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Top Shelf

A crawl through the city’s greatest watering holes, and a salute to the talented drink slingers who make them that way.


Photography by James Bailey for City Arts

 Walk down the “Aves” of Tacoma, from 6th Avenue to Pacific Avenue, past the “it” crowds and into this town’s hot spots, and you will find a lot to judge. The happy hour menu, the ambience, the clientele. All of these can make a bar good. But it’s the bartenders who make good bars great. Whether it’s because they know your name, your drink or your deepest darkest secrets, it’s fantastic bartenders that turn customers into regulars. But hitting every bar in town to find the perfect drink slinger is tough (and dangerous), so City Arts did the work of tracking down Tacoma’s best bartenders for you. It’s no easy task, but someone has to do it. You can thank us later.

Chris Casella
THE GENUINE ARTICLE
Bar: The Matador

Chris Casella might be the perfect bartender. Always equipped with a tasty beverage, along with prompt service, a sympathetic ear and a plethora of sports facts, he is reminiscent of the age-old ideal bartender who will listen to your woes as he pours you another, maybe even offering a kernel of advice, though more often just providing a knowing smile and a nod. A bartender who genuinely cares about what you have to say is a find. Many are good at feigning interest; Casella’s is definitely genuine. He remembers your name, your drink, your favorite team and details from your last conversation. He’s that likable guy next door, except instead of borrowing the sugar, he is serving you delicious cocktails over the Matador’s polished wood bar. His beer and tequila knowledge is impressive to boot.

Specialty Drink: The Joe Margarita
Sauza Hornitos Reposado, triple sec and a splash of sweet and sour, shaken vigorously in a pint glass. Add a splash of cranberry juice and a float of Grand Marnier.

His Greatest Memory: “One time, at a sports bar I was working at, we had a promotion with a Harley on the line to win. The place was packed! In the midst of all the craziness, one of the tap handles broke while the beer was pouring. Beer was streaming from the line nonstop. The other bartender went to the back to disconnect it and stop the flow, but he was apparently having trouble since the beer just kept coming. The crowd started chanting, ‘Chug it, chug it, chug it!’ With not a lot of other options at my disposal I obliged, placing my mouth wide open to catch the stream of beer. The crowd went wild.”

 

Ben Williams
THE GOOD GUY
Bar: Masa

A first impression of Ben Williams will always include, but is not limited to, his welcoming smile. That smile conveys from the get-go the kind of service you can expect from Williams. He will whip up a pleasant and mean margarita at the same time; it’s delicious, but it’ll sneak up on you. You can eyeball the big-screen television, surrounded by tequila bottles with exotic names, and receive fast, friendly service accompanied by good conversation every time.

Specialty Drink: A perfect margarita
One muddled lime slice, half an orange slice and 1.5 ounces of Cazadores Reposado tequila with a scoop of ice. Add 0.5 ounce Disaronno Amaretto, 0.5 ounce Cointreau and a splash of cranberry juice and margarita mix, and pour into a tall glass with salt rim.

Why He Loves His Job: “The best part of being a bartender is getting to meet Tacoma one shot of tequila at a time. I just wish I could remember their names*!”

*This could refer to Tacomans or to tequila brands – they have the second-largest selection in Tacoma.

 

Kelli Nemec McMillian
THE GRACEFUL BUILDER
Bar: Stanley and Seaforts

At a fine-dining establishment the caliber of Stanley and Seaforts, you’ll be forgiven if you expect to encounter hoity-toity, snobbish servers, maybe with a pencil-thin mustache and a fake French accent. That is far from the case, however. Instead you will find Kelli Nemec McMillian: pretty, personable and skilled. Patrons who place themselves at the rail are greeted with a smile as McMillian delivers the specials with an authoritative flourish. McMillian will tell you in detail the flavors of the day and give an honest opinion of each entree. As you sip your cocktail, you can marvel at the ease with which she crafts beverages that are soon whisked away by servers to the dining area.

Specialty Drink: Lavender Cosmopolitan
Absolut Mandarin, Parfait Amour, cranberry juice and sweet and sour.

The Secret to Her Success: “I remember a guest telling me once that all bartenders need to have a joke to tell. Well, I am horrible at remembering jokes. I love to bartend because I love putting drinks together. I like the service part of the job as well as the meeting of new people and providing them with a wonderful experience. I truly enjoy the building and execution of drinks as well as the recall needed to pull recipes from my head and be able to make those drinks. And the more drinks I have to make at once, the more fun it gets to be. Just like I enjoy being busy and balancing the service with the production, I enjoy having guests sit at my rail and watch me mix drinks. I am always appreciative and a little surprised when they comment on how good a job I am doing or how busy I am or how fun it is to watch.”

