Volume 75, Number 31 | December 21 - 27, 2005

Hey bartender! Beer, buybacks and telling tales behind the taps

By Ellen Keohane

A few minutes before 7 o’clock on a recent Friday evening, Dan Sweeney arrived for his bartending shift at the crowded St. Mark’s Ale House in the East Village. Sweeney, 28, who is thin with chin-length blonde hair, immediately started pouring drafts and catching up with regulars.

The bar caters to a mix of soccer fanatics, tourists, New York University students and neighborhood regulars. But sports and beer aren’t the only things that make St. Mark’s Ale House so popular. “It’s the bartenders that make you want to come back,” said Alfonso Gomez, a 34-year-old hotel clerk, who goes to the bar at 2 St. Mark’s Pl. most Friday nights. “He’s a real good guy,” Gomez said, referring to Sweeney.

Despite the recent negative publicity surrounding bars and clubs on the Lower East Side and in the East Village, New Yorkers continue to flock to them because there’s someone behind the bar who remembers their names and their favorite drinks.

Villager photos by Elisabeth Robert

Dan Sweeney is quick on the draw at St. Mark’s Ale House

Dan Sweeney at St. Mark’s Ale House

“Everyone — when they leave a bar — should feel that the bartender has been talking to them all night,” Sweeney said on a quiet Wednesday afternoon at the East Village watering hole. Wearing a brown leather jacket with an AC/DC pin on its pocket, Sweeney spoke with a raspy voice about his bartending philosophy. Personality and attention to detail are most important, he said. Aside from remembering people’s names and what they are drinking, it’s important to make sure that everyone has a drink at all times. “That’s what working at a neighborhood bar is all about,” he said.

After graduating from Fairfield University in 1999 with a degree in finance, Sweeney moved to New York City from his hometown of Garden City, Long Island. At first, Sweeney bartended part time to supplement his income as a financial analyst. “I had to get up at 6:18 a.m. five days a week and wear a suit,” Sweeney said with disdain.

Then 9/11 happened. At the time Sweeney worked in Building 7 of the World Trade Center. “I had a different outlook on life after that,” Sweeney said. He quit his job, and started the band Acquiesce with his high school friend Brett Kohart. Now bartending is paying the rent while the band works on finishing its first album. “Bartending is a great skill to fall back on,” he said.

Dacey Kiang of Sidewalk Café has learned to be a fast study of character

Dacey Kiang at the Sidewalk Café

From St. Mark’s Ale House, walk east on St. Mark’s Pl. until you hit Avenue A, then walk south to the corner of E. Fifth St. There, you’ll find the Sidewalk Café. Above the bar’s awning is a mural of the bar’s former clientele shown riding motorcycles. On the back of one bike sits Dacey Kiang, her elbow-length black hair blowing in the wind.

Kiang, 37, has worked as a bartender at the Sidewalk Café at 94 Avenue A for close to 15 years. “It’s one of those jobs — when you’re having a good night, it doesn’t feel like you’re working,” she said.

Other nights are more challenging. Alcohol often brings out the best and worst of humanity, Kiang said. As a result, her judgment of character needs to be really sharp. “Every once in a while I second guess myself, but I see the red flags immediately,” she said. Kiang watches for how people approach the bar — if they’re staggering slightly, slurring their words or if their eyes are glassy, she’ll try to keep them talking to feel them out before pouring them a drink. “If you’ve already served them, it’s too late. You have to catch them early, before they settle in,” she said.

One incident more than 10 years ago left Kiang shaken when a quiet, unassuming regular got really drunk and pulled out a gun. Two friends grabbed the gun out of the man’s hand before he was able to point it at Kiang. “The man had a white-handle, Colt 45 revolver — fully loaded,” she said. “I was scared.” The cops were called and they arrested the man. Kiang later got a restraining order against him.

That night, the actress Lara Flynn Boyle was also at the bar. “She had her little dog with her in a straw bag,” Kiang said. After the incident, Kiang, still frightened, retreated to the bar’s bathroom. There, Boyle cornered Kiang and told her, “You think you’ve had a bad night — I just broke up with my boyfriend!” No, it wasn’t Jack Nicholson, but a prior boyfriend.

