I’m sure you’ve seen Meg Ryan’s famous antics in When Harry met Sally–she fakes an orgasm so well in a restaurant that a lady seated nearby tells her waiter “I’ll have what she’s having.” It’s a great scene, hysterically funny and seemingly original … but if you’ve ever worked in restaurants or bars you might recognize where that line came from.

We hear it all the time. A customer joins friends and when asked about a drink, simply tells the bartender “I’ll have what they’re having.”

At some moment in bar history, a customer must have watched someone fall off their barstool and then joked to the bartender: “I want the same thing he’s drinking!”

It’s a classic bar line that’s been bounced around for generations, so when I heard director Rob Reiner tell how he and his mom (who plays the nearby lady) came up with this original idea out of the blue, I started to think of how many times I’d heard it before.

Here’s one example from a movie made in 1986–three years before the production of When Harry met Sally. In Round Midnight, Dexter Gordon has the role an American saxophone player living in Paris in the 1950’s. Waiting for a drink after his night’s performance, Dexter watches a customer gulp down his last cocktail … and then fall straight back onto the floor. Dexter turns to the bartender and says, “I would like to have the same thing he had.”

Rob and his mom may have spent more time in bars than they care to admit. Click the image below to watch.

(2) Classic bartender’s line …

We’ve posted this before but I have to include one of my all-time favorite bartender lines. I first saw it on TV as part of an Oscars show while working the bar–a short clip in a montage of movies scenes. It took quite a few years of watching old movies and asking friends but I finally found it again. You can read the story of that long search here, but the actual short clip is below. Henry Fonda asks the bartender if he’s ever been in love … and the gentleman playing the barman delivers his line with perfect, deadpan acting.

(3) There’s nothing like bar conversation …

When I was working in Albany, a young nurse came into our bar after a hospital shift. She wanted to know how I came to stand behind the taps at The Lark Tavern. It was a long story which I tried to keep short–that while on my way to Boston, my friend Stacey suggested I should visit her in Albany for a couple of weeks when passing through.

After running into trouble with a motorcycle gang and a big beef with Stacey’s ex-con boyfriend, I began slinging drinks at The Lark where I’d meet politicians and gangsters, undercover narcotics cops, shameless deadbeats, scheming housewives … and eventually, I’d wind up living with a tall blonde who loved to be tied up and spanked.

It took me three years to leave Albany.

Meanwhile, as I told the nurse a few of the twists and turns, a frayed sort of man sat alone two barstools away. Wearing brown pants and a shirt that might not have been changed for days, he’d been bent over his drink–but now he slowly lifted his shoulders and joined our conversation.

“Life is a path of many windings,” he muttered, looking straight ahead.

The nurse and I laughed out loud. A drunk sat up to deliver a line from Confucius. You just can’t beat conversations in a bar.

Posted in Life on a Cocktail Napkin | 3 Comments

WAITSTAFF BANTER (nipple play)

steel woolThese two short events happened late last Sunday night.

During closing duties at the nightclub, one of the waitresses scrubbed the stainless steel counter of the service station. Only she was using an industrial steel scruffie!

“Stop!!!” I shouted. The metal curls of the steel wool will leave permanent scratches in the surface. The new, nearly invisible grooves will fill with dirt and as soon as you get them clean, they’ll fill up again. Never use steel wool on stainless steel counters!

“Stop!!” I cried out, but she kept on scrubbing. “Stop! Stop! Stop!!”

After a brief explanation, she begrudgingly nodded her head in agreement . . . although she still wanted to argue about it. “That’s the way everyone around here is doing it,” she said.

“Then everyone has to be told why they shouldn’t,” I replied. By now she’d begun using a bar cloth instead, but she didn’t seem completely sold on the idea. She continued the conversation. “I don’t understand why I have to use a bar cloth” and “What harm could it really do?”

“Listen,” I said, in a rough attempt at humor while making a point. “The next time you use steel wool on this counter . . . I’m going to use steel wool on your nipples.” She stood for a moment with a blank expression. I could see the wheels churning as she searched for a comeback.

“Hmmm,” she said, staring straight at me. “I LOVE steel wool on my nipples.”

