This is the Barkeepers, a feature in which Eater meets the fine ladies and gentlemen behind the bar at some of the world's hottest cocktail parlors.
[Photos: Patricia Chang]
More than 16 years ago, bartender Marcovaldo Dionysos moved from Portland, Oregon to San Francisco, trading in his gig at PDX's then-hotspot Saucebox for shifts as day bartender at SF's storied Enrico's Sidewalk Cafe. In the years following, Dionysos accumulated a resume that reads as a history of the city's cocktail scene: In 1997, he created the bar menu at the now-iconic Absinthe Brasserie & Bar, following that up with stints at Stars, Bourbon & Branch, and Harry Denton's Starlight Room before signing onto Martin Cate's beloved tiki haunt Smuggler's Cove. "I'm kind of a restless person; I think I was born under a wandering star," Dionysos says of his varied resume. "I get pretty restless usually between a year-and-a-half and two-and-a-half years at a place. I feel like I reach a plateau where I'm not really learning, so that's what drives me to go somewhere else... I feel like I'm still learning, even now that the scene is so vibrant; there's a lot to mine from and pick from and learn from."
In the following interview, Dionysos — into an almost record-breaking three-year stint at Smuggler's Cove — chats with Eater about the tiki-heads tasting the Cove's 400 rums, reveals which cocktail he considers a "magic drink," and reminisces about San Francisco's cocktail scene in the late '90s, "when even the idea of having a cocktail menu was pretty novel."
How did you first get into bartending?
By accident. I moved from Seattle to Portland and was looking for a job as a waiter. The place I worked in Seattle had another location in Portland, and that was the first place I went. They didn't have any openings — they tried to get me to be a busboy for them — and I was offered a job at a new restaurant opening up as a service bartender, and they told me they'd train me. So, I went back to the other restaurant and said, "Sorry, thanks but no thanks." They made an offer to train me as a bartender if I was a busser for six months.
What was the name of the restaurant?
This was Casa U Betcha. It was a crazy place. We had as many as 30 tequilas [Laughs] which is nothing now, but it was crazy. In order to really make it as a bartender, you first had to get fired from Casa U Betcha. Some of the best bartenders around the city were ex-employees.
Tell me about moving to SF and starting Absinthe in '97. What was the craft cocktail scene like back then?
"When Absinthe opened, people really didn't know what to think of it."
In San Francisco, it was still really really new. There were some places that were making some decent drinks, but even the idea of having a cocktail menu was pretty novel. Most places that had one did some classics… the more creative things were basically just variations of a Cosmo. Enrico's had a small cocktail menu, we were making mojitos way before anyone else. We were the only place in town making them, really. With Enrico's, we had been set up by Paul Harrington, who wrote Cocktail: The Drinks Bible for the 21st Century, so it was one of those few places making really good drinks. I remember thinking, at the time, that there were probably half a dozen bars in San Francisco that had maraschino liqueur, and probably three that knew what to do with it. It was really bizarre. When Absinthe opened, people really didn't know what to think of it. It was successful, but I'd look up and down the bar after we'd been open for a couple months, and every single person at the bar had a cocktail off the menu.
If a guest wasn't familiar with a craft cocktail menu and they came into Absinthe, what was the reaction to what you were offering?
Well, I expected it to take a lot longer. I didn't know, really, how many people would take to it. But it happened almost immediately. We got some great reviews and some great write-ups of the restaurant and the bar, and there was quite a bit of hype behind it. We kind of opened with a bang, and people were more ready than I expected. It was really a nice surprise. I remember reading articles about other bars around the country where they were taking about how successful their cocktail program was, or their cocktail menu was, and saying, "Yeah, we sell 10 or 15 of these a month." I remember thinking, "That's crazy." The most popular cocktail on the menu at Absinthe was the Ginger Rogers, and that we were selling at 1,000 a month. I think it's still the most popular cocktail on the menu, 15 years later.
How did you and Martin first get in touch about working at Smuggler's Cove?
