We sat down with Dustin Lawlor, Head Bartender at The Kitchen Denver, one of Denver’s most popular restaurants, to talk bartending, how he’s found success, and get his take on the transformation underway in and around this booming city. Check out what this industry heavy-weight had to say.
How did you get started in the industry?
Anika Zappe, Sean Kenyon and Matty Clark are the three that gave me my first chances to step behind the bar and I have learned different things from each of them and from the bars that they work/worked behind at the time.
Anika gave me my first chance to actually work with her behind the bar at Root Down and she taught me so much about classic cocktails and technique. I used to sit at Sean’s bar at Stueben’s and then later at Squeaky Bean. He is like an encyclopedia of knowledge. I love sitting at his bar still and always learn a few things. I bar-backed for him briefly as well. He set up a study group for everyone when BarSmarts did their Denver advanced certification and that was a big help to a lot of us.
Matty Clark now owns the Hi-Dive. When I met him he worked at Sputnik and Lost Lake Lounge as well. I started picking up shifts with him at Lost Lake when he was the bar manager there and he helped me learn to work a dive bar effectively. I worked Sundays usually by myself from start to finish. That was a daunting task as young bartender and I don’t know if I could have done it without his help.
Everyone getting behind the bar for the first time needs to have a mentor to learn from.
You can learn recipes from a book. You need a bartender to teach you to bartend. It’s something you can’t rush if you want to be good at it. I still pick up little tricks the learning process doesn’t end.
What is your favorite part about your job?
I enjoy the constant change in the restaurant industry. You always hope to have a good base of regulars but, every night is completely different.
Then on the other side, cocktails are constantly changing. Ingredients, cocktails themselves, new spirits… It’s ever changing and I love that.
In your eyes, what is the #1 quality that makes a good bartender?
Passion and a desire to create a perfect guest experience every service. Over everything, to be good at this you have to love to be hospitable. Hospitality should be at the root of every team member’s skill set.
How do you deal with difficult guest situations? Do you have any tricks you use in those situations?
Every case is different when it comes to that. [With inebriated guests], the first defense is not to be the bar or bartender who over serves them. If they walk in the front door intoxicated, I usually try to get to them before they have a chance to sit down. Communicating with my team so no one else serves them is also key.
Being honest, kind and discreet with a guest who has had one too many is always the first step. The last thing I want to do is embarrass or “call out” a guest who drank too much. Most of us have been drunk. There is no reason to make someone feel like an idiot for over indulging. It just escalates the situation. If they have a sober friend with them, I will enlist their help to get them home safely.
How do you try to connect with your guests?
As far as connecting with guests the biggest thing is listening. One guest may want to talk and know everything that’s going on behind the bar etc. another guest may have had an awful day and just wants his Steak and his scotch and no conversation.
The best tool you can have in your arsenal is being able to assess the needs of your guest.
The faster you can do this the better. Having a server or bartender know how to handle your experience without having to explain it is what separates good service from excellent service in my eyes.
What are some tricks to maximize your efficiency behind the bar?
When it comes to bartending, I think the biggest efficiency trick is putting bottles back in the same place every single time. Using muscle memory when you are very busy and not having to race around to find bottles is my biggest time saver. Organization and cleanliness are bartender’s friends on a busy night.
Is there a particularly crazy story that’s happened to you while working?
There is a lot I could put here. But, I had a guest throw an old fashioned glass at another guest. It missed his target but hit the bar and shattered. A shard of that flew up and cut another guests neck that was sitting near the guy he intended to hit.
It was nothing life threatening, but it happened very fast and everyone heard and saw it and the whole place went crazy. The two parties’ friends got them both out of the bar without further incident. It was touch and go for a few minutes, though. Thankfully no one was seriously injured.
What do you feel makes Denver and Boulder unique in the food and beverage industry?
We are a “bigger” city and we continue to grow in Denver. But, we aren’t and hopefully never will be a “big” city like San Francisco, New York or Chicago.
I think our size is currently our greatest asset.
We are big enough to keep things exciting but, small enough that chances are my bartenders and I know someone working behind the bar at your next stop.
How do you feel the rising population in Colorado will affect the industry?
Overall I think it will be for the better. The more talent in the city the better. It makes everyone step up their game. The hard part is on the hiring side of things. Finding people who actually love this and want to do it for a living isn’t always easy.
What are some of your favorite watering holes around town?
There are so many good ones… Williams & Graham, Falling Rock Taphouse, Mercantile, Ste. Ellie, Hi-Dive. Those are probably the ones I go to most. And Gabors (RIP) was an all time favorite that is no longer open.
Last but not least, do you have a favorite drink to make?
Yup, a Manhattan.
Huge thanks to Dustin and everyone The Kitchen Denver!
Get the recipe for Dustin Lawlor’s craft cocktail Las Vegas Turnaround →