This is the Barkeepers, a feature in which Eater meets the fine ladies and gentlemen behind the bar at some of Portland's hottest cocktail parlors.
Longtime barman and New York City native Mike Robertson has tended bar in 10 different states, in places ranging from "rap clubs to country bars to fine dining and the Ritz-Carlton," he says, where guest demands included "everything from five-star fine dining to 'gimmie a shot.'" But at the Hotel Deluxe's famously old-school Driftwood Room, Robertson presides over a swanky lounge filled with an eclectic mix of cuddling couples, hotel guests, and classic-cocktail enthusiasts. "I try to make a good cross-section of things where I can make a woman from Des Moines, Iowa just as happy as one of the cocktail nerds here in town," Robertson says. Here, Robertson sits down with Eater to discuss the Driftwood Room's romantic reputation, his strategies for cutting off customers, and the three celebrities he hopes to never run into again.
How did you get into bartending?
I was working as a waiter at a private club in New York for Columbia alumni; I was a waiter there at the time and [one day] the manager threw me a set of keys and said, "There will be 30 alumni coming in for a cocktail party tonight, you're bartending. There's a book behind the bar." So I said, "Sure, why not." It's funny, because the first cocktail I made was a Grasshopper, and the first thing I ever had to drink was some green crème de menthe I drank out of my mother's little liquor cabinet. I'm pretty sure the last think I'll have to drink — I'll be an old man, yelling at the kids going by — with my crème de menthe.
But that was really the first bartending I did. I was actually formerly trained by a guy who was corporate training for TGI Friday's, and then he switched and went to a Bennigan's. And that's how I actually learned to tend bar [at a Bennigan's in Colorado]. It was a really high-volume place, three deep at the bar most of the night, and they were doing 2-for-1 cocktails at the time; it kind of threw me into the fire to be able to handle volume and people who are rather intoxicated.
Let's talk the Driftwood atmosphere. At what time of day are you the busiest?
This is a strange room. It can be really crazy busy at four o'clock, and then you can be mellow. It's always busy during our late-night happy hour. If the weather's rainy or inclement, we get busy earlier. If it's a really nice day, we get busy a little bit later. But honestly, this place can be crazy at any time... We're actually going to have a meeting next month about exactly what we're going to do about that — maybe change the restaurant, put another bar in. But we'll see how that goes? putting a bar in the dining room would maybe alleviate some of the pressure in here, and get this back to being just a little more intimate lounge. I want it to be that great little romantic getaway for people.
What percentage of guests are regulars or in-towners versus hotel guests?
I'd say it's maybe a third of the regular cocktail crowd that goes around the city; a third are from the theater or if there's an event going on at Jeld-Wen; and probably a third hotel guests. What I really like is when regulars come in who come in from time to time to see us, and they seem to brighten up when they come in the room. They come in, and they're really happy to be here. And they tend to bring their friends, they're showing the place off to them — and then we try to pay a little extra attention to them because they're good regulars and they're bringing in somebody to make it a special occasion for them... We have a really eclectic group of regulars. The Mayor [Sam Adams] was a regular here for a while; we haven't seen him in a little bit.
And then the bartenders that come in from other places — that's very complimentary, when you get other bartenders coming in as regulars. We send people to a lot of other places in town. And I think that has to do with not just being a member of the Oregon Bartenders Guild, but being a member of the bartending community here. Because the bartenders here are a pretty close-knit group. This is the best city I've ever been in for bartenders working well together? So I really appreciate being able to send of my regulars here to other places in town, too — nobody wants to drink in the same bar, all the time.
What about VIPs and celebrities?
I would rather not name-drop, but we do have an awful lot of celebrities come through here. The people from Grimm come here, we used to have the people from Leverage here a lot, some people from Portlandia have been through the hotel. I've dealt with celebrities my whole life, I've worked in high-profile places; I'm impressed with the celebrities coming here, how excited they are to be in Portland. They really like this city. I had one negative experience here with a celebrity I can remember. He was being rude to a guest and I actually had to ask him to leave. But almost everybody else that comes in here, they're just great people and really nice.
I've been in a lot of other places where the celebrities were not as nice. And this I don't mind name-dropping: Loretta Swift from M.A.S.H. was one of the meanest people I've ever met. She was just mean as hell. They were staying at a hotel when I was working in Arkansas — they were doing a celebrity tennis tournament — and her and Rob Reiner and Bob Denver, who they had to take out of the bar, actually carry him to his room because he was falling-down drunk and irate and obnoxious. Those three celebrities were just some of the meanest people I've ever met. And I don't understand why you'd want to treat people like that, especially if you're in the public eye.
So the tongue-in-cheek thing everyone says about this spot is that it's the perfect place to go if you're having an affair. Is that something that you see a lot?
Well, I don't know about affairs — I know some people have rings, some people don't. [Laughs] And I'm not a big guy for affairs. I think if you're having an affair, you're kind of a jerk, so I'd rather you not come in here. I like to think of it as one of the best romantic spots in town. You can come with your significant other and enjoy the place, and have a romantic, meaningful experience, something to build your relationship on. And you mentioned there are certain spots where that seems to come out more than others? What tables are the make-out tables? T6, T1. [Laughs] We don't know why. It's weird.