“OK,” I said. Clearly, I’d lost this little tete-a-tete.

“Alright . . . next time I’ll use the steel wool on you for fun, and then we’ll think of an appropriate punishment.” Well, at least now maybe she’d remember.

 Marg on the rocksThe waitstaff finished early, and immediately began drinking . . .

With the club area closed and the waitstaff done for the night, I stood behind the bar for the last part of the shift–the front area would remain open until 1:00 a.m. as a neighborhood bar. “I’ll have a Patron margarita for my shift drink,” one waitress said. Our house pour is 1 1/2 ounces and the margaritas are “double drinks” so we’re talking about three ounces of liquor.

She guzzled down the drink with four or five long sips through her straw. “I’ll have another,” she said.

Halfway through the second drink, she wanted to order one more. “You know,” I said, “ . . . there’s a lot of liquor in those and you’re knocking them down pretty fast.”

“Are you driving?” I asked.

“I drink these all the time,” she told me. “I know what I can handle.

“Yes,” I replied, “but I want to be sure you make it home OK.”

“I’m just drinking fast so I can get out of here and drive home before it hits me,” she explained.

That’s not something the bartender wants to hear. She’s drinking fast so she can drive before the buzz makes her too woozy? “Listen,” I said, “I think you have two choices. You can slow down and I’ll serve you again in a few minutes, or you can make that your last one.”

“I know you can handle your liquor,” I said, “but I don’t want to worry about your trip home.”

Now she laughed and said, “Yeah, you’re probably right. I’m done for the night.”

“And a word of advice,” I told her. “When you want another drink, be careful how you explain it to the bartender.”

Posted in Life on a Cocktail Napkin | 3 Comments

THE SCREAMING VIKING (barroom classics)

Copy-of-CheersFourDrinks … maybe as many as one-hundred-thousand and counting. How do you do it?” a young coed asks as I frantically work behind the bar. “How do you remember all the drinks?” With the place packed and me struggling to keep my head above water, she asks about knowing drinks.

I guess for customers, remembering each drink is what bartending is all about–but it’s just not true especially when the joint starts hopping. A bartender has to handle everything at once. You give someone their change as you ask the next group what they want, the waitress calls out her order, the ice is low, you need more limes, and the guy at the end is swaying back and forth on his barstool. All of this happens in an instant.

Then there are the customers. Everyone talks about dealing with the general public, and what an effort it takes . . . but in a bar, the public has been drinking. Try adding that extra difficulty to any job. Imagine driving a city bus filled with giddy passengers who stand up on their seats, and sing, and cheer. Trust me, remembering how to make drinks is only the beginning.

Besides, it’s not as difficult as it seems. Drinks fall into categories, like the vodka and juice drinks. Fill a highball glass with ice, one house pour of vodka and a changing juice. All you have to remember is which juice goes with which name.

Screwdriver = orange juice

Cape Codder = cranberry juice

Madras = orange and cranberry juice

Seabreeze = grapefruit and cranberry juice

Hawaiian Seabreeze = pineapple and cranberry juice.

A Black Russian is vodka and Kahlua, while a White Russians adds milk or cream. What about the Whiskey Sours, Vodka Sours, Amaretto Sours?  Make one sour and you know how to make them all.

There are always new drinks, something the bartender hasn’t heard of before. A few years ago at Johnny D’s, bartenders Eric Pierce and Felix Gailitis invented a drink that had dark rum and Captain Morgan’s, a little coconut rum and triple sec, shaken with pineapple juice and a splash of Grenadine. (I came up with the name … we called it a “Horny Pirate.”) One day a customer complained that she’d gone to another bar and they didn’t even know what a Horny Pirate was much less how to make it. Of course not, we’d just made it up.

Which brings me to the real reason behind this post, something I finally found online … a great scene about knowing/not knowing drinks in an episode of the TV series Cheers. Some of the regulars at Cheers decided to teach a new addition to the staff a lesson.  He was always bragging about his prior experience and his knowledge of bartending–so the regulars came up with a phony drink and made-up ingredients. Woody, one of the other bartenders, was in on it with them.

