Anvil co-founder Bobby Heugel once told me that bartending isn't "noble work," but that bartenders provide a noble service. Who else provides the space for celebrating our successes and mourning our failures like a bartender? Who better understands the vagaries of fortune or the slings and arrows of life quite like the person standing behind the bar?
What unites all of the nominees in the Best Bartender category of the CultureMap Tastemaker Awards is their customer-oriented attitude. They're ready to provide a recommendation, of course, but all of our nominees understand that sometimes a person just wants a vodka tonic.
And that's OK.
The winner, selected by an illustrious panel of judges, will be announced Thursday night (May 8) at Winter Street Studios, along with winners in 10 other categories. Information on the event can be found here.
Here are the nominees:
Chris Frankel, formerly of RDG + Bar Annie
Frankel first rose to prominence at Anvil before creating the wine-driven cocktail menu at Underbelly. In the last year, he reinvigorated the cocktail program at legendary Houston restaurant RDG + Bar Annie with creatively-constructed, wittingly-named drinks like the The Looking Glass, named after the '70s one hit wonder song "Brandy." Frankel may have departed RDG, but his menu remains. Meanwhile, he's contemplating his next project; maybe he'll finally follow through on his threats to open his own place and show Houston what the full Frankel is like.
Alba Huerta, Anvil/The Pastry War/Julep
At Anvil, Huerta first captured my attention when she helped demystify the occasionally intimidating cocktail menu for a close friend. She understands that the point of carefully prepared syrups and properly sourced spirits are drinks that taste good. At The Pastry War, she worked with Heugel to curate a menu of traditionally-produced spirits while still keeping the masses happy by creating the best-tasting frozen strawberry margarita in Houston. When Julep opens this month (hopefully), she'll begin to explore the South's vibrant cocktail history. Whatever drinks she's planning to serve, they'll certainly taste good.
Alexander Gregg, Goro & Gun
The breadth of Gregg's talent is reflected in Goro & Gun's diverse cocktail menu. It blends classics, new drinks and even non-alcoholic beverages in a way that makes finding a drink easy for just about any customer. While that alone would be sufficient to secure a nomination, Gregg's commitment to training other bartenders further bolsters his credentials. Each member of Goro's staff has a drink on the recently introduced cocktail menu, and his Perceived Exclusivity classes on topics ranging from specific spirits to knife skills are open to all.
Justin Burrow, Captain Foxheart's Bad News Bar & Spirit Lodge
Burrow's occasionally cantankerous responses to negative Yelp reviews have given him a reputation for being a bit of a curmudgeon, but those who criticize Burrow's style just don't understand him. Having built Bad News himself and hand-picked the staff, he's fiercely proud of what he's created. As a native Houstonian, he's also proud of his role in helping revive downtown's nightlife scene. Yes, patrons who are loud, obnoxious or mess with the bar's decor are going to get a quick hook, but that stems from a desire to make sure everyone who's at Bad News is having a good time. Isn't that what service is all about?
Aaron Lara, Lillo & Ella
The idea of an Aggie bartender may conjure images of the guy who fills a pitcher before a ring dunking, but Lara transcends whatever Dixie Chicken stereotype his alma mater conveys. As one of the opening bartenders at Bad News, his congenial demeanor contrasted with Burrow. Now he's moved on to Lillo & Ella, Roost chef/owner Kevin Naderi's new project in the former El Gran Malo space. While Lara is certainly capable of crafting custom tinctures and infusions, expect his cocktails to be straightforward affairs that compliment the Asian-inspired menu. Because that's the right fit for the concept, and Lara puts his customers first.
Jeremy Olivier, Down House
Olivier has earned the title of being a bartender's bartender for his work at Down House. That means he champions high-quality spirits and mixes them in ways that create unexpected flavors. It makes for a slightly idiosyncratic cocktail menu, but the results of his experiments are consistently tasty. His work fits in well with Down House's overall ethos of being a neighborhood restaurant that marches to the beat of its own drummer.
Leslie Ross, Triniti
As one half of the Ladies of Libation, Ross has helped reinvigorate Triniti's status as a happy hour destination. Her enthusiasm for both her cocktails and her customers is infectious. She also contributed to the restaurant's Tuesday night guest bartender series that became can't miss industry events that raised several thousand dollars for various charities. Meanwhile, she's become one of Houston's most reliable representatives in national competitions — showing off the strength of the city's scene in Vegas.
Lindsay Heffron, Liberty Station
Liberty Station has a reputation as a sneaky good craft beer spot, particularly compared to some of the other options on Washington. It's also an underrated cocktail destination thanks to the talents of Heffron. When she started at Liberty in 2011, Heffron was looking to grow from wine to cocktails. That she's stuck around, in an industry where most folks seem to change jobs every year, is testament to her abilities and her rapport with her customers. Even as Washington Avenue has changed, Liberty Station has remained a staple.
Luis Villegas, El Big Bad
At El Big Bad, Villegas has the challenge of crafting cocktails that highlight the occasionally unusual flavors utilized in the restaurant's signature tequilas. When he's not mixing drinks, he's organizing a variety of events as the president of the local chapter of the United States Bartenders Guild. That he manages to juggle both responsibilities — creating cocktails that stand up to (or sometimes exceed) the flavors of the food at EBB and leading the variety of classes, competitions and networking events that help foster a sense of community among Houston's bartenders — is testament both to his diverse set of skills and the esteem his peers have for him. Don't be afraid to belly up to the bar at El Big Bad and challenge Villegas to make something special. He can handle the pressure.
Joe Hausner, Vallone's
Creating a cocktail menu at a steakhouse is tricky. After all, the drinks have to match the typically conservative steakhouse culture while also standing on their own as a viable alternative to wine. If they work well with the restaurant's happy hour menu, so much the better. Hausner has responded to these challenges with a mix of updated classics and original creations that feature a diverse array of spirits. The menu even pays tribute to owner Tony Vallone's Italian heritage through the use of ingredients like limoncello. Even more impressive is that Hausner also helped craft the addictive cocktail menu at Eleven XI before moving on. That's how to build a Tastemakers resume.
Lindsay Burleson, Poison Girl/Little Dipper
Fancy drinks are great, but sometimes all anyone wants is a beer and a shot at a bar where the bartender is happy to see you. Little Dipper and Poison Girl fill that role for lots of people, and Burleson is that bartender who's happy to see you. Her outgoing personality makes even first-timers feel welcome, and her good-natured shit talking with regulars shows how fond she is of her customers. Want to see her artistic side? Catch Burleson in her role as co-artistic director of the BooTown theater company.
Felipe Riccio, Camerata
In baseball, a five-tool player is that rare talent who hits, defends and runs well. In the world of restaurants, diversity is even more rare. Few people know food and wine, cooking and service. Riccio does; after stints cooking at both The Pass & Provisions and Reef, he left the kitchen to join David Keck's well-trained wine staff at Camerata. While he's currently more likely to be holding a corkscrew than a chef's knife, he still goes back into the kitchen as part of the Mangiamaccheroni pop-ups that bring authentic Italian flavors to sold-out crowds. Until Camerata owner Paul Petronella stakes him in some high-concept Italian restaurant, enjoy his growing expertise on wine. You can say you knew him when he was still in the minors.