Jen Agg, a Canadian restauranteur, recently had a rant published in the Globe and Mail decrying “Best” lists of restaurants and bars. Here’s a taste (pardon the pun) of what she wrote:
I have always been suspicious of lists. From Michelin to En Route to Canada’s 100 Best Restaurants, they strike me as anything but impartial. And, of course, they are not. It’s always been my practice not to engage with the list writers – for one reason: They are a reflection of and a network for the toxic boys’ club culture that runs so deep in the bar and restaurant industry. So I don’t play ball with the list writers – then try not to care that the result of not playing ball is to be consistently left off these lists.
Agg also has a published book about her experiences in the restaurant industry entitled, “I Hear She’s A Real Bitch” which gives you a sense of her admitted personality. She’s an outlier even among the sisterhood; the feminist New York Times reviewer couldn’t stomach her book.
But Agg’s commentary got me thinking. I enjoy a good drink (or two) and I’ve spent more time in bars than I care to admit. Am I unknowingly one of those “bros” that Agg so passionately detests?
So, I tried drawing up a list of the Top 10 bartenders I’ve encountered over decades of drinking to test whether my criteria was sexist. Unfortunately, I could only come up with five bartenders deserving of the coveted “Starkman Approved” seal.
I expanded the list to include my most memorable bars and bartenders which I have presented below. I’ve listed them in the order I experienced them except my top two bartenders are listed on the bottom. I’ve shared the rationale for all my choices.
Let me know if you feel I should start wearing skinny pants, untucked fitted shirts, and grow a beard.
And the envelopes please:
Keg Mansion, Toronto
The Keg Mansion is where I first used a credit card. I recall saying to the woman I was with, “This is really cool ordering things and not having to pay for them.” To which she replied: “That is a very dangerous attitude.”
I suck at math, but I quickly learned the workings of compound interest. My spending habits are much more disciplined today.
The Keg also trained me to appreciate a good pour. The restaurant chain has long offered a “Keg size” portion where for a few dollars more you can get a double shot. I wish more restaurants would adopt the policy.
Canadian restaurants and bars are notoriously stingy with their pours (sadly, their U.S. counterparts have adopted the practice) so I often visit Keg restaurants when I’m north of the border. (The Keg’s wine prices also are quite reasonable). While nowhere close to the standards of a Danny Meyer or Wolfgang Puck eatery, the food is decent to above average for the price depending on the location.
Library Bar/Royal York Hotel (Toronto)
When I was a fresh-faced and naïve journalism graduate a Canadian Business magazine editor played me for a fool and assigned me to write a profile about a highly secretive but very powerful brokerage firm called Gordon Securities. Despite its influence, the firm had never been profiled because the CEO detested the media and had an iron clad rule that anyone who spoke to a reporter was automatically terminated.
I miraculously convinced a well-placed Bay Street source to meet with me on background and he chose the Library Bar in Toronto’s Royal York Hotel. It was here that I had my first – and still among the best – martinis I’ve ever had. The Library Bar served its martinis “stirred not shaken” in “bird bath” pitchers filled with ice.
I followed my source’s lead and downed three rounds. He rightfully stuck me with the bill, but given that he provided me with the info that enabled me to write the Gordon story and land my dream job at the Toronto Star, it remains one of the best investments of my life.
The Bar at the Hotel de la Montagne (Montreal)
This tacky bar and hotel are how I pictured Berlin in the 1930s. I often imagined Liza Minnelli dancing through the lobby singing “Life is a Cabaret my friend.” The hotel attracted stylish Montrealers (stylish and Montrealer is redundant for those in the know) and was a great place to observe Quebecois joie de vivre.
It was at the Hotel de Montagne I learned that if a bar is empty and a woman opts to set next to me and opens a conversation with, “How is your evening going?” I know her interest in my well-being likely isn’t innocent.
The Hotel de la Montagne was ideally situated in the heart of Montreal within a stone’s throw of the city’s most popular cultural attractions. It also was an easy five-minute ride to the city’s theaters and Place des Arts complex.
The hotel was torn down, but here’s a video that was made during the last week of operation.
Checker Bar (Detroit)
My dream was to work at a major U.S. newspaper so when the pre-Gannett management of the Detroit News agreed to hire me and facilitate my Green Card, I could barely contain myself. The editors immediately arranged for me to see a lawyer from Butzel Long, who suggested we meet for lunch at the Checker Bar, a hole-in-the-wall joint in downtown Detroit.
