A bar is only as good as its bartenders. And while most can make a mean drink, an elite few can make your bar experience truly magical. Here's a tour of three bars that house the coolest bartenders around.
Café Maxx: "He can make gin fizzes!" my friend Fancy shouted happily, exalting the bartender before I'd even grabbed a seat. Fancy's old-timey, ultraposh drink — complete with fruit wedges hanging along the rim — sparkled from atop the glossy wood bar.
This is no small detail: My wingman, Beard, and I counted five previous occasions when Fancy'd ordered a gin fizz and sent it back because the bartender had botched his beloved beverage. But not today.
Café Maxx is a superswank restaurant and bar nestled in a nondescript, modest plaza on Atlantic Avenue. The adorably boyish bartender, David, can make anything — I really mean that — and the drink menu is exhaustive. Colorful, cubist art decorates the pine walls; long, cylindrical lights hang over the L-shaped bar; well-dressed couples dine by candlelight amid white tablecloths.
"Make me something with bourbon," Beard demanded, throwing his palm on the bar.
David gave a small smile. "Sweet or — less sweet?"
"He's asking if you're a pussy," I said to Beard.
"Less sweet!" Beard exclaimed.
Minutes later, David returned with a frothy, cocoa-colored beverage, explaining it was something he "just made up." I took a cautious sip. It was delicious, subtle, rich. When we pressed for a moniker, David named his concoction Kentucky Russian (three ounces of bourbon, one ounce crème de cacao, one-half ounce of amaretto, dash of cream), and Beard guzzled it.
As for its ever-changing martini list, Maxx currently features several delectable fruit-infused martinis, including the Pom Beach: a martini made with pomegranate liqueur, vodka, and X-rated grapefruit liqueur. Maxx has more beer (everything from Boddingtons to Blue Moon), wines, tequilas, and vodkas than my grandma's basement does (her poison of choice: straight gin).
At David's recommendation, I settled on an acai-blueberry-pineapple-infusion martini (it came with alcohol-soaked blueberries in the bottom of the glass!). David pulled two novelty booze bottles from his well-stocked liquor shelves and allowed us to inspect them. Hijos de Villa tequila came in a Glock-shaped bottle; Crystal Head vodka (actor Dan Aykroyd's favorite) is contained in a skull-shaped glass.
Our revelry was interrupted when a tanned gentleman in a silk shirt — patterned like a couch from the '70s and unbuttoned to his breast bone — slid into a nearby spot.
"He has the best hair," the guy slurred, pointing at David. Very true; David possessed a dark, perfectly tousled 'do of choppily cut strands.
"Is that why you come here?" I asked.
"No — I love art," he said. "But God only gave me two skills: Throwing a baseball — I played for the Blue Jays in '82, '83 — and adjusting people."
"Adjusting people?" I asked, fearful of what that might mean.
Turns out the dude was a former pro athlete turned chiropractor. An old and bitter chiropractor, that is.
"You shut the fuck up," he slurred when we tried to make friendly chitchat.
If David was annoyed by the guy's behavior, he didn't let on. He handled the familiar customer masterfully, even talking up his merits: "Sometimes, this guy does pushups on the bar at closing time!"
Since we couldn't leave such a skilled bartender facing drunken pushups alone, we settled in for one more drink.
Cancun Bar & Restaurant: The brand-spankin'-new Cancun Bar & Restaurant exudes a combo of the coolest elements of Mexican and American drinking culture. A true gringo honeymooner's dream.
After losing his pool game, owner Michael described the place to us as "the only Mezcal bar in the United States." The best bottles of Mezcal contain a liquor-soaked worm, which used to live in the agave plant from which the drink is made, he explained. I read the label on a bottle of Monte Alban: "'Believed by many that within lies the key. Some say it unlocks the door to a world of wondrous experiences.'" Intriguing.
I was happy to discover that the bartender was as intriguing as the drinks. Former Fetish Factory employee Mikhaila was the hottest girl with facial piercings I'd ever seen. She had sleek black hair and a cheerleader's body.
She also had worked at the bar for only a few weeks and seemed to be single-handedly running it. "At one point, I was here on double shifts, bartending, serving, and busing tables," she explained. "I'd run from table to table and to the bar and back. Someone would desperately need more salsa, which, when I was busing the table, I would find untouched. It made me want to kick that salsa out a window."
