through so much writing about food, perhaps you’d enjoy a libation?
Think of this chat with San Francisco publican John Caine as a little
after-dinner drink—like a fine cognac (maybe break out a cigar
while you’re at it). Credited with bringing the cosmopolitan
to San Francisco when he migrated here from the Midwest in the late ’80s,
Caine has demonstrated his prowess with that cranberry-and-vodka cocktail
on the KRON-TV cooking show Bay Café. He’s also owned
several successful San Francisco bars, including his latest, Hi Dive,
just north of AT&T Park on the Embarcadero. The perfect place to
tune up your vocal cords before a Giants game, Hi Dive offers a sweeping
view of the East Bay and of course, expertly crafted cocktails. I flagged
Caine down recently for some spirited words of wisdom.
What’s your connection to the cosmo?
John Caine: I moved to San Francisco from Cincinnati in 1987, and at that time
in Cleveland, New York, and Cincinnati there was the cosmo. The cosmo is the
granddaughter of an evolution of drinks that began with vodka and gin in the ’50s
and ’60s. You remember the gimlet from the ’30s and ’40s?
PK: I don’t
remember that, but maybe you do.
JC: Vodka and Rose’s Lime, that’s a gimlet. That goes back 100
years. Then 40 years later you add triple sec to it and orange liqueur and
that makes it the kamikaze. Then Ocean Spray developed cranberry juice out
of New England. That gets added and then you have the cosmo. I worked in a
lot of cutting-edge bars in Cleveland and Cincinnati, and we were making cosmos.
bartended your way through college and after graduating could have
gone into public relations or radio sales, but would have suffered
a severe cut in pay. Is being a barkeep a respectable profession for
a college-educated guy like you?
JC: A friend of mine, a good customer, he said to me the other day, “Bartending,
it’s not a man’s trade anymore, it’s all for women.” It’s
certainly gotten healthier and more even by gender, but I think that the trade
is still respectable. It’s dangerous sometimes, which can be fun.
it seems that your friend is right—where are the guy bartenders?
It seems like you’ve got to have the hotties behind the bar so
the guys can drool.
JC: If you go by tradition it used to be you only had male bartenders because
they attracted female customers, and female customers attract male customers.
Win, win, win, right? But just because you’re male doesn’t mean
you’re a better bartender. So you try to get the best people to work
and some girls just try harder.
about the image of the bartender as therapist?
JC: A lot of people come looking to talk and maybe you’ve got time, maybe
you don’t. Some people try to talk to me and I’m like, “Oh
really?” And I didn’t hear a word of it. I just took 14 cosmo orders.
But I smile at ’em, and wink, and say “Yeah, great to see you.” Maybe
that’s rude or being fake, but I’ll tell ya, every once in a while
you can get cornered, too. And sometimes I won’t have it. I’ll
just shut ’em down. “Hey, it’s too bad for you, how about
them Giants?” Younger bartenders with older guys that come to kvetch,
they don’t know how to get out of it. But I tell them, “Is this
going to get interesting anytime soon?”
about fussy drinks? Is a manhattan a pain to make?
JC: Oh no, manhattans and any liquor cocktail, any bartender in San Francisco
can do. Negroni, Irish coffee, things like that take a little knowledge. People
can fuck that up if they put too much Campari. So it’s an easy recipe:
one third, one third, one third, right? Gin, Campari, and sweet vermouth. But
there is a little knowledge with that. If you have different pour spouts on
each bottle you’re going to get a different pour. Outside of that, what
we’ve got to know as bartenders: lock the doors and turn off the lights.
about making stuff up if you don’t know how to make a particular
JC: Before I touch any liquor I say to a customer who ordered it, “This
is how we make it here. This is what’s in it. If you don’t think
this is what you want, order something else, but you’re going to be charged
$8.50 for it.” And they go “Oh, OK . . . I’ll have a Bud
sell a drink called the Irish car bomb. What’s in that?
JC: I’ve always been offended by that name, but we sell a lot of them.
You drop the contents of a shot glass which is filled with Irish whiskey and
Bailey’s Irish Cream into a half-glass of Guinness, and then drink the
whole thing at once. It’s probably about eight ounces of chugging. I
hate those drinks, but I make them, and they get assessed an asshole tax too
because I don’t like the name.
the asshole tax?
JC: Dollar more per drink.
is the deal with tipping? Is it a dollar a drink?
JC: I’d say it’s a dollar per drink under $10, and then you can
break it down. I sell five drinks for $20, and personally if I get $23, that’s
fine. Bartenders are going to tell you “Give me as much money as you
have.” But as an owner I’ve softened on that. I never confront
someone on a tip, but when they walk away from the bar after not tipping, I
will catch their eye and, very demonstratively and loudly, say “Thank
you.” So, the next time they come up to the bar they cannot not tip.
They get thrown out.
JC: Yeah. First of all it’s service, so you have to feel like you got
that service too. If you walk into a crowded saloon and the bartender sees
you, waves you over, asks what you want, serves you really fast and you’re
happy—there’s a good tip there.
Patrick’s Day and New Year’s Eve: Amateur hour?
JC: Yeah. It’s OK though. They’re people, too. In the morning,
every January first and every March 18th, the money’s the same color
as every other day of the year.
E-mail Paul Kilduff at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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