Through the Drinking-glass, and What Del Found There

From seediness to scenesters, one bartender’s career bears witness to Gotham’s evolving liquor landscape.

Del Pedro first got behind a bar at an uptown dive called the 712 Club. He worked the lunch hour, pouring rock-and-rye and beer for swing-shift meatpackers and the construction workers who liked to loosen up before heading back to work.

The place was easy to find—there was always a guy in a butcher’s coat and leather cowboy hat standing out front, near the west end of 125th Street, selling cut-rate meat to passersby from a cooler.

The manager, Floyd, was a small man who, rumor had it, lived in his car and went to Florida in the winter to work the circus. He showed Pedro around the bar on his first day, and the last stop of the tour was a drawer behind the bar where Floyd kept a gun. What was Pedro supposed to do with that—break up fights?

“No,” Floyd said. “It’s for the rats.”

That was 1985, when Pedro was 27, and a lot has changed since then—for him, and for New York’s drinks scene. Today he passes a high-end hat shop and an ice cream parlor on this way to work in SoHo. There’s no one selling meat outside, just a set of carpeted stairs behind glass discreetly etched with the name Pegu Club. Upstairs, he dons a shirt, vest, tie and long black apron and steps behind the polished maple bar. Clientele are more likely to be models or moguls than meatpackers, and there’s no gun to shoot the rats, who respectfully confine their adventures to the street below.

This is the only New York most of the bright young mixologists from the city’s chic cocktail bars ever knew. In their late 20s or early 30s today, they were in junior high when Giuliani was elected mayor; they came of age after New York’s crime rate dropped below the national average. But Pedro knows better. The city has reinvented itself dozens of times before his eyes, and he’s watched every change from the best seat in the house—the one behind the bar. His clean-shaven head is a storehouse of anecdotes and off-color jokes—and one is often not sure which is which (“A woman came into my bar and said, ‘My father is dying,'” Del remembers. “‘When my mother asked him if he wanted to be buried or cremated, he said, “Surprise me.”‘”) While pouring your poison, he’s likely to discuss Russian literature, The Godfather, the proto-punk ‘zine Trouser Press, sex, sports, or 21st-century poetry (“It’s like in that Paul Violi poem: ‘Veni, Vidi, Velcro:/I came, I saw, I stuck around.'”), all in a reedy voice that recalls ’70s rockers like Alex Chilton and Marc Bolan. It’s no wonder he’s acquired the reputation of a real bartender’s bartender. In an essay called “A Date with the Deldo,” whiskey maven Lenell Smothers says, “I have mixologist friends, so don’t get me wrong. But when I’ve had a shitty day, need my spirits lifted, I go sit with Del.”

Fresh from his native Bermuda, the young Del Pedro first stepped off a Greyhound bus into Times Square in 1975, the year before Taxi Driver dramatized the city’s seedy underbelly of pimps, prostitutes and street violence. A few blocks from Port Authority, the 16-year-old was drinking a beer at a bar called the Blarney Stone (in those days, serving minors was illegal but commonplace) when an old man holding a shoebox tapped him on the shoulder. “Hey kid—wanna sniff?” the man said as he lifted the lid, revealing a woman’s sanitary napkin. “It smells just like a broad.” Del recalls, “I remember thinking at that moment, ‘Wow, this city is the place for me.'”

Pedro had moved to New York with his guitar, but the 1970s chaos that attracted him, exemplified in the music scene of CBGB and Max’s Kansas City, soon gave way to a more conservative, consumption-centered sensibility—especially in the restaurant business, where Del would make a living. Chefs like Patrick Clark at the Odeon and Larry Forgione at An American Place were redefining American regional cuisine, and Pedro got a job in the kitchen of a high-profile opening—Sam’s Café, owned by Mariel Hemingway and her husband Steve Crisman, who managed Manhattan’s Hard Rock Café in London in that almost impossible-to-imagine past when the chain was the epitome of edgy sophistication. Sam’s was no different, and its “American nouvelle” menu of blue-cheese pizzas, arugula salads and newly named free-range chicken attracted the ’80s A-list. On good nights, that meant laughing at Kareem Abdul-Jabar try to fit his legs under the table at dinner with John McEnroe; on bad nights, it meant coping with strung-out celebrities who, after indulging in that decade’s legendary excesses, liked to storm the kitchen. (Pedro watched one particularly excited star, her flaring nostrils “margarita-rimmed” with white powder, shout complaints about “the free-base chicken.”)

