by Dan Riney and Gia Payne
What makes a good bartender? It’s a question not unlike baseball’s designated hitter, the grassy knoll, thongs or panties, boxers or briefs: an overworked but persistent query.
A whole laundry list of desirable traits comes to mind. Friendly, but not too chatty. An attractive face or body doesn’t hurt. I’ve known a few men to become entirely smitten with their local barmaid. It’s pitiful, but amusing to watch them struggle to swim upstream and expire in the process like spawning salmon. Tapsters are paid to be attentive; that doesn’t mean they actually like you.
Another important quality is control. The barkeep should be the master of his domain, a bit like a soccer referee. Customers have fun and try to score. But one warning, and you’d better straighten up posthaste. Two warnings, red card; you’re outta here.
Once a girlfriend and I were out having a grand old TGIF time. Tammy (not her real name) is funny, friendly, mildly flirtatious, but never vulgar—your typical well-bred Southern girl. I spotted an older gentleman eyeing her from across the way. You know the type, nice suit, luxury-brand accessories, thinning well-coifed ‘do, probably had a wife at home and two daughters Tammy’s age.
So “Don Juan Jr.” stands up, smoothes his hair, collects his high ball and makes an “I’m so money” strolling beeline for Tammy. I immediately turn my head to cover my giggle and wait for the chatting-up to begin.
Not a minute later I hear Jr. loudly mutter, “You’ve got to be joking,” and he’s up and out the door. Turns out Mr. Smooth slid up, put his hand on Tammy’s knee, and whispered something wholly untoward in her ear. Tammy called over the bartender. Moments later, problem solved.
Wish list aside, there is, in fact, only one key skill. The bartender can talk my ear off, jump at his own shadow, be ugly as sin, or have a whole turkey in his belly. But, for the love of heaven, know your craft.
I’m not one of those demanding types (“Ha!” Dan chortles) who waltzes in asking for the latest, coolest cocktail, known only to me and the guy who invented it two days ago.
I’m easy. I simply ask that the bartender pour a fair shot and doesn’t ask me, “What’s in it?” If you have to ask, then you don’t already know. Just say, “I don’t know how to make that drink. Would you like something else?”
Bill’s Bar is staffed by true professionals who possess the key skill in spades. The drinks are strong (If I say so, you know it’s true), and the barkeeps are honest. During another more recent TGIF, the shift changed and the next bartender didn’t know how to make a cosmo. He said so, apologized, and adroitly filled my order for a salty dog. I was disappointed, but satisfied. Believe it or not, I’d rather have no drink than a bad one—a crisis I’ll never have to face at Bill’s.
Since Gia had such a good time researching beer gardens last month, she decided to stick with the outdoor theme. How could I refuse?
Bill’s Bar in Akasaka first caught my eye about three years ago, beckoning me like the lovely ladies working its surrounding streets. I’m not sure why I never ventured in. It has one of the most welcoming atmospheres I’ve ever seen in a bar: Front doors swung open to reveal a slightly swanky yet casual forward bar; sliding glass doors running its considerable length; and tables with umbrellas set up on its ample sidewalk.
(This outdoor cafe alone is worth the visit. It has to be the widest and most relaxed stretch of concrete in a district infamous for its lack of space.)
Maybe it was the aura of cliquishness Bill’s seemed to exude—the bar counter always packed with the same banker-types (at least they looked the same to me) spilling out into the street. And with Deutsche Bank just down the road, I don’t think I was being paranoid.
Or maybe the reason was that I always happened to be alone when I passed Bill’s and I was a bit intimidated by the joviality. That’s what’s good about having a Southern belle for a girlfriend. They were born and bred to be social lubricants.
So my little lubricant took me by the hand on a recent Friday after work and formally introduced me to Bill’s. A torrential rain kept most of the banker-types away, so we had our run of the place early on. I was immediately taken in by the casual and international atmosphere. Most workers at Bill’s are Filipino and exhibit that refreshing national trait of being friendly without being servile. Likewise, the Japanese staff knows how to put a Westerner at ease.
From the outside and even when you first walk in, Bill’s appears long, narrow and cramped. And since I couldn’t pull my belly away from the bar for the first couple of hours, I figured that’s how it was. When I finally headed for the bathroom in the bar, Bill’s seemed to expand before my eyes. By Akasaka standards, it’s nearly huge.
As impressive as the space looked, though, it was almost empty. “That’s too bad,” I said to Gia on my return. “Bill’s is too big for its own good.”
My pity was premature. On my next sojourn to the loo, around 9:30 p.m., I was met with another surprise: the joint was three-quarters full and jumping. My rush to judgment made me question the stance I had just taken in a heated debate with Gia over whether professional soccer could ever hit it big in the States. I may have been wrong on Bill’s, but I’m right on soccer. There’s simply no room for among our four major sports.
Now that our misunderstandings are a thing of the past, Bill’s and I can begin making up for lost time.
Bill’s Bar & Cafe
3-16-11 Akasaka 1F, Minato-ku Tel: 3586-8018
Hours: Monday-Friday 6 p.m.-1 a.m.,
Saturday 7 p.m.-1 a.m.
Located below Akasaka International Clinic, near Akasaka-Mitsuke Station
Online map: www.e-doctor.ne.jp/aic/
Gia Payne is an editor, writer, self-preservationist, and devoted Tokyoite. And she co-wrote a book about bars, pardon “pubs,” with some guy named Dan.
Don Riney has spent years honing his bar-researching skills worldwide. He currently hones in Tokyo, where he works for a newspaper and an economics think tank.