Life behind bars: it's more than just pouring drinks

Everyone knows the story of Charlottesville's most famous bartender, you know, that musician guy who worked at Miller's before becoming a world renowned rock star... what's his name?

Well, many other local bartenders have attracted their own, albeit smaller, fan base. Indeed, while lots of factors go into creating a bar's atmosphere– lighting, decor, and menu choices, among them– in many cases, the single most significant element of a bar's appeal– and what keeps the regulars coming back– is the man or woman doing the pouring.

"They're friends out in the public square," says attorney Benjamin Dick, whose name adorns a stool downstairs at C&O restaurant where for years, bartender Barry Umberger would have drinks ready for regulars before they could order and knew the details of his frequent patrons' lives.

"He was also a friend and attending consultant on every kind of thing from A-Z," says Dick, who says Umberger's decision to sail to the Bahamas with his wife– and stay– left a hole.

"He was a bartending psychologist," Dick notes. "His generosity was abundant, and that's why so many people kept coming in."

Umberger may have been a master of his trade, but he's not the only one in town, and anyone who's ever sat on a barstool– or even watched an episode or two of Cheers– can attest that there's more to the role than just mixing drinks. A good bartender deftly negotiates multiple roles ranging from confidante to law enforcer.

"You're constantly multitasking," says longtime West Main bartender Janet Knight. "Besides pouring the drink, you're gauging the effect it's having on your guest," she notes, adding that while late-night bartenders deal more with unruly guests, her afternoon-through-happy hour shift often puts her in a therapist role as she chats with a group of regulars she calls friends.

"It's a wonderful time to get to know people," she says. "I love it."

Just in time for restaurant week, the Hook undertook the oh-so-difficult task of sitting at bars and chatting up the folks across from them. Their stories, bright smiles, and expert suggestions just might drive you to drink. But only in the best possible way...

Laura Clepper, Tempo

It's hard to miss Laura Clepper behind the bar at Tempo, the relatively new Asian-fusion restaurant on 5th Street, and a new addition to Restaurant Week this year. The tall blond looks like the kind of bartender you'd see at a fancy place on the California coast, and, in fact, that's where the Long Beach native got her start, tending bar while she went to the Art Institute of California to study advertising. All told, Clepper says, she's been bartending off and on for at least 10 years, and even graduated from a bartending school in California, where she says the competition for gigs is fierce.

"I've worked everywhere from five-star resorts to holes-in-a-wall," Clepper laughs.

So what makes a good bartender?

"Being attentive and intuitive," she says. "You have to read people really well, try to figure out what it is they might want, make suggestions. Don't just stand there silently and ask people what they want."

It's also good to work at a place "you really like," Clepper says.

"Tempo offers some of the best food in town," she boasts. "And the menu for Restaurant Week will really give people a chance to discover that. "

Meanwhile, Clepper says she's on the lookout for gigs that might allow her to put her design talents to work, and says she's been thinking a lot about getting into event planning. Of course, there's also the allure of California.

"I'm really a west coast girl," she says. "But I've been across the country seven times."


Micah LeMon, Blue Light Grill

The Blue Light Grill's Micah LeMon likes to claim he became a bartender by accident.

"I was working at a country club in college and discovered this utterly foreign culture where people sat around and imbibed a liquid that, at the time, I found disgusting," he says. "Slowly, I developed a taste for this foul liquor, and my whole life as a bartender has revolved around how to transform the raw taste of alcohol into something delicious and exceptionally drinkable. "

That was about 13 years ago, LeMon estimates. "Far too long," he says.

Still, there are things he loves about the job.

"I think the most rewarding thing is encountering a patron tired at the end of an honest day's work," he says, "and they are refreshed by my service, my beverages, and, sometimes, my company."

So what makes a good bartender?

"I guess that depends a lot on where one bartends," he says. "Some really need to be sassy and have a lot of attitude. Others need to to be a bit more permissive and laid back."

LeMon, however, has an "admittedly quixotic" idea that bartenders are actively overseeing one of the most important parts of our society: a place outside of home where people can relax, meet, chat, network, do business, make friends, even fall in love.

"As such they need to take what they do seriously and approach service in a manner that is mindful of the mantle they carry," he says.

Sometimes that's not so easy. A few years ago, one of the oddest requests for his services came at 3am in the morning.