One day, chef Tom Repetti told Pedro he couldn’t keep him in the kitchen—he was admittedly a lousy cook—but if he got some experience tending bar, Repetti might hire him once Sam’s opened its new location. At first Pedro wasn’t excited by the idea. “I always looked at bartending as something to do with your life if you wanted to waste it,” he says. Nevertheless, when Floyd gave him the keys to the 712 Club, he took them, and he never cooked again.

True to his word, Repetti hired Pedro a few months later to open Sam’s Café in Midtown. The new Sam’s was a remarkable space, on the first floor of the brand new Equitable Center on Seventh Avenue and 52nd Street (Le Bernadin had opened two years earlier in the same building, its entrance facing 51st Street), featuring the Santa Fe stylings that were then state of the decorative art. This was not “just another yuppie watering hole,” Bryan Miller wrote in the 1987 Times review. “The setting is awesome in its dimensions—a Grand Central Terminal with Western accents…brass-and-clay-colored chandeliers suspended from a 28-foot-high ceiling, a bronze bison grazing on top of the circular bar and plenty of elbow room for weary urban cowboys to stretch out after a hard day on the corporate range.”

That bronze bison beckoned to the more daring patrons, and his siren song grew louder with every margarita Pedro poured. “To get to it,” Pedro remembers, “you’d have to get behind the bar, hoist yourself up on the counter, then climb the shelves of the back bar. It wasn’t easy. The thing must have been 20 feet in the air.” This happened with some frequency—it’s hard to imagine anything similar going on in Bobby Flay’s Bar Americain, the space’s current tenant, without the police being notified.

One day three Upper East Side matrons came to Sam’s for lunch and sat at the bar. One looked at Pedro and said, “I can tell just by looking at you that you don’t know how to make a sidecar.” He admitted he didn’t. “That’s OK,” she said. “I’m going to teach you.” She walked him through the process, mixing cognac with Cointreau and lemon juice—”Don’t even think of putting sour mix in it,” she cautioned—even giving her cocktail glass a sugared rim. On her way out, she winked at Pedro and said, “You got it.” Prompted by this encounter, Pedro scoured his favorite downtown bookshops for out-of-print cocktail manuals. He scored titles like Trader Vic’s Bartender’s Guide and Jerry Thomas’s How to Mix Drinks, or The Bon-Vivant’s Companion, not knowing that a generation of mixologists who would treat these books as sacred texts was about to be born.

In 1993, Sam’s Midtown location closed and Pedro was out of a job. He worked for a while at Les Halles on Park Avenue (before chef Anthony Bourdain arrived) and at the Hotel Knickerbocker. In 1995 Pedro’s old friend Scott Sternbach got him a job at Grange Hall, a popular West Village restaurant with a 1930s-inspired interior. Pedro inherited a cocktail menu that was one of the most sophisticated and forward-thinking in the city this side of the Rainbow Room—an unusual feature at the time, especially in a restaurant that proclaimed to serve “American farm food.” He soon made the cocktail menu his own, adding to the offerings, refining the recipes and forgoing the endless vodka-based “martinis” showing up on menus across town, for seasonal incarnations of the classics he’d found in old books.

Before long, Pedro’s original concoctions were celebrated in the press. In his book Killer Cocktails, David Wondrich included Pedro’s recipe for the Bedford, a mixture of rye, Dubonnet and Cointreau.

Grange Hall prided itself on being a neighborhood place, where old-school Village dwellers and yuppies could mingle freely with the crowd from the next-door Cherry Lane Theater. (Some found the crowd a little too well-heeled. One night, the writer Nick Tosches stormed out because, as he told Pedro, “Everyone here looks like Hugh Grant.”) On the morning of September 12, 2001, Pedro got a call from Jay Savulich, the co-owner of Grange Hall, asking him if he would come in to work. Savulich had been inundated with calls from regulars asking if the restaurant would be open, and if Pedro would be there. He went.