I was so high with elation my memory of the food is very sketchy, but I recall not liking the bar’s famed burger all that much. If this Yelp photo is any indication, I don’t think I’d care for it today. In fairness, Eater Detroit ranks it among the 23 best burger joints in Detroit. Starkman Approved recommends that when visiting Motown, you opt for the other 22 burger places.
The Golden Galleon (Detroit)
My time in Detroit was my happiest. I loved the grittiness of the place and Southeastern Michigan possibly has a per capita concentration of decent people anywhere on the planet. The Detroit News was world-class when I was hired, and its circulation was among the Top 10 in the U.S. (Regretfully, Gannett acquired the publication and drove it into the ground).
The Golden Galleon, a popular spot with Red Wings fans when the team played at the nearby Olympia stadium, is where editorial employees frequently headed after work. My drink in those days was Dewar’s on the rocks and the Galleon was always generous with its pours. The food was awful, the wine choices were terrible, and I get thirsty just thinking about the salty chips they used to serve. But I remember with great fondness the camaraderie I enjoyed at the place.
The Galleon was once a popular hangout for “not so nice” Jewish bootleggers called the Purple Gang. The bar is now Tommy’s Detroit Bar and Grill. Legend has it the place is haunted.
The Odeon (New York)
Starkman Approved Bartender: Abdul
I was a pioneer when I moved to New York in 1989 and settled in Battery Park City which was quite desolate in those days. The Odeon in Tribeca, a 15 minute walk from my lonely apartment, was the closest place of civilization and quickly became my hangout.
The Odeon was a place stuck in time that magically made everyone who entered look like they had NYC-style and flair. The restaurant was quintessentially New York and attracted an artsy crowd. It used to be open till 4 a.m. which in my younger days was quite meaningful. (The Odeon now shamefully closes at 11, not what I’d expect for an iconic restaurant in a city that supposedly never sleeps).
In the early 90s the Odeon unquestionably had the best burger, appropriately served between a thin English muffin. Regretfully, the restaurant changed suppliers as part of a cost cutting move, opted for a traditional hamburger bun, and lost its Starkman Approved endorsement.
I was an Odeon regular for nearly 20 years. Abdul, a Moroccan immigrant who started as a barback, was my favorite bartender. I toasted him in a 2009 blog post when he left with a colleague to start his own restaurant.
After Abdul quit, the Odeon began hiring bartenders with attitude. I never went back.
El Teddy’s (New York)
I hope this post finds its way to former El Teddy’s customers because I know they miss this place as much as I do. The upscale Mexican restaurant’s quirkiness was featured in the New York Times and co-owner Christopher Chestnutt embodied New York cool with his sartorial style and then pioneering black glasses. Despite the popularity of his Tribeca restaurant with the downtown artsy crowd, Chestnutt welcomed even those of us who had to work for a living.
El Teddy’s was known for its margaritas. It used premium tequila and the lime juice was freshly squeezed, not the sugar infused syrupy plonk most bars use. The restaurant made its own chips and salsa which often served as my entire meal.
El Teddy’s closed in 2004, never having recovered from 9/11. The restaurant was also a victim of gentrification, as the artsy types didn’t appreciate the Tribeca invasion of Wall Street suits.
Saffers Restaurant/Bar (Toronto)
Starkman Approved Bartender: Leona
I had a major Canadian bank client I won’t name but whose headquarters was in Toronto’s Royal Bank Plaza. After a day of meetings, the client took me to Saffers, a restaurant on the lower level of the building. I was always on my best behavior when I was with clients, so I simply ordered a martini with no vermouth because I’d grown tired of bartenders who didn’t know how to make a proper martini. Here’s how I recall my conversation with Leona:
Leona: Why don’t you want vermouth?
Me: I just like it straight up.
Leona: I make a really good martini. Why don’t you let me make you one?
Me: It’s okay. I’m okay with just vodka.
Leona: You’re afraid I’m going to put in too much vermouth, aren’t you?
Me: Not at all. I just like my vodka straight up.
My client (who knew me well and sensed I was lying): Why don’t you let her make you a martini?
I did. And it was one of the best and driest I ever had.
Leona’s secret? She didn’t use vermouth but a miniscule drop of single malt scotch.
Saffers closed about 10 years ago. My former client doesn’t know what happened to Leona.
The Lenox Room (New York)
Starkman Approved Bartender: Woman from Buffalo
I lived on the Upper East Side for more than a decade (65th and Third if you must know) where I frequented The Lenox Room, which attracted a mostly snobby Greenwich, CT, type crowd. I liked the place because the food was pretty good and one of the regular bartenders, whose name I can’t remember but I recall was from Buffalo, made a perfect martini and always made me feel welcome.