"I was cleaning the bar, reeking of second-hand smoke, spilled beer, sweat, and bleach, and got a phone call from my boss," he says. "He demanded that I come babysit his kids– right then. So I went straight to his house after locking up the restaurant, witnessed a minor domestic dispute, then slept in the guest room."

"That was the oddest, other than being picked up by a lesbian," he says. "I think I kind of look like her ex-girlfriend," says LeMon.

As for other ambitions, LeMon says he's had many.

"I've already abandoned careers in biomedical science and Christian missions," he says. "And there's kind of a theme of wanting to make the world a better place. I think, for the time being, serving and keeping a watchful eye on the humanity of Cville seems like an worthwhile thing to do."


Sarah Gazillo, Mas Tapas

Unlike most restaurants, Mas in Downtown Belmont doesn't separate bartenders from wait staff, requiring servers to place bar orders. The designated bartenders are servers as well, taking food and drink orders in front of and behind the bar. No one has this skill mastered quite like Sarah Gazillo, a UVA grad who began working at Mas in 2003.

Indeed, the Massachusetts native manages to work as host, bartender, and server seamlessly while covering every square inch of the space. Granted, it's a skill embodied by the entire staff at Mas, but Gazillo is particularly agile– like a cat moving so gracefully that you don't realize how fast it is. Of course, a wine glass or two may occasionally be sacrificed in the process, but who's counting?

So what makes a good bartender/server?

"You need to be attentive," says Gazillo,"and you have to read and access the needs of people while maintaining a professional distance. You have to develop a sense for understanding people's expectations, and those expectations are constantly shifting."

Gazillo says working as Mas is unique because staff is always training, learning, doing tastings, and immersing themselves in Spanish cuisine. Close relationships with colleagues is another plus.

"We're a kind of a weird, modern interpretation of family here," she laughs.

"I love that every day is different," she says. "Every encounter has a different element of the unexpected. And I love talking about wine, especially Spanish wines, as Mas has the best of what Spain has to offer."

Gazillo finished her Masters degree in social work in May, focusing on affordable childcare policy, but following that career track may have to wait.

"My pipe dream these days is to become a certified sommelier," she says.


Roberta Keil, Fellini's #9

Fellini's #9 on the Downtown Mall has proven to be one of the funnest bars in town. They have a great music scene, and a great space for it, tucked away in a spot where the noise can't really bother any neighbors. Their live-music karaoke nights are a feel-good affair, Sundays with the Hogwaller Ramblers is a must-see, and pretty much every evening you'll find folks in a good mood in what can only be described as a classic neighborhood pub.

Of course, this can be attributed in large part to the staff, and, as quite a few patrons would likely agree, to the bar command of Roberta Keil.

Keil says bartending is in her genes.

"My grandmother and her sisters lived in a two-family house in the middle of a coal mining town in middle-of-nowhere Pennsylvania," she says, "they turned one half of it into a bar and ran it when they were just teenagers."

Her dad and brother are/were both bartenders; and according to family history, she says, she has great-great uncles who ran taverns in Russia.

Asked what makes a good bartender, Keil keeps it simple.

"Across the board, it's the age-old answer," she says."You gotta be a good listener, if that's what they need. Otherwise, make a good drink, fast."

For Keil, bartending has been the ideal job.

"I only ever hoped to be a good mom," she says. "This job gave me the freedom to have my days with my son. Never had to worry about daycare."

Keil recalls bartending at Uncle Charlie's in Crozet when Evan Almighty was being filmed.

"Every shift was interesting because we never knew who was going to walk through the door," she says. "It was fun meeting the crew, the actors and everyone in between. My son got to be a big part of it, too– his name is Noah, and they just ate that up."



Brandon Dillard, Zinc

When Zinc's Brandon Dillard left Staunton a few years ago to work in Charlottesville, it prompted local blogger Jack Morgan to bemoan the loss.

"Brandon is the best bartender in Staunton," wrote Morgan on "No offense to all the other bartenders out there, but he is."

Indeed, when you ask bartenders about bartenders, Dillard's name often comes up. As Morgan said, "He cares about the trade, and knows about the product."

According to Dillard, he never planned on becoming a bartender, but after working in restaurants "forever" and doing just about every job, he says it was a natural progression. Originally from the Atlanta area, Dillard was visiting family in Staunton a number of years ago and just never left.

For Dillard, the most important thing about bartending is the drink itself.

"I'm obsessive about it," he says. "There is a technique to making a drink, and they should be made in a certain way, just like a chef thinks about preparing food."

