going to bars alone

photo taken from http://www.drinkgal.com/_blog/Drink_This/post/The_Gambling_Cowboy_Count/, but I'm not sure what their photo source is

(It seems like I am building up to an unintentional series of posts about drinking!  Dear family, I promise I am not an alcoholic.)

On Saturday night, I took myself out to the bar.  I didn’t start the night with that plan, but sometimes it’s just how things end up.  My friend KC had told me about a cocktail bar called Clive’s, in the Chateau Victoria hotel – fairly new, run by an Australian cocktail maestro named Shawn, home of the bar-none best cocktails in Victoria.  Clackety-clacking in my heels, I ran the gauntlet of the Strathcona Hotel’s belligerent bar crowd, and rounded the corner to get to Clive’s.  The hotel is on a slight hill, and to get to the glassy semicircle of the entrance you have to walk up this small slope.  It makes one feel exposed, disadvantaged – the hotel has the high ground, and you’re just a petitioner.  (Being a young, single woman in excessively high heels, walking into a hotel alone at night, I also felt some red-lit overtones.)

Slipping in through the glide and hiss of automated glass doors, I entered and walked through the quiet lobby.  The desk clerk glanced over at me briefly before returning to whatever electronic distraction they were engaged in.  My reflection floated in a thousand shiny surfaces, reflected in polished tiles, dark windows, brass fixtures, mirrors.  There’s something eternally glamorous about nice hotels:  the intrigue of moneyed itinerants; the possibilities of anonymous numbered rooms; and of course, the hotel bar with its discreet bartender, always cleaning glasses with a tired white rag.  He’s seen it all and then some, and carries the secrets of all seven continents, passed on in confidence by travellers leaving in the morning.

Clive’s was decorated in a style that seemed like another decade’s misplaced ideal of understated luxury – too much frosted glass, swirly turquoise, and blocky furniture.  The tiny, colourful Swarovski crystal lamps were cute, but made far too little impact for what I imagine they cost.  No matter.  I didn’t go for interior design, I went for the cocktails.  After settling myself into a big, swivelling barstool, I informed the bartender that I wanted to be surprised.

I should note that I am a cocktail amateur; I rarely order them, being more of a beer/wine/highballs sort of person.  A gin and tonic or a whiskey-soda are generally as far as I venture into cocktail territory.  I certainly don’t have any kind of developed cocktail palate.  So when the bartender asked what I liked in a drink, I wasn’t able to give him much more than “not too sweet.”  After some thought, he delivered up a Negroni with double gin, which he told me would better balance the Campari.  I don’t think I’d ever had a Negroni before, so I can’t comment on single gin vs. double gin, but the drink he served me was indeed exceptionally well-balanced, from first hit on the tongue to full trip down my throat and aftertaste.  Delightful!  I settled in to sip it slowly, and started talking to my bartender.

The first question I asked him was whether the bar’s clientele was mostly from the hotel.  I was hoping to spin this into a conversation in which he would reveal to me the confessionals of thirsty, chatty hotel guests.  Unfortunately, his answer was in the negative:  a mere 10%, he estimated.  The majority were locals:  regulars and “industry” people,  i.e. other service industry workers in Victoria.  The hotel guests, he said, went in search of something safer, more familiar.  What a disappointment!

A double disappointment, in fact, because the service industry in Victoria can be an extremely snobby community.  There seems to be a prevailing attitude that if you are an attractive young server in a popular establishment, you are infinitely more cool than your customers and it is therefore a real treat for them to be served by you, queen/king of the Scene.*  It’s more likely that a bartender will spend their free moments engaged in conversation with their coworkers – often with much mussing of their shiny, luxurious manes of hair, laughing with heads tossed back in abandon, and not-so-surreptitious glances over their shoulders to snicker at the innocent customers – than talking to the poor stiffs at the bar.  But is that sort of talk not part of the bartender’s job description?  Is it a lost art?  Is the glass-polishing, always-available, secular-confessor bartender a dead breed?

If not dead, then dying.  At least in Victoria.  The Critically Endangered status of the talkative and compassionate bartender is a result, I think, of several factors:  1.  On some level, I think that young severs are simply not aware of this ancient archetype of the bartender.  They just don’t know that they’re neglecting a critical part of their job.  2.  They really are too cool.  3.  Modern paranoia and political correctness make it far less “okay” to strike up conversations with strangers; bartenders don’t want to seem like they’re hitting on their customers, don’t want to offend them, and customers don’t want to impose upon their bartender by unloading all of their problems.  This, of course, is what the alcohol is for – four drinks later, impose away!  Yet even with the aid of the eternal social lubricant, bartender conversation can be hard to come by.  It is, in my opinion, a crying shame.  When a person goes to a bar alone, they are looking for two things:  drink and conversation.  Perhaps consolation.  The true bartender should be able to provide both of these things.**

At any rate, my bartender was somewhere in between; he maintained a conversation with me while also chatting to his coworkers.  He was friendly but did not invite a full confessional.  He was certainly more open to conversation than 90% of the bartenders I encounter in Victoria, which was at least partially a consequence of how empty the bar was that night.  I suppose that when your bar attracts mostly local regulars and “industry” people, the skill of intimate conversation with strangers is not as crucial.  He was, however, a truly excellent bartender in terms of cocktail creation, and I spent an enjoyable hour and a half learning about the finer points of mixing drinks.  Clive’s, while not quite fulfilling my romantic dreams of hotel bars, did deliver on the promise of the best cocktails in Victoria, and I will most definitely be returning.

*See the Victoria food blog Your Restaurant Sucks – highly recommended for Victoria readers! – for more rants about why service in Victoria often, well, sucks.

** See Elizabeth Gilbert’s excellent article “The Muse of the Coyote Ugly Saloon” for a great description of a bartender fulfilling all of their myriad roles.  Before you ask, YES it’s the Elizabeth Gilbert who wrote “Eat, Pray, Love,” and YES this is the article that the movie “Coyote Ugly” was based on.


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