March 6, 2021

You’re the Boss: Can’t a Restaurant Owner Drink at His Own Bar?

Start-Up Chronicle

Getting a restaurant off the ground.

The chef deemed it unprofessional. The server was embarrassed. The bartender was afraid of legal ramifications. Huh? I was just sitting at the bar, minding my own business — and everyone else’s — sipping a glass of Paumonak Chardonnay. Innocent enough, I thought, until the prolonged dust up from my own people.

Greeting guests, filling time between courses, resolving parking issues, answering questions about the garden or the wines on tap or the beef, lamb, and veal that are not on the menu is what I do. I’m not saying I’m any good at any of this, but a mild lubrication probably helps me perform my main function: schmoozing. Nursing two glasses of wine per night, over the course of five hours, sanctioned by my cardiologist, never seemed to detract from my capacity to deal with an emergency, a kitchen contretemps, a guest request, or that thing that one never sees coming around the bend until it arrives.

“It’s your call, boss,” said Chef Joe, “but when an amateur walks into a restaurant and sees a bar filled with booze, he drinks. When a professional comes to work, he works.”

These objections to what felt a natural, almost expected practice came as a complete surprise to me. A drink in my hand was part of my pose, my identity, a display of insouciance; look, we are all here to relax and have a mellow experience. The staff members — not permitted to drink before, during or after service in the restaurant — looked to me as their role model while I was thinking more about setting a tone for the guests.

To drink or not to drink? That was the question I posed to half a dozen owners I respect.

“My policy at the restaurant is the same as in life — if I’m feelin’ it, I have a drink.” So said Eric Lemonides, co-owner of Almond Almond in New York. “The trick is to look like I’m having fun, not to actually have fun. Being a host, a maître d’, an owner, it’s hard work, and I’m not at my best when I’ve had a drink or two. Therefore, I do not drink on the job.

“If someone brings a bottle of wine they are proud of, they want me to taste it, that’s a different story. That’s part of the reason I got into this business, to taste everything I can taste. But I never ever sit down when someone asks me to have a drink with them. Never. I usually say, ‘Sure, and then I’ll visit your office this Wednesday at three in the afternoon with a bottle of good bourbon and see how you deal with it.’

“When I do have a drink, that means I’ve had it. I’m done for the night. Usually with a friend or two. And when the staff sees me drinking, they know to go to the manager with any questions or complaints. Not me.”

I walked into Pierre’s Bistro somewhere between lunch and dinner. I posed the same question. “I just finished a glass of rosé,” said Pierre Weber, a former pastry chef from France. “And I will have another one soon, and take a nap, and then return to work and perhaps drink again with a friend later tonight.

“This life, it is hard enough without taking away my glass of wine, no?” he continued. “If I want one — it is a very long day, perhaps 15 hours — I drink one. Of course, getting sloppy drunk is a no-no. And if anyone else on the staff is drinking, I say to them, very politely, ‘Finish your glass of wine and start to look for another job.’

“But for me? Do chefs not eat? Do priests not … never mind. When friends come here for dinner, can’t I sit down and have a glass of wine with my friends? What is this dogma? Maybe these people who protest your wine should move down South and thump their Bibles there, no?”

The trend was set: staff no, owner on occasion, at his discretion. Timing is everything. The owners of Mirko, Red Bar and Fresno all agreed, more or less: have a glass of wine when it is appropriate, advantageous, celebratory, or smart. No sitting at the bar all alone like Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca; Rick was, after all, a forlorn and isolated man, far from home, surrounded by political corruption and foreign wars. (Who can’t relate? Plus ça change …)

Like so many small moments at a restaurant, everything hinges on the mood, the context, the party, the bottle of wine. When someone brings in his own bottle, and wants me to taste it, to approve, to enlighten, to share in his good fortune, I partake. When a personal trainer insisted that I sit with his client (a professional athlete) and let him buy me a glass of vodka, I declined. (And not because I do not appreciate vodka or ex-Mets.)

Mindful that my focus could be limited by geography and culture, I reached beyond the confines of the Hamptons to get an opinion from a big fish in a big pond. Hello Drew Nieporent, owner of many places, including Nobu, Corton, and Tribeca Grill, along with Robert DeNiro.

“Drinking?” Mr. Nieporent mused. “The staff, that goes without saying. The owner? The imagery is all wrong when an owner bellies up to his own bar. It’s a bad policy. That is not to say that during 26 years in this business I have not had a drink with guests now and again. I have. I will. Every owner — every human being — has to police himself, but the temptations are so strong in this environment that you shouldn’t drink. You just shouldn’t.”

You talkin’ to me? You talkin’ to me? Me? Well, I’m the only one here.

Bruce Buschel owns Southfork Kitchen, a restaurant in Bridgehampton, N.Y.

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