Of course, there's also the social aspect, and Dillard thinks empathy is key.

"You need to be able to tell what kind of mood people are in," he says, "and then act accordingly."

During the day, Dillard is a guide up at Monticello, something that feeds his passion for history, and might lead to a career in education. But right now, he says, he's happy doing both.

"It allows me to embrace different sides of who I am," he says.



Amanda Smith, Blue Light Grill

Though the Blue Light Grill's Amanda Smith considers her job a "blast," she admits that becoming a bartender can be tough.

Typically, if a bar doesn't have a current position open, you start by working as a barback, which means you have to do most of the grunt work– clearing and cleaning dishes, restocking whatever needs to be stocked, and, on occasion, cleaning up after someone who's had a little too much to drink.

"That's where I started at Blue Light," says Smith, who was eventually offered her own shift when another bartender left.

That was three years ago.

Since then, Smith has learned to create cocktails that emphasize seasonal, local ingredients, a theme at Blue Light.

"You approach it similarly to how a chef approaches cuisine," she says. "Over the summer, we did a cocktail with strawberries that we went and picked ourselves at Chiles orchard. The strawberries where on the vine that morning and in the cocktail that night."

Just like any other sales and customer service job, Smith says, you need to know your product. Another essential: being able to read your customers.

"On a slow night someone may enjoy learning about a wine on the list or a new bourbon that was just stocked," says Smith, "but you don't go blabbing to someone who really just wants to enjoy their gin and tonic and watch whatever is on the TV behind you.

"Also, you need to be able to say when someone has had enough, regardless of how uncomfortable it is."

Smith says that people who "over-inebriate" can turn mean, especially when you cut them off. She was once called a "retarded smurf" by a woman who began yelling obscenities and even tried to charge behind the bar.

"I am neither tiny nor blue," Smith deadpans. "Besides, things like gravity, balance, and chairs prevented her from getting very far."

While Smith says she enjoys bartending, she admits that working at a busy bar is not something she wants to do forever– and she's already launched her own baking business called Panda Cakes, which specializes in custom-designed baked goods, particularly cupcakes.

"I'm hoping to get into the farmers market in the spring," she says, "and eventually have a store front."

Savee Inthisen, Downtown Thai

Savee Inthisen has been bartending at Downtown Thai ever since her mother opened the Water Street restaurant in 2004. While she says it's mainly a family-style restaurant, she's had her adventures at the bar and has learned to enjoy creating drinks for people.

Her specialty, she says, are her peach martinis. "People will come in for my martinis."

Inthisen says that being a good bartender is about getting to know what a client likes. Since Downtown Thai has a lot of regulars, she says it's a matter of remembering what people order and how they like their drinks mixed. And that can change. "You can tell when someone wants a strong drink," she says, "or one not so strong."

Although Downtown Thai never gets too wild, Inthisen does remember when a group of guys came in for lunch and ordered special saki shots. Serving half glasses of beer, she then placed two chop sticks across the glass and balanced shots of saki on them.

"The idea is to pound the bar to make the saki shot fall in," she says, "but all those guys pounding the bar created quite a scene."

In between bartending, hosting, and serving at her mother's restaurant, Inthisen also went to esthetician school and hopes one day to work for a dermatology practice. Until then, her peach martinis will have to make her client's faces glow.

"I like getting that first reaction to a drink," she says, "when they take that first sip."


OMG Slow news week ay? Yawn...

Hello? Al Zappa?? Does the writer actually go out to bars?

Gotta ask why one woman is described as a "Massachusetts native" and another "tall blond," with blond used as a noun? The latter sounds like sexist "Madmen" dialogue. However to avoid being overly feminist, let me say thanks for the "being picked up by a lesbian" bit; that gave a momentary vicarious rush.

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Did the Hook forget about the Corner??? No one's faster than the two guys at The Backyard...

"A few years ago, one of the oddest requests for his services came at 3am in the morning."

Copy editor, clean up in paragraph 27! ("am in the morning" is redundant--the phrase never should have made it out of proofreading)

Also, since when is "funnest" considered appropriate for formal writing?