He was one of the first, one of the early members of the San Francisco Bartender's Guild, which I started with Jacques Bezuidenhout, who works for Kimpton now, and David Nepove, who's now the national president. So, the three of us started the chapter here in San Francisco, and I'm not really sure how Martin heard about it, but he was one of the first — first 20 for sure — but I think he was one of the first 10 members we had. So, I've known him for a long time, and it just so happened that when I was looking for something new, something different, he was looking for a bartender. It's kind of funny, one of the things he asked me was, "I'm afraid you're going to get bored in six months and move on." And I've been there now for three and a half years.
How familiar were you with tiki culture when you signed on?
Not much at all. And that was one of the reasons I wanted to work there. I also thought that rum was coming for a long time — it was the "next big thing" for the better part of a decade — I was waiting for it to take off. And then all of a sudden, gin would suddenly pick up; rum would have to take a backseat for a while. But there wasn't really a great place to taste rum in San Francisco, even to really learn about it as a customer. There was Martin's bar in the East Bay, which was great. But as far as tiki cocktails go, I had a few of the Trader Vic's cocktail books, but besides that, not really. [...] I tell people all the time, some of our customers come in and see me in a Hawaiian shirt making drinks and ask me about tiki events, Tiki Oasis in San Diego, and I go, "I'm in it for the cocktails. I'm here for the drinks."
How often does that interaction happen? Is it more of the tiki type or the craft cocktail crowd?
"We'll have people lined up around the block for an hour before we open."
It's such a mixed crowd. We definitely get the tiki-heads in there. A lot of them show up on Tuesdays, they have a meet up for people on Tiki Central's website. Tuesdays there's a lot of Hawaiian shirts. We get them all the time, though. Sometimes it's people who are traveling and make a point to go to every tiki bar in every city they travel to. We're in a lot of travel guides, so we get a lot of tourists, a lot of people who come in just looking for the best bars or cocktail bars in town. We have a huge number of regulars, some are tiki-heads, some are just rum-lovers. I have people who come in on a regular basis and just drink Manhattans. It's kind of all over the board. [...] But we do have mug releases. We have mugs that are always available, we have some limited-edition ones that we've run with for several months. Sometimes we'll have a mug release where they're only available [for a limited time], and we'll have people lined up around the block for an hour before we open. I haven't gotten too far down the tiki rabbit hole, although I do have a small collection of mugs, and they're pretty much all Smuggler's Cove mugs.
Speaking of, the website has a FAQ dedicated to explaining the line. Is that a frequent complaint?
Yeah, there are some people who complain about it. The problem is we have such a small capacity — we're really a small bar — and without a doorman, people would just push their way in. We'd get way over the legal capacity really quickly. People will pack it in. So, we have to have a doorman, we have to have some way to keep it from becoming a huge fire hazard. We do have a fair amount of complaints. It's kind of a necessary evil, there's not really a great alternative. [...] It's really Friday and Saturday that we consistently have a line, although I've seen anomalies. We've had a line at seven o'clock on a Wednesday sometimes, because everyone decided to show up at the same time and we have to regulate it somehow.
Thinking about the energy of the room on an average Saturday night: Does the nature of the clientele sort of shift or change throughout the night?
Definitely. There seems to be a really big push somewhere around 10 o'clock, a lot of people show up at 10 o'clock and that's when the line forms, and that's when I think we have the most complaints. But we have a fair amount of regulars, people will come in at five o'clock. Sometimes, there will be people waiting outside at five o'clock, but it's a fairly mellower crowd. A lot of our regulars come, they're drinking their way through the rums, people getting out of work. And there's usually a little bit of a lull between 7:30p.m. and 8:30p.m., people who came in early are going to eat some food and have dinner. By 8:30p.m., we have the next wave that comes in, and it's usually a little more high energy. Then at about 10 o'clock, it just goes nuts.
Smuggler's Cove. [Photo: Patricia Chang]
What's your favorite drink to make?
The one for me at the end of the night. [Laughs] People ask that all the time, and for me, there's not really one favorite that I like to make more than any other. There's some that I really enjoy making for people because I know they're going to flip when they taste it: I really like the Dead Reckoning on the menu, which is one of Martin's drinks. It's one of those magic drinks where if somebody says, "I want something not too sweet," I give them that drink and they love it. And the next customer says, "I want something that's on the sweet side," give them the Dead Reckoning, and they love it. It is kind of magic.
Is that the most popular order?
