A Night Behind the Bar.

A glass of Nebbiolo. A Grey Goose and soda. A craft bourbon on the rocks.  A Cosmopolitan.

So many stories start with a drink. This one starts with a bunch of them.

The Cosmo? It’s what a woman orders as she waits for a friend and possibly a return to life in the late nineties. The bourbon? A regular who is asked if it’s an Up or Down kind of night — Up is a high-end craft bourbon, Down is a Coors Light, and it all depends upon the way the day went. The Grey Goose? The Nebbiolo? A pair of Wall Streeters who loosen their ties, buff their egos, and get ready to talk bonds and ETFs and sports with a client still on his way — Grey Goose and soda for the louder one, a glass of Nebbiolo for the other.

It’s a slow Monday night at Fiorino in Summit, New Jersey, where the owners, generous spirits that they are, have allowed me to take up a post behind the bar. I’m not really bartending — I’m more like an error-prone bar back, observing and there to assist when I can.

Why? Well, after years of taking too much for granted, I’m learning about skills I haven’t appreciated nearly enough. Call it a late-in-life education, which sounds far better than a mid-life crisis. Whether it’s the stone that buttresses a front porch, the electricity that courses through my home, or the Manhattan placed in front of me at a bar — rye, up but in a rocks glass, with a cherry — I want to know more about how things end up the way they do. More specifically, I want to know how exceptionally well-crafted things end up that way.

While there’s no shortage of buzz about the current cocktail moment we’re living in, and the celebrity mixologists who extoll the virtues of, say, lingonberries or huckleberry twigs or vodka crafted by yak herders, rock star bartenders were not the ones I wanted to observe. I wanted to see craft, not celebrity. It wasn’t a dive bar I sought either, but a certain timeless tradition of bartending. The kind that involves careful attention to making drinks well but also the ability to listen to a regular and bring just the right amount of routine to an evening.  I preferred a bar that was an integral part of a great restaurant, where food wasn’t an afterthought, and a place where the bartenders still do things like wear vests.

Fiorino, in downtown Summit, New Jersey, is the kind of Italian restaurant every town wishes it had. Few do. The food, while never a daring high wire act — no whips or foams or feats of molecular gastronomy — is about fresh ingredients prepared simply and perfectly. There’s a quiet confidence to the place, and whether it’s the Biticci brothers at the front of the house or the ancient waiters who circulate seamlessly, it’s clear this is a restaurant that is comfortable in its own skin.  It knows who it is. It likes who it is. And, as a result, people like to dine there.

That said, I wasn’t headed to the dining room. The bar was for me.

I arrived at four o’clock for the evening shift, where I met Mentor Baticci. Mentor, like his brother Ilir, grew up in the business — part of an extended family of restaurateurs who have that ability to make people feel instantly comfortable. We chat about the restaurant, kids, life, this idea of mine for a book about craft.

I look over the drinks menu that I’ll pass out to the unsure. Daunting. There is no way I could remember it all or fashion them into something people would want to drink. I realize I will probably appear both clumsy and uninformed to guests.

Before long, Benny, the bartender who has the evening shift, returns from the short break he takes when the restaurant ends its lunch service.

Benny is all of 29, energetic, focused, detail-oriented. The pride he takes in his work is obvious, long before he says, “Everything I do, I try to do as well as I can.”

We talk a bit about how he ended up at at Fiorino five years ago, in a job that is part hospitality specialist, part liquid chef, and part therapist.

“I worked in corporate restaurants before I landed here, “ Benny says. “But a family place is so much better.”

Behind the bar, in the dining room as the wait staff folds napkins for the dinner shift, in the spotless kitchen, I can sense that. Not that every family-run restaurant is better than a Legal Seafoods or The Cheesecake Factory, but the ones that overachieve are superior.

Benny starts to explain the setup to me. There’s the glassware. As he explains the what, how, and when of each, I try to keep track. There are chilled glasses for bottled beer and tall glasses for clear liquor. There are quartinos for wine. There are glasses some customers like even if they’re not appropriate for their drink — he remembers the customers and their concoctions.

He tells me a few things about drink preparation. Anything without citrus is stirred — 21 revolutions — and not shaken, because concern about bruising the liquor is au courant. He says he still likes his drinks shaken, and I tend to agree with him. He tells me that when a newcomer orders a martini, vodka or gin, he makes a quick calculation about the use of dry vermouth — more if they’re over the age of 40, less or none if they’re under — unless the customer is specific, as habitual martini drinkers can be. He shows me where to find the freshly squeezed lime juice, the house made sour mix, the small bottles of craft tonic that have replaced the syrupy version from the soda gun. I realize I’m a dilettante who thought my ability to make one decent Manhattan, at home, for myself, might help me here — and that Benny was prepping for the evening long before I ever sauntered in. 

