The Short Buzz: The Bartender Wears Prada

In my days in the restaurant industry, I’ve worn many different hats. Donning a suit and tie as a Food and Beverage Director was a bit more cumbersome than the weathered jeans and sport coat attire of a General Manager. As a career barman, I’ve worn a variety of getups behind the stick. But I’ve never worn a fedora…

Most bars, especially those housed in a restaurant setting, establish guidelines for employee dress. “The encouragement of staff members to personalize their style within those guidelines,” remarks Rocky Yeh, of Seattle cocktail bar Vessel, “allows an outlet for expression of individuality, creativity, and care towards professionalism.”

Since the resurgence in classic cocktails, bartenders have become known for their mustachioed, vested, and neo-classicist attire as much as their libations. Harry Johnson proclaimed in his timeless Bartender’s Manual, first published in 1860, “It is absolutely necessary to be neat, clean, and tidy in dress, as that will be more to the interest of the bartender than any other matter.”

“Pride in one’s appearance is also often indicative of pride in your work,” says Yeh.

According to Tommy Klus of Portland’s Bluehour and Teardrop Lounge, it has less to do with the libation or technique of the barkeep and more to do with appearance. “So much of the guest’s experience is based on aesthetic. If you see a well-dressed bartender, you might expect that you’ll get a better drink,” notes Klus.

But why the vest-garters-suspenders-fedora combo?

In keeping with the style of classic cocktail culture, bartenders have adopted the style of mixers from bartending’s heyday. A return to the tradition of bartending pioneers like Jerry Thomas and ‘Cocktail’ Bill Boothby is evidenced by the trends in dress, with Klus earning the nickname, “Tommy Tweed”, after peers remarked that he dressed like an ‘old man’.

Not everyone shares the same opinion on bar fashion, however. In a recent interview with online zine, The, Chicago bartender Benjamin Schiller vented about the nod to yesteryear.

“Far too many bars are infested with pompous, vested gentlemen adorned with curly mustaches, ridiculous headware, and perhaps an arm garter or two…Shave your mustache and do something original, you hack.”

Suffice to say that Schiller’s beef has more to do with substance than style. “Invariably,” he laments, “they are hocking their own latest and greatest ‘riff on a Manhattan.’”

Love it or hate it, this look seems to be here to stay.

In true Northwest style, some craft bartenders of Portland seem to be adopting their own dressed-down code. David Shenaut, of cocktail destination and hipster hangout Beaker & Flask, takes a more casual approach to his bar wear. “I just wear what’s comfortable,” Shenaut says, “I have so many free liquor brand tee shirts that I don’t have to do laundry for a month this way.”

As craft cocktails become more commonplace perhaps this more casual approach will follow suit. Until then, keep ordering drinks from the vested ladies and gents at our nation’s finest cocktail bars. Just don’t be surprised when the bartender in well-weathered jeans makes you a perfect Holland’s Pride.

~Brandon Wise, Presiding barman of Portland’s Irving Street Kitchen

*Photo credit: Matthias Clamer/Stone

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