First it was the local celebrity chef, followed by the know-your-farmer revolution … and now? Our personal-connection obsession has trickled down into drink, in the form of preferred bartenders. Suddenly, imbibers care less about the specials than about who’s serving ’em.
When bartender Katie Loeb left Chick’s Café in Queen Village for the Oyster House last May, she still saw her regulars. “Some customers certainly came over with me,” she says. “It was nice. I suspect a few have just altered their circuits. I see some of them at the beginning of their night instead of the end.” She’s but one star barkeep around these parts: Christian at Noble, Phoebe at Chick’s, Nick at Franklin Mortgage and Steve at Village Whiskey are a few of the other booze slingers who have, in a way, become bigger than the places they work for. (You might even follow them on Twitter.)
Center City resident Scott W. knows that Loeb works on Tuesdays, and that Tommy will be at Rouge most Saturday mornings. “It’s not really about the scene,” he says. “It’s about feeling comfortable with the person behind the bar.”
At some spots, it’s still just a bartender’s social skills — that Sam Malone aura — that brings people back. Dave Malone (no relation to Sam), who mixes drinks at Chops in Bala Cynwyd, has regulars ranging from “athletes to local joes,” he says. “It’s about developing relationships. I take an interest in my customers. I ask about their kids. I play golf with some of them.” Relationships pay off. Malone teed up on the TV reality show The Haney Project with one of his best customers at Chops, Charles Barkley.
Of course, Scott W. notes, it ain’t all about the bond. “For the price of drinks these days, I want something unique. It’s about quality, not quantity.” Indeed, as much as anything, it seems to be the superior product certain elite bartenders put out that’s speaking to an obsessed clientele in search of a damn good drink. “I’m a geek,” says Loeb. “Making drinks is important to me, and people appreciate that. Customers love the idea of being their favorite bartender’s guinea pig.” Just ask Nick at Franklin Mortgage, who commutes for the faithful — while he spends two days a week in Philly, he also lives and tends bar in NYC. He brings trends and ingredients you can’t find here, keeping his regulars inspired — and in their seats. After all, as Scott W. notes in a serious tone, “Drinking has become a hobby.”