As the night goes on, there are many glasses of wine ordered, along with a steady stream of Sidecars and Lemon Drop Martinis and Moscow Mules, all crafted by Benny. None are greeted with anything less than satisfaction. Somehow, my own clumsiness doesn’t betray my unprofessional status to the Wall Streeters, who order from me while Benny is tending to a group at the far end of the bar. I handle the Grey Goose and soda well enough, and shakily pour a quartino of one of the wines available by the glass. I know a bit about pour counts — instead of measuring in jiggers, the bottle is tipped and counting time lets the skilled bartender know when the right amount has been poured — but I struggle to get the flow from the stopper constant. So, and I I’m afraid I have to confess this to the Biticci family, a few patrons had drinks that were definitely appreciated but not particularly fiscally sound for the restaurant. But I’m fairly certain the brothers would prefer that over stingy.

It was an unusually slow night, being Monday after a very busy Mother’s Day. Still, there was a moment when orders arrived from the wait staff in rapid succession and the crowd at the bar suddenly grew. I’ve long thought of a well-run bar as a place to relax, and indeed it is, but it’s stressful behind it. Taking orders from people standing at the bar, getting food orders to those perched on stools, keeping the tabs straight, filling the orders of the wait staff, clearing glassware, stocking the clean glassware that is returned by the dishwashers, mopping the bar top, changing an empty draught keg. Even on a slow Monday, when I’m not even truly bartending, I’m not relaxed, despite my attempts to appear that way. I can’t imagine when it’s thirsty people three rows deep, all angling for a bartender’s attention and shouting orders four at a time.

Of course, when you are behind the bar, an image of calm is the only one you can project. Who wants drinks from a harried bartender? The good ones make it look easy.

“I may be having one conversation, but I’m listening to everyone at the bar,” Benny tells me. “And remember that a bartender can’t walk away from someone like a server can. You’re there, with the person, the whole time.” Interesting point. Screw up at the bar and you have to stare at the person you disappointed for the next hour or so.

On the night I join him, Benny is twitchy. Too slow, not enough action. He’s rocking on his heels, scanning through the window to see which regular might be about to enter the restaurant so he can start working on their drink. It’s a long shift if you’re not moving.

A couple comes in and elects, like the best couples do, to have dinner at the bar. Originally from Poland, they’re both physicians with an interest in wine. They like everything Benny pours but I sense it’s less about the wine and more about the way he makes them feel about themselves. They are out for a night, away from the stresses that things like jobs and kids create, enjoying the frankness that comes when you’re talking with people you don’t really know, buoyed by the wine and the distance we all like to put between us and our everyday lives.

The night has a rhythm, the mood changing when the sun goes down and the interior starts to glow. Faces become a bit flushed, conversations grow more animated. No one is even close to what anyone would consider drunk but a more relaxed mode sets in. Another Sidecar is made, and Benny shows me how it’s important to aim the dash of bitters right on the sugar cube so it’s easier to break up when the muddling happens. A quartino of wine is filled, the first part of the pour done aggressively to avoid spilling it. A Stoli martini is poured into a glass and is the perfect amount. Benny says he can tell when it’s right by the weight of the shaker. Little things are everything to a bartender, especially if it’s busy and speed is essential.

Eventually, the night begins to wind down, earlier than it would at a hot spot in the city or a beer chugging sports bar. The guy with the Grey Goose and soda wants one more, no soda this time. Another guy wants a food order wrapped so he can take it home for his family. With only a few people still nursing their drinks at the bar, and a few tables working on dessert, Benny begins to break things down, removing and washing the pour mats, wrapping the fruit to store in the fridge, washing every surface in sight. I’m fairly sure you can tell a lot about a restaurant by the cleanliness standards at the bar, so I’m not surprised that every surface here is thoroughly scrubbed. I help out, happy to be able to contribute to the grunt work of cleanup.

I’ve been behind the bar since just before five o’clock — it’s now a little past 10. I’m tired and I wasn’t even doing much. Dead tired, actually, but sort of buzzed at the same time, and not because I tried a half-glass of that Cab from Walla Walla. Benny tells me that after a busy night, the adrenaline courses through him, and he isn’t able to sleep for at least three hours. He’s one of those prudent bartenders, not a big drinker, so he doesn’t cap off his shifts with a few hours at a dive bar on the way home. For me, a little tired but with a weird energy at the same time, I figure regular bartending could lead straight to AA.

Trained in the art of hospitality like they are, a simple plate of chicken, spinach, and potatoes arrives for me as I finish putting away some clean stemware. A glass of Nebbiolo is poured. The lights have dimmed, and I talk to some of the staff about home renovations, cars, and life. It’s all close to perfect, much like the night the bar just provided, without drama or fanfare, to the people who took their place at it.

“I may be having one conversation, but I’m listening to everyone at the bar.”
Behind the Bar

The Food Revolution at the Dive Bar.

