In what could be described as a minor social media kerfuffle, some people have observed that two of the six nominees for the 2016 CultureMap Tastemaker Awards Bartender of the Year are bar owners who don’t pull as many shifts behind the bar as full-time bartenders. They contended that these two individuals, Bar News Bar owner Justin Burrow and Moving Sidewalk owner Alex Gregg, shouldn’t be eligible for the award.
Is our panel of industry experts giving out lifetime achievement awards? Of course not. They’re simply recognizing that a bartender’s job consists of more than just greeting customers and mixing drinks — that setting the tone and managing the staff at two of Houston’s highest profile cocktail bars deserves recognition.
Of course, making delicious drinks and delivering great service are two critical characteristics to becoming a successful bartender. However, to be recognized by the Tastemaker Awards, a person has to set him or herself apart in some way. These six individuals are leading teams at some of Houston’s best bars. They’re moving the city forward. That’s why they’re nominated.
Justin Burrow, Capt. Foxheart's Bad News Bar & Spirit Lodge
As it approached its third birthday, Captain Foxheart’s Bad News Bar and Spirit Lodge had developed a pretty specific reputation as a place where one could expect the house cocktails to be bitter, boozy, and stirred with service that ranged from friendly (to regulars) to indifferent (to newcomers) to hostile (particularly during busy weekend nights). Given the quality of its cocktails and its first-class spirit selection, it had always done steady business, but owner Justin Burrow decided something felt off.
After not having pulled regular shifts in his bar for over a year, Burrow decided to flip the script. He turned over the staff last November, rolled out a new menu, and started spending more time behind the bar. Burrow’s changes brought his bar back into line with his vision for it as a place that’s accessible for everyone. He might even roll out a printed, priced list of spirits.
Chris Frankel, Spare Key
Opening an intimate cocktail bar in the heart of Midtown’s party scene may seem like an odd decision, but Chris Frankel has never been one to follow the herd. Instead of dining at the city’s trendy restaurants, Frankel is happiest wandering around southwest Houston looking for divey Indo-Pak restaurants that serve haleem, a slow-cooked dish of spiced lentils that’s flavored with small pieces of meat.
When he opened Spare Key, it, too, marched to its own beat. A passionate traveler, Frankel rolled out a menu of 51 cocktails inspired by his travels to every state and Washington, D.C. He supplements that with themed nights inspired by his travels to various countries. Not only do his patrons taste flavors they might not have encountered, they learn a little something, too.
Alex Gregg, Moving Sidewalk
At this point, every decent cocktail bar has a menu of classics and originals that guide patrons in what to order. No bartender in Houston has more fun with the concept than Alex Gregg. Over the last year, Moving Sidewalk has introduced menus inspired by the Keanu Reeves cult classic Point Break, the dearly departed Astroworld, and a '90s-style punk rock zine.
In addition to making drinking a little more fun with Moving Sidewalk’s inventive menus, Gregg also makes them taste better by supplying a number of Houston bars with syrups and crystal clear, hand-cut ice. As always, his thoughtful attention to detail makes Gregg one of Houston well-respected bartenders.
Sean Jensen, Public Services Wine & Whisky
If at least part of Public Services reflects sommelier Justin Vann’s obsessions for sherry and whisky finished in sherry casks, then one part of general manager Sean Jensen’s role is to translate Vann’s passion into something that’s accessible for Public Service’s diverse array of customers. After all, it’s one thing to stock a bar with nerdy spirits, but it’s another thing to cultivate a staff that’s actually capable of selling them.
Consider Vann and Jensen the id and ego of Public Services. One is the creative force that drives it, and the other brings order to what could be chaos. No wonder they work so well together.
Leslie Ross, Canard
If the only thing Leslie Ross accomplished in 2015 had been creating Johnny’s Gold Brick’s menu of $8 classic cocktails, she probably would have done enough to earn this nomination. That she also managed to create three cocktail programs with distinct identities for three restaurants that are nominated in the Tastemaker Awards Best New Restaurant category demonstrates the range of her talent.
With all four of those businesses on the path to success, Ross has finally launched Canard. At the intimate cocktail bar located next to Thai restaurant Foreign Correspondents, Ross has unleashed the full force of her creativity with a menu of delicately balanced house cocktails, carefully made classics, and boozy, shot-style “optics” that are best enjoyed neat. She’s also leading an all-female staff that shares her effusive personality.
Terry Williams, Anvil Bar & Refuge
Rather than try to explain what has made Terry Williams so successful in his role as Anvil’s general manager at Anvil, let’s turn it over to owner Bobby Heugel, who said the following about Williams in an interview back in March:
He’s just such a good person all the way through, and he works in this industry for the right reasons. I think a lot of people in this industry, especially right now, are very excited about things that they might net in the future. You know, additional concepts, more press, ambassador opportunities, and I don’t think you can do this job hoping those things occur. You have to be satisfied with the idea that you’re taking care of people every single day, and I think Terry loves taking care of people. He’s a pure service spirit all the way through, and I think that reflects in how he talks to the rest of the staff and how he talks to guests.
Join us May 18 at the Tastemaker Awards ceremony as we honor the nominees and reveal the winners in a ceremony hosted by chef Bryan Caswell. Tickets are on sale now.