Stacy Loughran at Kabin

Just a couple blocks from Sidewalk, you’ll find Stacy Loughran at Kabin on Second Ave. After working at Doc Holliday’s for the past 10 years, Loughran, 32, moved to Kabin at 92 Second Ave. in August. Now manager of the winter cabin-themed establishment, Loughran can still be found behind the bar on Thursday afternoons, and she also picks up various shifts when needed.

At 4 p.m. on a recent Sunday, Loughran, who is petite with short blonde hair and a pierced tongue, sat on a Victorian-style couch in the bar’s backroom. Originally from Staten Island, Loughran grew up working at her parent’s Italian deli before attending cooking school at the French Culinary Institute in Soho. Before bartending at Doc Holliday’s, she and her friends would frequent the bar three to four times a week — driving in to Manhattan from Staten Island. Eventually she was offered a job there.

An important part of a bartender’s job is making people feel comfortable and welcome so they’ll keep coming back. “I think the neighborhood people and regulars are the backbone of any bar,” Loughran said, “unlike the bridge-and-tunnel people who come in on weekends.” Patrons should be greeted when they come into a bar, and when they leave. “It’s the little things like that that make a difference,” she said.

On Sept. 11, 2001, for example, Loughran wasn’t sure if it would be appropriate to open Doc Holliday’s, where she was working at the time. But she didn’t know what else to do. When she arrived to open the bar, people were waiting outside to get in. “People just needed a place to go — a place to meet up, a place to mourn, a place of comfort. Everybody that day — strangers were comforting each other. It meant a lot for me,” she said. “It was a terrible tragedy, but good memory. I felt like I was doing something good.”

The Boiler Room’s Alec Jackson is known for his piercings — and his Madonna parties

Alec Jackson at the Boiler Room

Less than a five-minute walk from Kabin is the Boiler Room on E. Fourth St., near the corner of Second Ave.

Originally from Leeds, England, bartender Alec Jackson, 48, admitted the accent helps. “I don’t know what it is, it just does. It’s something different,” he said. Jackson, who has piercings on both eyebrows and his nose, is relatively new to New York, moving here in 2002. Jackson started bartending at the Boiler Room about two and a half years ago.

“I did all the decorations. I love Christmas,” Jackson said, pointing to the ornaments and plastic candy canes hanging from the bar’s ceiling.

The Boiler Room at 86 E. Fourth St. mainly attracts a gay crowd, although a lot of young straight women frequent the bar, when they want to go out and have fun without getting hit on. A lot of straight guys also come to the bar, when they want a little extra attention, said Jackson with a grin.

As long as there isn’t a drink special going on, and everyone’s behaving, Jackson — like many bartenders — is happy to buy patrons free drinks, known in the bar industry as “buybacks.” Although there isn’t a standard rule, the fourth or fifth drink is usually free. But customers should never ask for one. “It’s bad form if you ask for a buyback before you’ve earned it,” Jackson said.

To keep people coming back, Jackson also organizes promotional events at the Boiler Room. In October he held a pumpkin-carving night and earlier this month he hosted a miniature Christmas tree competition. When Madonna’s new album, “Confessions on a Dance Floor,” was released, he threw a midnight party to celebrate.

Shawna Wright at the Whiskey Ward

In another neighborhood bar, further south on the Lower East Side, bartender Shawna Wright, 27, greeted customers as they entered the Whiskey Ward on a frigid Wednesday night. Wright has worked at the bar at 121 Essex St. since it first opened in 2000.

It was a quiet night. About 15 people were in the bar, most drinking beer and nibbling on free peanuts. Little green Christmas lights lined the back of the bar. “When winter comes, business drops off,” Wright said. “May have something to do with the smoking ban — no one wants to stand outside when it’s freezing out.”

Wright scanned the bar and surrounding tables, making sure that everyone had a drink. “You have to be attentive — that’s how you make your money,” she said. “During the week, I know almost every individual in this place. If I don’t know their name, I know their faces.”

Wright, who wore her long, dark hair loosely tossed behind her back, talks with a calm, soothing voice, listening intently to her patrons. To be a successful bartender, you have to have a lot of patience and be able to let things roll off your back, said Wright, who is studying psychology in addition to bartending three days a week.

“You come in and put on your happy face and do your thing. You’re here as a host or hostess. The last thing someone wants is to get attitude [from a bartender] after a long day,” Wright said.

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