Almost every day, I'm struck by the food revolution that has changed the landscape of eating and dining out in these United States. It wasn't too long ago that food was mere sustenance for most of the population — and that sustenance was basically, well, crap. The flavors were dull, the ingredients processed, the experience generally lousy. Sure, there were the upper echelons of fine dining, but even many of those, like so many things meant to indicate the wealth and importance of the patrons, have always edged toward vapid and fussy. Tiny squares of curious ingredients, served on oversized plates by waiters dressed as the fools they assume you are. 

Now, great food is everywhere. Even when you travel to places far from our urban centers, you'll find at least one or two spots run by people who believe that if they provide, say, a locally-sourced frisee salad with lardons, or a starter of beef marrow on toast, it will be appreciated. Extraordinary food can be found all over — I've been thrilled by meals in Fargo, in west Texas, even in desperate airport terminals.

Many will point to fast-casual restaurants and new burger chains as prime examples of this sea change — the pre-E. coli Chipotle, Shake Shack, Tender Greens — and indeed they are. It's not just the food they offer but their realization that Americans are interested in where the ingredients come from, what those ingredients mean for our bodies, and most of all, whether the establishment can make it all taste like something we want to eat again.

Last Sunday afternoon, however, I realized there's an even better example. And it was pointed out to me by the fine people at The Infatuation. My lovely and beautiful wife is the person who introduced me to this web entity, and today it is our go-to resource when we're considering where to eat, especially in New York City. To provide insight on the site and its reviews, I would suggest that its editors and writers tend to favor establishments that not only serve up great food, but are, well, atmospheric. Not atmospheric in some bullshitty, airy, laced-with-an-Enya-soundtrack way, but places that make you feel like you've momentarily left the rest of the world behind. That usually means a spot where, when you are in it, you feel like you are flat-out having a fucking night. Or a day, if the sun is still shining.

In these establishments, there's a mix of people that keeps you interested, and maybe you're not 100% sure if the guys with the women in the slinky dresses aren't Russian mobsters. The bartenders know their stuff but don't make you feel like crap for not knowing quite as much. The waiter might be a hipster or he may be an old-timer who's been there 50 years, but he's likely not an asshole. It's lively and loud and fun. They make you feel like you're in it, really in it, that you're taking a big bite of out of the peach, that you're in a place that is awesome and unapologetic and comfortable in its own skin. And you're happy as hell you're not at home scrolling through Netflix.

But these guys at The Infatuation aren't just about vibe. Because food matters to them. I mean, it really matters to them. It's not some precious bit of lobster foam sitting on top of a twice-boiled sliver of sea urchin they care about — even though they understand that kind of thing has its place and they'll tell you about those restaurants, too. But what they really seem to appreciate is whether the oysters can transport you back to that summer you spent on Cape Cod when you were twelve, if the fries cooked in duck fat will make you declare that you'll never go vegan, if the roast chicken makes you think you've never really had a piece of poultry before.

All this ass-kissery for a band of restaurant reviewers is a long way to get to my point. Which is that they recently pointed me towards the best example of our food revolution. Not an upscale downtown salad shop or a grass-fed bison burger spot, but a dive bar. More specifically, Belle Reve in Tribeca, which The Infatuation recommended to my wife and I on a steamy summer afternoon when it wasn't just the heat in New York City that was appalling, but the heat and the bloody humidity. Hot as balls, it was.

Belle Reve was a dive bar before the current owners took it over. Then they decided to keep it looking like a place where longshoremen can drink enough at night to forget their day, even as the kitchen turns out food like no other gin joint you've ever been in. Just look at their menu. Try a burger with diced ham and see if you're not convinced. Imagine the crummy hot dogs on rollers at the place you loved in college now replaced by a perfect frisee salad. Cut into the seared lamb chop and toss some of those marrow-splashed fries on your plate, too.

When we were there, some 20-somethings were out front, in the street, splashing about in kiddie pools in their bras and underwear. There was a keg on the sidewalk and one of the heavily tattooed, bra-wearing patrons came in to let the assistant manager know, in a helpful way, that it wasn't functioning especially well. When the assistant manager asked if the malfunctioning keg had been pumped, the woman replied, "Oh, yeah, I pumped it like a prom date."

My wife and I laughed out loud.

I took another bite of my kale Caesar salad, a bit of greens that was making me think I had to get back to eating more kale, despite what the haters say.

If you go, make sure you look around. There's probably a guy at the bar who is supposed to be somewhere else. There's a table full of old college friends who would be irritating if it wasn't so obvious they were having a great time. In the bathroom, there are prints of naked women, more than a few with old-fashioned bush. And there's laughter. Lots and lots of laughter that you won't be able to resist. Take in the scene and marvel at how well you're eating within it.

Fact is, dive bars are flat-out fun. Some people will be talking too loud, a few will dance suggestively, one or two might even throw a punch. But a dive bar with great food? That's a winner, my friends, and that's a good reason to be very, very happy about this food revolution.