I probably shouldn’t admit this, but another reason I enjoyed the Lenox Room was because it was the UES place of choice for singles meeting their online matches for the first time. I took a sadistic pleasure watching the anxiety of single men and women when someone entered the restaurant hoping or fearing it wasn’t their date. I have some great fodder for my “Dates From Hell” coffee table book if ever I get around to writing it.
I visited one night after a woman cancelled a date on me. Despite my being “a really nice guy” the woman said she didn’t feel any “connection.” I asked the Buffalo bartender why being a “really nice guy” was the kiss of death in New York City.
“I’ll tell you why,” she said. “Woman in New York City like drama and punishment. I see it here every night. The biggest jerks are the ones who are most popular. Sorry, but there is nothing more unattractive to a New York City woman than a really nice guy.”
In a drunken stupor I went home and developed a comedy routine based on the bartender’s insight that proved quite popular. Darrell Hammond, of SNL fame, complimented me on the originality of the routine.
The Lenox Room was renamed TBar and turned into a steakhouse but the bar and ownership remains the same.
Kastro Lounge (New York)
Starkman Approved Bartender: Richard Darcy
Credit where credit is due: New York magazine turned me on to this hole-in-the-wall East Village bar in 1993 when it declared it home of the city’s best martini, besting such luminaries as the 21 Club, the Oak Room, and the Four Seasons.
Co-owner Richard Darcy, who worked Fridays and Saturdays nights when I visited the place, was a gifted mixologist. My good friend Bart and I were Saturday night regulars because of Darcy’s always perfectly prepared martinis filled to the rim with surface tension. But Darcy’s skills went way beyond martinis.
I took a tea teetotaler to Kastro who asked Darcy for a cranberry and soda. She took a few sips and said, “I know this sounds really strange, but this is the best cranberry and soda I’ve ever had.”
The first time I visited Kastro I asked Darcy if they served food. He gave me a bound collection of takeout menus from restaurants in the area and suggested I order in because there was no kitchen. Darcy welcomed me to bring in my own popcorn (a martini with a side of popcorn – life doesn’t get better than that), but he had class: He always prepared a napkin covered wicker basket so I didn’t have to eat out of the bag.
Darcy was a character and I enjoyed my extensive conversations with him about life, New York, and his accomplished corporate suit brother who worked in the healthcare industry. Kastro was my Cheers; the place attracted a diverse, down-to-earth crowd who also appreciated this gem of a place. In the wee hours of the morning it was where workers in the restaurant industry gathered. It was New York at its best.
Kastro is now the Fish Bar, which I visited a couple of years ago. I was served by a disinterested millennial bartender who didn’t know or care that she was standing on sacred space where one of the world’s most gifted bartenders once stood. I’ve long wondered what happened to Walker, so if anyone knows please share the info.
BondST (New York)
Starkman Approved Bartender: Tom
When people ask me what I miss about New York, I usually say nothing. That’s not quite true. On weekend nights I often pine for sitting at the cramped bar at BondST with my good friend Bart, eating the restaurant’s delightful Pan-Asian food and watching and talking to Tom, who along with Richard Darcy, is the best bartender I’ve encountered in my decades of drinking.
Tom, a Chicago native who has retained his Midwest warmth, is a stylish bartender with old craft values. The lost art of bartending required that barkeeps win over their customers and Tom does that in spades. Most of the millennial bartenders I come across these days seemingly think it’s the role of customers to impress them. As best I can tell, millennials equate attitude with desirable exclusivity.
BondSt attracts an upscale crowd, including a myriad of seemingly affluent people with a sense of entitlement. I was always in awe of Tom’s ability to engage people with respect, even with those who didn’t treat him in kind. Tom’s ability to withstand pressure also is impressive; he singlehandedly services the entire restaurant and maintains a Zen calm even when he gets slammed. The guy isn’t just grounded, he’s cemented.
Tom also has a wicked memory. Unfortunately, it means he can recount in considerable detail the first time I bellied up to his bar years ago. Apparently, I asked a lot of questions and made an inordinate number of requests on an unusually busy night, but he still made me feel welcome. I was a regular for years ever since until I moved to California.
Tom also is a master mixologist and knows his way around a wine list. I highly recommend the signature cocktail he designed but refuses to disclose the ingredients. If Tom could successfully bottle the concoction and mass produce it, he’d be a very rich man.
BondST’s management and wait staff were surprisingly always down-to-earth despite the restaurant’s trendiness. But if you visit, I recommend waiting for a seat at the bar and engaging with Tom and the parade of interesting people that come by to see him. That’s another sign of a great bartender. They attract great people like themselves.