“People needed somewhere to go talk, to try to make sense of the events,” he says. “These people don’t go to church. What community centers are there for people in New York, if not bars? Where else are they going to go?”

In January 2004, in an article titled “Last Call at Grange Hall,” the New York Observer reported that the restaurant was closing, despite a loyal clientele and financial success—”Like many New York restaurants, Grange Hall lasted as long as its lease.” Pedro was the one to turn off the lights before he locked the door for the last time. Out of work, he took a job at Flatiron eatery l’Acajou, a position that threatened to put a poetic end to his career. Opened at about the same time as Sam’s Cafe in Midtown, L’Acajou was an “Alsatian bistro” opened by restaurateur Guy Raoul (of Raoul’s), and to Pedro, it was the one of the last vestiges of those more liberal times. He found the scene sympathetic, from the crowd of aging gallery owners and art dealers who had made it big in the 1980s, to the coat checker called John—except on the days he came dressed as Monique. When l’Acajou closed, Pedro felt Manhattan had become less tolerant of quirky small businesses. Rising rents made the era tough for independent restaurateurs, but big companies could still make deals; Danny Meyer’s Union Square Hospitality Group invited Pedro to open the bar at the Modern, but he found the orientation process too cold, too corporate. “After that, I went into the wilderness,” Pedro says. He went back to Bermuda for a while; he considered moving to New Orleans. Running out of ideas, he called Audrey Saunders, owner of the Pegu Club.

Pegu is recognized as one of the leading cocktail bars in the country, a place where bartenders measure every ingredient to the quarter-ounce—not quite his background. “I never got into the whole lab coat and chemistry set approach,” he shrugs. “I didn’t buy it when I was nine, and I’m not going to fall for it now.” But Saunders had sat at Pedro’s bar in Grange Hall; she knew his sly charm, his easygoing banter, the way he involved every customer in the conversation. To be honest, Saunders had grown a little weary of the chemistry set approach as well, of bartenders who had learned their trade from old books and new Web sites, but seemed rigid and standoffish behind the bar. She knew that when Pedro was working, Pegu would never feel like a laboratory or a classroom. Moreover, her other bartenders could learn a few things from Del about how to work a crowd. But she didn’t want to sacrifice the quality of her product and knew that after decades of excess, he was on the wagon. (“Sometimes I feel like the eunuch at the orgy,” Pedro says.) Saunders asked him: Would he be able to taste his drinks?

According to AA, to ingest even that much alcohol would put him back at square one of addiction. Pedro knew Saunders required her bartenders to taste their drinks constantly, dozens of times a night, a practice as basic as a chef tasting his food before he serves it. He told Saunders he would think it over.

In the end, he didn’t have to think long. At Grange Hall, he’d been at the forefront of the classic cocktail resurgence. By 2008, the movement had long since moved on, and bars like Death & Company, PDT, Angel’s Share and Pegu Club had taken up where Grange Hall left off. Back from the wilderness, he was ready for the spotlight again.

“I realized that this profession is really important to me, and I wanted to work at a place with all the resources and talent that Pegu Club has. I wanted to become a better bartender. And I realized that to work at this level, I had to taste.”

So he does. Perhaps not as much as the other bartenders, but he’s not concerned that he’ll get into trouble. “I took a vow of celibacy—what’s a quick hand-job every now and then?” he shrugs.

More importantly for the rest of us, he’s back behind the bar. He’s a little wistful every now and then, thinking about the 712 Club, Sam’s Cafe, Grange Hall, l’Acajou—all gone now. “New York obliterates its history,” Pedro once told me, “and I’m against that. Any building or business that’s less than museum quality gets swept aside.” But Del Pedro, a museum-quality bartender, remains.

In one of Pedro’s favorite jokes, a young kid says to his mother, “Mom, when I grow up, I wanna be a bartender.” His mother says, “Well, you can’t do both.” Del Pedro made his choice, and New York City is better for it.

Photo credit: Daniel Krieger

 

 

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St. John Frizell writes about the liquored life for Bon Appétit, Saveur, and other magazines such as this one, and runs a café-bar in Red Hook, Brooklyn, called Fort Defiance. When not writing or bartending, he haunts the pubs around Port Authority, carrying a shoebox.