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Stable runs a retail shop selling all things Swiss. The H Street NE restaurant stocks its entryway with everything from fresh baked bread to schnapps from Thursdays through Sundays. One can find pre-mixed cocktails mimicking the ones on the dinner menu, only they’re presented in plastic pouches meant to take home to consume. But when you squirt a Sazerac into an inappropriate glass with freezer ice in it, you might find yourself wondering: Who made this drink? How was their day?
The bartenders who have been lucky enough to hang on to their jobs throughout the pandemic have shaken and stirred drinks over the past year. But that’s not the same as the art of actually tending bar. The District has prohibited patrons from sitting at staffed bars since March 16, 2020. So instead of mixing drinks while simultaneously shooting the breeze with customers, D.C. bartenders have been alone at their workstations, pouring elixirs into plastic cups and hoping that people enjoy them once they arrive at their final destination. Gone is the art of the reveal. Eliminated is the opportunity to give dating advice. Forgotten is the guilty pleasure of eavesdropping on last-call conversations.
“I’ve become a professional packer of to-go packages,” says Service Bar bartender Christine Kim. In March, the D.C. Council passed legislation allowing restaurants and bars to sell cocktails and other alcoholic drinks for takeout and delivery. “I respect what carryout businesses did before the pandemic. The proper ordering of packaging things is a real skill set,” she says.
She estimates to-go cocktails currently make up about 30 percent of sales at her Shaw bar. That figure was higher during the parts of the public health emergency when on-premise consumption was off limits. When drinks are consumed elsewhere, Kim says she doesn’t get the instant gratification of seeing customers smile after their first sip. But more than that, she misses conversation.
“Our regulars genuinely care about our staff and are interested in our lives instead of saying, ‘Hi drink maker, make me something good,’’ Kim says. “We have relationships with our guests and I really miss that.” It’s been so long since she’s seen some of her regulars that she questions if she’ll recognize the ones who underwent pandemic makeovers. “I’m pretty good at remembering faces and names, but I haven’t exercised that muscle in over a year. Oh, you grew your hair out? You grew a beard?”
Kim also talks about a facet of bartending that’s just as important as whipping up something special. “A responsibility we have in the work setting is making sure everyone is having a good time,” she says. “I miss spying on people’s dates and making sure people are OK. We make sure everyone’s safety is guaranteed. We’re creating an environment where people feel comfortable coming into our living room.”
One of her favorite pastimes is introducing regulars to each other. Neighborhood Restaurant Group spirits director and longtime bartender Nick Farrell shares this sentiment. He longs to link people who work in the same field or who share the love of baseball.
The guy could also use a hug. He’s been producing his bottled cocktail line out of Bluejacket in Navy Yard. “I’m at a bar people can’t sit at in a neighborhood that’s not my own and I can’t really connect on that front,” he says. “I miss being able to hug a regular when they come in. Will we go back to doing that?”
Farrell goes about his days talking to the same circle of people. “We all have our own bubbles,” he says. “I haven’t met somebody new in over a year. It kind of sucks. More than kind of. It does suck. Curiosity is a big thing that drives me. Whether it’s curiosity about drinks and flavors or about other people and getting to know them. Half of that is totally gone now.”
Hosting Zoom cocktail classes has eased feelings of isolation. “As far as that interaction goes, that has started to fill that gap,” he says. “I ended up thanking the attendees in the end. You can only put so many cute things on a label or in a bottle and hope people get it. While it’s still not what it used to be, it’s gotten a little bit better.”
At The Dirty Goose on U Street NW, general manager and bartender Keaton Fedak feels nostalgic about the thrill of a packed house. “Another thing we miss is the rush of people coming up to the bar and having five people deep,” he says. At the end of a shift, bartenders would compete for bragging rights over who was the most slammed. “That made the night go by really fast and was kind of fun. Now we have to take reservations. When we look on OpenTable, we know what kind of night we’re going to have.”