Have you ever had to tell people to tone it down with the PDA? How do you tell a customer that they're crossing the line?
I've said it a few times to people. I try not to be like, "Hey knock it off," but [do it] courteously, in a lower voice, "I appreciate your enthusiasm, but if you could tone it down a little bit, I'd appreciate it. We're in a public space." And it doesn't get too outrageous. Sometimes people are going for it, but the vast majority of the time people are very courteous about it. They'll snuggle a little bit, but people don't get touchy-feely very often. That's only happened only a handful of times.
Does the same go for people who are too intoxicated?
We'll periodically have an issue with that, but it's really rare here. Even just stopping service to people is rare here. Every once in a while, somebody has too much and you stop service to them. I'm not crazy about the way the laws are written where it really falls all on the bartenders, but I do understand that people aren't in their right mind when they're drinking. If you approach it that way, knowing that they're not thinking clearly, it's really your job and responsibility — and if you care about your guests, you should look out for them.
I read [the last interview] about Dale DeGroff's [advice] — to ignore them — and I don't like that approach, to be honest... We've had instances where someone's come in that's really intoxicated, you didn't realize it initially, and then after you serve them a drink you realize, "Oh man, I shouldn't have given him that drink." It's your responsibility to take it away — it's not going to be any better by them having more alcohol. I always recommend food, and if they do order another drink, I'll ask them for an alternative. I'll ask, "Can I get you a glass of water, a cup of coffee, juice, or something on us?" I'd say about half the time people realize you're not going to serve them anymore. I'm more proactive on that than ignoring people. The way we approach it here is... we let everybody know: I talk to the other bartenders before I do it, let them know I'm stopping service, I go to the front desk, let them know I'm going to stop service, then I come back and do it.
What's the most popular drink on the menu?
We're really well known for our Champagne cocktails, and the "Springtime in Paris" is our most popular; it's elderflower liqueur with rhubarb bitters. But we're also very well-known for our Manhattan list. The rye Manhattans are flying out of here, and the barrel-aged ones. I've gotta give a big thanks to Jeff Morgenthaler for pioneering that idea, because the Driftwood Manhattan has become our most popular Manhattan, and that's the one aged in a barrel.
Do you have a favorite drink to make?
Yeah, a shot of tequila. [Laughs] If I have the time, I like being able to ask someone what they're in the mood for — what their go-to liquor is, or what they're thinking, and build something around that. If I give it to them and they're really excited and happy about it, then that's my favorite cocktail. I've made somebody happy, even if it's just a drink that I always make. To me, that's a good cocktail, one that makes somebody smile and say, "That's just what I was looking for."
Is there a least favorite?
When I'm really busy at the bar, and somebody comes in and tells me they had a drink somewhere and act like you should know what it is — "it's called a Green Gator? [I had it at] Disneyland." There's two instances like that: They'll hand you a recipe and you go over all the ingredients and it's just not a normal cocktail, you look at it and you know it's going to be a bad cocktail. But if they want it I'll make it. But? we have such a great variety on our cocktail list, I'd like you to at least take a look at the list first, and if you want something else, I'll be more than happy to make it for you. The other one I don't like making is when someone takes one of our cocktail recipes and then changes some of the main ingredients — and then they send it back saying they don't like it. Well, you changed it.
Does that happen often?
It happens every once in a while. A lot of people are becoming home bartenders; they have a certain thing they like and they know what they like. And they're coming to bars and trying to get the bartenders to recreate the things they make at home. And I'm more than happy to do that, but I would steer some people away from some of the concoctions they come up with. But invariably, most of the time, we can find something to make the guest happy.
Where do you drink when you're not here?
I drink everywhere. Because I'm in this hotel, it's very important that I know what's going on in town. One of my favorite places is Interurban, they do really solid cocktails, they give good service, it's a good little hangout for me. But honestly we go to so many different places — we just went to Ava Gene's. We just went to Ox, went to Trigger, Raven & Rose, just so see what's going on and if we should recommend them to people, because people are always looking for something new.
And finally, what is your must-have bartender tool?
Compassion. You have to have compassion for people. Because you don't know what's going on in their life and why they're here. A lot of people are here to enjoy themselves, have a good meal. Other people come in because they're troubled, because they've just had a bad day. And I think understanding — I like to put myself on the other side of the bar, and I know the different moods I've been in when I've been in bars. And sometimes an outstanding bartender has brought me out of a funk, or just been nice for a little while, and you're not necessarily having a great day and then all of a sudden something brought you out of that funk.
I think that's really important, to be compassionate. And I don't think there's enough of that in the business; I wish more people had that. Because it's just a job, and a lot of bartenders have a god complex. And that's it: if you can get past your ego. I'm not here for myself, I'm here to make a living, and I take a lot of pride in what I do, and sometimes I have a bad day. But the vast majority of time, I take about 10 minutes on my drive in, I normally just stop myself and try to forget everything I've been doing for the day, and just come in prepared to be that guy behind the bar. Be that person who is going to make the person on this side happy. And I think you have to have compassion to do that.
· The Driftwood Room [Official site]