Just another dumb article ripped off from all the trendier-than-thou city mags like Philly Mag or Boston mag; they've been doing this tired excuse for journalism for years. Can't wait to see another story: "the hottest doctors in town" coming soon!
This drivel even opened with a graph that typifies the inferiority complex the media--and many of the insecure snobs--in this town possess. Can hardly open an article w/o a bow-down to "The Dave."
You guys at The Hook put WVIR to shame with the fluff. Ugh!
R.I.P.: Curt Flood

C-Ville Bartender Hall of Fame:

James Watson (Orbit)
Nathan Dotson (Virginian)
Alyssa ??? (Continental Divide)

Current All Stars:

Katie and Jen (The Twins at South Street Brewery)
The Rev. Al Suttmeier (The Box, Michael's Bistro)
Amanda Wood and Emily O'Keefe (Zocalo)
Anna ??? (Millers)

Please tell me this is not a cover story! This is one of the sorriest excuses for journalism I have read in The Hook in the last five years.

Sean, by the way, I have many fine memories of James Watson at Orbits. Miss that place.

Tim, you will be happy to know that James is doing quite well with his new city planning job, which he got after getting his masters from the A school financed by our tips. He travels a lot. I should have given props to his sidekick at Orbit Evelyn Strzelecki, as James used to say she did all the work anyway while he was BSing with everyone. The truth. Her bro Fil was the star at Blue Light for years, and is now kicking it in Tampa on the beach.

Nathan is swinging swills in Hong Kong now, and Alyssa is enjoying the slower pace designing jewelry in Belmont.

The early days of the Shebeen when Ryan Cyr was behind the bar (as well as Erin Umberger - see above) were legendary also. They all got out in time to avoid becoming Charlottesville Restaurant Zombies.

A decade of memories.. Man, I gotta get outta here.

In addition to the Al Zappa omission, Sean Thomas is another absolute pillar in the Charlottesville Bartending Hall of Inebriation. Other than Roberta and Micah, I didn't recognize any of the people listed.

And two people from blue light? That tells you all you need to know right there. This article was clearly written by an amateur, for amateurs. Zinc and Tempo are routinely empty. Mas doesn't even have bartenders. Downtown Thai is a bar? No one from the new kids on the block at Sky Bar or Commonwealth? Zocalo? Mono Loco?!? South Street or X Lounge? HELLOOOOOooooo.....

I agree with the comment that whoever wrote this clearly doesn't get out much. And isn't it spelled "sakE"? Sheezoman this article is a FAIL.

That's not true, I do recognize the woman from Mas as my exasperated waitress the last time I was there. May the day come soon when the staff at Mas does not feel license to treat their customers with disdain.....

Brandon Dillard is a talented guy. I have taken visitors to Monticello many times and Dillard has been the best guide yet!

I hope Laura doesn't move back to California. owwwwwww

Well, as the owner of Rapture, I'm honored that readers feel that the failure to include Al Zappa (not to mention Sean Thomas) constitutes an omission. But I'm not sure that the author claims anywhere to be writing a definitive history or encyclopedic account of CVille bartenders (in which case then, yeah, these are omissions). Instead it's just a fun snapshot of something many probably don't give a lot of thought to, despite how regularly we might eh, require their services. In any case, take stock: I don't know everyone mentioned in the article, but two of my non-Rapture favorites (Brandon Dillard & Sarah Gazillo) are included herein, so the journalism can't be too shoddy in my book. Oh, and to the reader who compared Zappa's personality to that of a beer tap: pretty funny dude (and by the way, Zappa's worked for me for 13 years, and he's still trying to sleep with my wife, so don't take anything too personally).

Only a few of the bars listed have been around for more than a few years. Didnt see too many mentions of the staples of cville and its bar scene. No Millers, Rapture, Maya, (the Corner) Virginian, Biltmore, and has some of the fastest people behind the bar. Lets see how many of the bars and bartenders listed will be there next year. Think a lot of people were snubbed like this years probowl.

I just assumed this article was written while I was on vacation and maybe since Ted and I got props in a competing newspaper, we got the snub.
Thanks for everybodies comments.It's nice to know people in this town got your back (including my boss and his hot wife).
Honestly, I like all the people who did make it in the article so I have no problem being excluded. They are my friends and good for them for getting kudos in the paper.
As for the beer tap comment, meh, what's that mean? You turn me on and I go full-blast? You know what comes out of beer taps don't you? Goodness! :)

Hard to find him there much anymore, but Dave Bond is/was and will always be the best.

Liberty at Mas is by far the best looking.......

Greg Pace...for the last generation of Virginia grads there's no other answer.

what competing "news" paper?