In pre-pandemic times, DJs would spin several nights a week. Fedak is more than ready to bring the untz-untz back, but live entertainment remains off limits. “Having a DJ really creates a space,” he says. “We have the same DJs every week on a set schedule so our clients get to know them by their first names and become friends with them. I know our DJs miss it too.”
On quieter nights, like Mondays and Tuesdays, Fedak would try to get to know the people seated at his bar. “I usually ask where they’re from to get things going,” he says. The pandemic has thrown a wrench in that simple exchange. He still asks the same question, only now it’s to ascertain whether or not the customer is familiar with local COVID-19 regulations. “Now I have to educate this person that D.C. closes at 10 p.m. You can go buy food at Annie’s Paramount Steak House, but they can’t serve you alcohol [either]. I miss that interaction of getting to know somebody instead of educating them.”
Union Pub bartender Bridget McGiffin didn’t expect to miss game days. She often worked Saturdays during college football season. The Capitol Hill bar was home base for a number of alumni associations. “Everyone joins in together singing whatever the school’s songs are at the top of their lungs,” she says, painting a picture of beer-soaked revelry. “Random people making out in a corner after a victory. That celebration! That sense of community! I haven’t seen many of those people since January 2020. I’d be curious to know how they’re all doing.”
McGiffin says she learned the value of non-verbal communication while bartending over the past six years. It’s hard to scream over a crowd of patrons cheering or jeering a sports team. That skill set has been sitting on the shelf. “With the presence of a mask, that definitely makes things more challenging,” she says. “For the customers too. They can’t really read you as well. Last week a customer said, ‘Your face is saying you’re really stressed out.’ But that wasn’t the case.”
Jordan Williams, a manager at Mr. Braxton Bar & Kitchen in Park View, finds himself giving customers a thumbs up to indicate that he’s smiling under his mask. “Sometimes people can’t get all of my expressions from the eyes,” he explains. “I’m probably going to look silly once these masks come off. People will be like, ‘Why does this guy have his thumb up all of the time?'”
The bar he manages is small enough that patrons can join in the same discussion instead of chatting in silos. He fondly remembers the conversations the whole bar would get into like weighing whether Robert Downey Jr. or Nicolas Cage is the better actor. “It’s not the deepest of things in the word, but everyone has an opinion,” Williams says.
Sometimes regulars would post up at Mr. Braxton for an entire afternoon watching sports. “That doesn’t happen at all,” Williams continues. “I didn’t know I’d miss that. Now I’m like, ‘Come on, give me a taste!’”
Fortunately, some patrons have stayed in touch with Williams. That’s the nature of a true neighborhood bar. “I’m lucky that a lot of them reached out to me and donated money and helped with food when we were completely closed. I’ve kept in decent contact with some people. We talk once a month with little texts and sending memes.”
With the rollout of the vaccine and the tease of warmer weather around the bend, bartenders are hopeful for a return to normalcy in the not so distant future. They’ve started to think about what that might look and feel like.
“We’re all experiencing a collective trauma,” McGiffin sums up. “It will be interesting to see just how it all manifests within the following years.” She bets customers will still prioritize cleanliness and safety. “Will we be comfortable being close to each other again? Will any of the regulars ever feel comfortable giving me a hug again?”
If germaphobia doesn’t relent, Farrell is worried about D.C.’s dive bars. What patrons may have overlooked in the past while the good times rolled might come into clear view. “Will the places like Cheers become clean, well-lit places that lack a bit of character?” he wonders. “The bar in the basement will struggle to bounce back.”
Like McGiffin, Kim also predicts interacting in crowded spaces again will take some getting used to. Washingtonians have become accustomed to home life, where they’ve tried their hands at making cocktails. “If anything, the Karens of the world will be like, ‘That’s not how I make this drink at my house!’ Kim jokes. “You came out for an experience. If you wanted to make it at home, do it instead of telling me how to do my job.”
Fedak asks for understanding. “There are going to be some short-temper moments when we get back in the full swing of things because it’s literally like we’re starting a brand new job again,” he says. “I hope everyone is patient with all bartenders once we’re back as a full house.”