 

Chris Langston
THE CREATIVE CRAFTER
Bar: 1022 South

Chris Langston is a self-professed “silent service” kind of guy, but he is still more than happy to chat it up with anyone who has the desire to do so. Whether you prefer the silent service or the conversational variety, Langston will always deliver one thing for certain: a finely crafted, creative and unique beverage. The bar 1022 South is an itty-bitty space with an ambience perfect for sipping. Candles and books adorn the shelves alongside familiar and not-so-familiar house-made ingredients and liquors. Leave it up to Chris to whip up something new to your taste buds that’s destined to become a favorite.

Specialty Drink: Sazerac
Two ounces of rye whiskey (Sazerac six-year-old if you can get your hands on it), bar spoon of gomme syrup, three dashes Peychaud’s bitters, bar spoon of absinthe, lemon peel. Combine whiskey, gomme and bitters in a mixing glass over ice. Wash the inside of a chilled bucket with absinthe, pouring off the excess. Stir the whiskey mixture, then strain into chilled bucket. Garnish with lemon peel.

His Worst Experience: “I found myself working at a local bar that was highly lucrative, but unsatisfying, when one night a strange young man sat at the bar and ordered a drink. He acted like he knew me, but I couldn't place him. I was polite, but as I didn’t recognize him and I had a full bar, I didn’t pay him much attention. After a couple of drinks, the young man, who was mid-conversation with his friends, proceeded to projectile vomit all over the bar top. His friends quickly disappeared, and he started to apologize. Then he proceeded to attempt to mop all of the vomit back into his pint glass using his sleeve. I cleaned it up, then sent him on his way. I decided right there that if I couldn’t bartend my way, then I would quit and do something else.”

 

Ryan O’Donnell
THE PRANKSTER
Bar: Joeseppi’s

Most folks enter Joeseppi’s with little more than divine Italian cuisine in mind. What keeps many of them coming back, though, can be found in the lounge. Its name? Ryan O’Donnell, the resident jokester, who will do just about anything for a laugh; no subject is taboo. And what may seem inappropriate from anyone else will make even the most upstanding diner choke on his or her drink and giggle like a teenager. It’s not just the comedic antics that will brighten your day. Ryan’s drinks pack a wicked punch and should come with a two-drink-maximum warning. That is no joke. Luckily, Joeseppi’s menu features lots of filling pasta dishes to soak it all up.

Specialty Drink: Cindy Stortini Martini
Malibu Mango and Malibu Coconut with orange juice, pineapple juice and cranberry juice, shaken with ice and strained into a martini glass.

His Last Great Prank: “Let me see, the last one I was proud of was paying for dinner while I was out with a girl without letting her know. I told her the service sucked and I didn't feel like paying. So before she could say anything I bolted out of the restaurant leaving her there alone. After a good ten minutes of yelling at me through the phone, she finally came out when she realized I had already paid. I don't know, I think I could come up with a funny story for every day; I’m kind of a jackass.”

 

Jada Moon Gridley
THE NOMAD
Bar: Event bartender

If you have attended an “it” event in Tacoma, it is very likely that Jada Moon has made you an adult beverage. She is Tacoma’s designated booze slinger for underground parties and gallery openings alike. Gridley rises to any occasion, often costumed and with specialty beverage recipes in hand, crafted to fit any event. An artist as well as a bartender, Gridley’s creativity makes her equal to the task of dealing with the unpredictable ingredients and bar setup she is sometimes given to work with. In spite of these challenges – or perhaps because of them – she manages to create some of the tastiest and most compelling beverages in town.

Specialty Drink: Any fragrant vodka cocktails made with fresh basil, citrus and pomegranate.

Her Toughest Gig: “I've been blessed with a great variety of freelance bartending gigs in Tacoma, from parties to political fundraisers and art auctions. Very cool, but working in the random settings where these events take place can be an adventure in resourcefulness. My favorite serving spree was for Vixen’s Sex and the City Bus Tour. The bus was of the accordion variety, and the entire length was packed full, seats and aisles, of Carrie Bradshaw fans dressed to the nines. We served Jell-O shots on the bus and at the mystery stops (OK, they were scheduled, but a mystery to me!). I would leap off the bus in five-inch heels, rushing to beat the other partygoers into the decidedly-not-bar locations and see how hostesses had set me up to serve two hundred drinks in twenty minutes. It was like bartending on a game show! I had a total blast.” •

See more in the February 2011 issue   →