"I believe that they took it off their menu because it was too much of a pain in the ass to make."
There's probably a top 10 list. And it tends to go in waves. There will be a drink that's suddenly the most popular drink of the night. We make a lot of Mai Tais, of course. The Puka Punch, which is the most complicated drink on the menu, has a lot of ingredients: It comes from the Tiki Ti down in LA, and I believe that they took it off their menu because it was too much of a pain in the ass to make, and they have a menu of over 100 drinks. There's one called the Sidewinder's Fang, which has an entire peel of an orange, which gets very fun when we're super-busy. There are nights when I'll make two; there are night when I'll make 40 of them.
So, for some bartender wisdom, how do you cut someone off?
As tactfully as possible. Generally, if I feel like somebody's reached their limit, I'm so busy that oftentimes all I have to do is kind of not serve them, and they just attribute it to the fact that I'm busy. So, that's a really passive-aggressive way of doing it. Some people like to put water in front of people, but I try to put water in front of everyone sitting at the bar, so that doesn't really [work]. It's not a situation that comes up as often as you might think. I mean, it's kind of surprising because we have such strong drinks, but I think people realize how strong they are.
Have you ever had to throw somebody out of the bar?
Oh yeah. I've been bartending for 20 years, there's lots of people who I've had to ask to leave. Sometimes, it's people who are just belligerent and violent. When I worked at the Starlight Room, I think I had the record for having the most people thrown out. But it was usually, I would just grab a doorman. But we would have people who would start fights, we had people just acting inappropriately, people having drugs out on the bar. You would not believe. It gets a little crazy.
[At Smuggler's Cove this year] on Halloween, there were two young Asian girls — obviously not in costume — just sitting at the bar enjoying a Scorpion Bowl. And this obnoxious guy comes in — with his girlfriend, even — and he leaned over to these two young girls and said, "I don't understand your costume. Is is 'slutty Asian girls?'" And I just was like, "Did you really just say that?" The first girl didn't know what to say, so he turned to her friend and said the same thing. And I was like, "You've got to leave. You can't be in here." … He crossed a line. To me, it's about: If somebody had such poor judgement he was willing to do that, it makes me wonder what more they'll show poor judgement in. I'd rather kick somebody out when they first start signs of being inappropriate. I feel like it's my responsibility to create a safe environment for people who want to come in an enjoy themselves.
Do you have any good fake ID stories?
I have seen some pretty bad ones. But I think I've seen more fake money than fake IDs… When I was at Absinthe, I caught somebody trying to pass me a fake hundred, and then I was actually out at a bar in my neighborhood just a couple weeks ago, and someone came up next to me and tried to pass a fake hundred to the bartender. And it was so bad, so obviously fake. I started to hear about stories all over town, in the last month or so, somebody must be firing up their printer.
Let's talk about some of your favorite regulars.
Yeah, we have a lot of regulars. The guy that does the lighting for the opera, he was one of our first Masters of the Cove, he was the second person to have 100 rums. But now he's gunning for 500, he's had 463 at last count, I think? Super-nice guy, comes in a lot, brings people in. He'll talk to strangers at the bar, he's kind of a great ambassador for the bar, and a lot of times, he'll buy people a rum, the first rum on their card to get them started in the Rum Ambassadors society. We also have the piano tuner for the opera; a lot of interesting, creative people.
And finally, what's your must-have Gatekeeper tool?
"Speed is one of those things that you really can't teach."
[Long pause.] I was just talking to a couple of bartenders yesterday, and we were talking about speed and efficiency. And we were talking about other traits, too, but I feel like a lot of those can be taught. I think you can learn how to deal with people; I think you can definitely learn the recipes, you can learn etiquette. But speed is one of those things that you really can't teach. So, if you find somebody who is fast, you can teach them everything else. But if you don't have speed, you're going to be in the weeds.
That's interesting, because I often hear from bartenders the opposite: You can teach technique but not so much a pleasant personality.
I think definitely the personality — you definitely have to be comfortable dealing with people all day long — it's kind of a no-brainer. And I've definitely heard that, and I definitely agree with that. And I think that you can teach technique. But speed is something else: The ability to work quickly and efficiently, and cleanly, and be able to multitask. Yeah, it's an ability that is really difficult to teach.