Spanish crackled through the busy bar. A parked motorcycle with a sombrero hanging from the handlebars leaned against a wall painted with a beach scene; scores of liquor bottles, a margarita spigot, and a Patrón shot dispenser were poised tantalizingly behind the bar. Up a few Spanish-tiled stairs were multicolored booths, hanging lights, and paper lanterns. Latin music thumped from the speakers, out the open doors, and into the crisp night air.
When I slid up to the bar (where, alas, America's Funniest Home Videos was playing on TV, kinda intruding on the vibe), Mikhaila served a bowl of chips and salsa faster than I could say "margarita." I made sure to finish the salsa.
And when my drink was ready, it came with an unnaturally colored wiggly thing dangling over the side.
"Gah," I said eloquently.
"Gummy worm," Mikhaila noted. She showed me the package. Thankfully the larvae were USDA-approved. And just nine calories in the entire pack.
The gummy worm margaritas, along with $1 Pabsts, are hugely popular, Mikhaila said, during punk shows — which are held fairly often, in addition to the free salsa lessons every Wednesday.
City Pub: "TOUCHING ME...TOUCHING YOOOOOOOOU...," Ronnie Davis howled from the stage. "SWEET CAROLINE!"
We were at City Pub in Deerfield Beach watching Ronnie entertain a score of drunken grandmas. The women, rather taken, whooped and clapped aggressively between sips of beer. Ronnie, clad in a blue silk shirt, ran around the stage and sang in a trumpeting voice. Upon completion of the Neil Diamond classic, he called on a white-haired gentleman to come to the stage and replicate Frank Sinatra's "Night & Day." As he wandered into the crowd to individually serenade the smitten females, I turned to the bartender. I was going to need a drink. Stat.
City Pub is a large, rectangular room with a smoky bar and strings of twinkling Christmas lights. Framed pictures of the Statue of Liberty, the New York City skyline, and Al Pacino decorate the walls. The TVs broadcast closed-captioned programs, but the bar is busy, and the Monday-through-Friday $1 drafts are impossible to beat.
Grant, the ponytailed bartender, brought us our frothy beers immediately. He also wore an apron that said "The Cocky Cook," and to the delight of the old ladies at the bar, he pulled up a flap to reveal an attached, giant fake penis.
"That's not big enough," said one of the ladies. Her friends immediately burst into laughter.
Though Ronnie took the stage in a shimmering Technicolor jacket and began to croon Elvis classics, Grant easily stole the show.
"You can smoke here," he said, holding out a full pack of cigarettes. "You smoke?"
"No," I said.
"I was going to ask you if you had any," he said. I looked up in a flash, and all the cigarettes were gone.
But Grant didn't stop there. As I nursed my Bud Light, he made napkins disappear. Then he placed a beer bottle in a paper sack and held the sack upside down.
"It's gone," he said, but it clearly wasn't.
"No, it's not," I said. He was obviously holding on to the bottom of the bottle through the bag.
He tipped it again. "It's gone!"
"It's not," I said.
"Oh, all right," he said, crumpling the bag up into a tiny ball and throwing it away.
"Hey! What the hell, did you go to magic school?" I asked.
"I've been doing tricks a long time," he smirked.
When he made me hold three foam balls in a clenched fist, and then I opened my fist to reveal a large foam penis, I began to think there was something in the beer.
Next, Grant set the contents of a pot on fire. Then he threw a lid on the pot, and when he pulled it off, the fire was out and a twitchy-nosed bunny was in its place.
"Happy Easter," said the bartender/magician. He placed the bunny on his shoulder. The bunny scrambled to hold on.
"How's he doing that?" I asked Pedro, a young man seated nearby. Pedro wore an orange shirt and was reading a newspaper.
"I don't know," he said with a heavy accent. "But I wouldn't spend time trying to figure it out — that ruins it."
Pedro continued sagely: "I work long days, and I don't go out often. I like to sit, listen to the music, and watch the bartender's tricks. Personally, I think you need to learn to enjoy life... Trying to figure everything out ruins the magic."
And that's the truth.