos, a hectic frantic frenetic vortex of energy and booze. It is the heart and the nexus of the restaurant, connecting the haves with the have nots; the wants with the unwanted. Though the façade may be different, architecturally, spiritually, emotionally, each bar is essentially the same. Firstly, there is your seat. Your grounded connection to the physical world. Secondly is the counter where you lay down to rest your arms, your drinks, your hopes, your dreams, your ambitions, your fears, your doubts, and your insecurities. This is why good counters are designed to carry hefty loads. Lastly and most importantly, is the forbidden land behind the counter. It is only at the counter that we get a glimpse of the man behind the curtain and watch him work his magic. From the order to the pour, you are witnessing firsthand every drop, every nuanced addition, every calculated measure. You don’t have to be Dale Degroff or Tom Cruise in Cocktail to appreciate what is happening right in front of you. You only have to experience it once for yourself to understand, as I have understood these past five years, that there is nothing like being that close to the creation of something just for you.

HoneyHillA good bar is a connection between many disparate peoples, and a good bartender is a skilled ferryman. It doesn’t matter how exciting or innovative or distinguished the ship may be, it goes nowhere without a good captain. To appreciate the special kind of tortured artistic soul that is preparing your dirty martini, you first have to understand what kind of sick twisted person could possibly enjoy a job like this. A job that, were I less responsible, more transient, less spoiled, and more reckless, I would have loved to have. A good bartender must be part guru, part rock star, and of course, part chef. Make no mistake, for the uninitiated who have never bought their own home cocktail kit, a well-constructed cocktail requires no less than the same utmost attention to detail than the meal you enjoy with it. The guru is who we want the bartender to be when it is too late and we are too poor for a proper psychologist. Frank Sinatra has sung songs about the virtues of man telling his woes to the bartender and the Chairman of the Board never lies. The rock star is the man you engage with. The man who makes it seem like second-nature to be able to tell a joke to the person to your right, make the drink of the three people behind you, settle the tab of the person to your left, and still somehow make you feel like you and he are the only two people in the bar. I don’t need flipping liquor bottles or three foot long arching pours. I just expect my bartender to be able to be actively engaged with his or her patrons and to carry the spirit of the bar. I think it is fundamentally harder to be an authentically involved human being than it is to learn a parlor trick. Call me old-fashioned. (Get it. Old-fashioned. Like the cocktail. You know what I’m talking about Don.)

OysterShooterHad I not sat at the bar of Mid-Atlantic Seafood I still would have enjoyed my clam strips, my crab legs, and my steamed shrimp. I would not have struck a conversation with the two men next to me over the very picture you see here. I would not have met two people who
had similar job as I, travelling up and down the East Coast to train and promote their small electrical wiring company. I would not have talked to my bartender about the freshness of oysters. He would not have invited me to test for myself. We would not have taken oyster shots together. I wouldn’t have ordered a dozen to split with my new companions to teach them how to enjoy the briny delicacy. I wouldn’t have been reminded of the value of even fleeting, temporary, inevitably doomed connections.

Had I not sat at the bar of the Old Ebbitt Grill I would Negroninot have gotten to talk real shop with the seasoned veteran bartender who appreciated my Negroni. I would not have discovered the Honey Hill martini, a drink I now cannot wait to prepare and share with my friends. I would not have heard the people next to me ask the people next to them if the shrimp were any good. Then I would not have seen them, emboldened by the recommendation, order a dozen. Which then inspired me to order as well. And when they ordered the Blondie with vanilla ice cream…if I had not sat at the bar I would not have had the opportunity to ask them what they thought of it and they would not have offered me a spoon to try for myself.

Sitting at the bar is an experience of your own will and creation. All of the necessary components of whatever night you are looking to have are set before you. Pick the right bar, and it is very easy to have a quiet, solitary, singularly focused night of drinking to set your mind in the right place or to Zen it out of place completely. Pick just about any bar really, and your night of socializing can range from the meeting of minds and like-minded souls to a soul-ripping Pandora’s Box of raucous and rowdy romps. Through it all will be your spiritual guide, your bartender. There are times when I have contented myself with the passage of time and alcohol and others when my restlessness gets the better of me and I look to meet and make connections with my fellow bargoers. Purpose, proximity, and patience. Much like real relationships, the bar offers a microcosm for you to experiment with. Take your time and remember why you are here. Sit down. Get comfortable. Feel your feet on the stool. Feel your arms on the counter. Is it warm, like wood and leather, or is it cool, like glass and metal. Take in the senses. If you were at a table, you wouldn’t hear the ice being poured into the shaker. Smell the different liquers and infusions that imbibe your cocktail with life. Feel the electricity of a thousand things happening all at once. See the sureness of the fingers that pour your ingredients and the peaceful concentration of the bartender. Taste the cocktail at its freshest, when it has been thoroughly mixed and chilled without any chance of the flavors dulling down or the ice melting. At least once, and if your party size allows it, gift yourself the experience to see what it is like in a real bar with a real bartender making real drinks and understand you are part of a theme, a motif that occurs and reoccurs across all nations and cultures and times. Where there is good drink to be had, there is good company and good times as well.

Day 13

Man: 10 Loneliness: 3

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