Order the bubbly, vanilla vodka-based French Art Film cocktail at Ciel Social Club in Mount Vernon Triangle and a bartender will hand you a drink in a matter of seconds. The preparation it takes to realize that moment, though, unfolds hours before guests arrive at the sleek rooftop hangout.
First, vanilla bean and vodka spend two hours together in a sous vide bath. While that’s happening, a stove top vanilla syrup is prepared. The remaining components — Chinola passion fruit liqueur, passion fruit puree and lime juice — undergo a process called milk clarification. The entire batch is strained overnight through a cheesecloth and then batched into a keg with two bottles of Veuve Clicquot champagne.
“The entire process takes about eight hours,” says Hank Bowers, beverage director for Versus, the company that operates the bar.
All that preparation allows for a seamless interaction between customer and bartender, especially on weekends when the bar can see upwards of 500 customers a night.
“By the time the cocktail is tapped on our bar, it takes under 15 seconds to make,” Bowers says.
This behind-the-scenes work happens daily at bars across D.C., with bartenders and owners sweating details from juicing citrus to stocking enough ice for a busy Saturday shift. The tasks and details can seem mundane on their own. Zoom out, though, and they are the foundation for any smooth service operation. And smooth is key, especially with prices rising and staffing at a premium.
Mission Navy Yard is another restaurant where speed is just as important as quality and consistency. The Mexican-inspired hangout juices an average of nearly 21,000 limes per week and can sell close to 10,000 standard margaritas when things are busy.
“We have a whole team who works all morning and afternoon just to get us ready for when customers arrive,” says Fritz Brogan, managing partner and co-founder of Mission Group.
In addition to a dedicated prep staff, Mission’s Navy Yard location was built from the ground up with logistics and efficiency in mind. The space can hold 150 kegs and hundreds of cases of beer, which flow across 16 draft lines and 110 tap handles. Custom-built ice machines churn out thousands of pounds of cubes an hour. And there are seven dishwashers allocated exclusively for cleaning bar glassware.
“It’s a fun but exhausting and never-ending process,” Brogan says.
Planning is a big part of success for fine dining room cocktail programs, too, like at Imperfecto in D.C.’s West End.
“I like to make sure my bartenders are ready for anything,” says Enea Diotaiuti, bar manager at the high-end Mediterranean kitchen. “That’s a tip I recommend to all bar managers who may start leading a busy bar — be ready for the worst.”
Diotaiuti’s team works the night before drying garnishes like orange wheels and pears, spending the couple of hours before opening preparing juices, syrups and ice for the evening. Each bartender gets an assigned task and their collective goal is to deliver cocktails in five to seven minutes, depending on the number of reservations on a given night.
“If you aren’t organized, you will not make it on a busy night,” he says. “You will be crushed.”
And when things inevitably do end up turning stressful, Diotaiuti says the most important thing is to remain calm, keep pushing out drinks and create a great guest experience.
“Remember you only have two hands and the worst thing you can do is panic,” he says.
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