One by one as they pretended to be new customers, they asked the guy for a Screaming Viking, a cocktail supposedly made with a whole cucumber.  Of course the snooty bartender didn’t know it–there’s no such drink as a Screaming Viking (at least not at the time).

“Would you like your cucumber bruised first?” Woody stepped in to help one conspiring regular.

“Just slightly bruised,” Norm replied, and Woody gently tapped the cucumber on the bar rail. The pompous bartender walked out, pissed and humiliated.

It’s one of my favorite bar scenes. Click on the image below to watch.


Posted in Life on a Cocktail Napkin | 4 Comments


Copy of SeanJohnnyDsSad news in the Boston area music world. Owner Carla DeLellis announced last weekend that the legendary nightclub Johnny D’s will be closing.

Mary Chapin Carpenter, Emmylou Harris and Bruce Cockburn once shared the billing at Johnny D’s … all three performing together on a stage that has seen so many, many outstanding shows. Dixie Chicks and Alison Krauss played every year on their way to a combined 40 Grammy Awards. Irma Thomas, The Motels, Wanda Jackson, Booker T. Jones, and a list so long I won’t go any further.

Now Johnny D’s will be closing early in 2016, and I have the inside scoop on why. I worked behind their bar for 25 years, and though I moved on, over the last year I’ve been watching something unfold. It’s about the hidden struggles when running a business, one nightspot in particular, and it’s also a human story both sad and hopeful.

Let’s start with some history.

Copy of johnTinaTwo

Mr. and Mrs. Johnny D

Carla’s parents, Tina and John DeLellis, opened the club in 1969–back when Davis Square (Somerville, MA) was a different place. It was a gangster enclave and some of the old-timers still talk about the gunfight at a bar called The Rail Side across the street. One mobster leaned out the bar’s back door and fired his gun repeatedly at others shooting down from the windows of the adjacent apartment building.

When the Red Line subway put a new stop in Davis Square, digging up the ground where The Rail Side had been, everyone knew there were changes ahead.

The DeLellis family added a restaurant and raised the level of music from country and western to local, regional and national acts playing the blues, jazz, folk, world beat, and rock … a mix so varied you had to check the schedule before making plans. One night you might have Brad Delp, lead singer for the band Boston, performing on stage … and the next night it would be rockabilly legend Dale Hawkins, who wrote Credence Clearwater’s well-known hit, Suzie Q.

At that point, there were only three members left in the DeLellis family. Johnny D himself had died of a heart attack so Tina and her kids Carla and Dave began running the place together. They were a team.

David, Tina and Carla (front-page photo from the LIVING/ARTS section of The Boston Sunday Globe)

David, Tina and Carla (front-page photo from the LIVING/ARTS section of The Boston Sunday Globe)

Dave oversaw the bar, seated customers for the restaurant and kept a close eye on the physical maintenance of the place. Carla started a wildly popular brunch, and when she wasn’t tweaking the menu or handling advertising and promotions, she ran the booking office trying to pull in the right bands. Tina was the matriarch, watching over everything and handling the business end of the club. Tina had two separate business offices at Johnny D’s and one in her home.

They all worked long hours. Tina was at the club six nights a week while Carla sometimes worked seven days and nights in a row. Dave put in sixteen-hour-shifts, but always found time to squeeze in a day at Cape Cod. (He once had me Fed Ex the times cards to him so he could do the payroll on the beach.)

Dave died far too young. At 37, he fell to fast-moving cancer, leaving only Tina and Carla to carry on. It seemed there was always more work and fewer people to do it.

TinaCardTina DeLellis passed away in 2008. There are so many stories about this grand lady. She had grown up wearing rags in war-torn Italy, then came to America without completing high school and went on to become one of Boston’s most successful and respected club owners. (You can read more about Tina here.)

I can’t resist telling one story about Tina, something John B. and I were talking about on the phone the other day.

Booty Vortex was playing and Johnny D’s was packed. (For a short video of Booty Vortex and to see what the club is like, clock the image below.)

As the night rolled on, a young man came in with his wife to have dinner and dance. Then the wife went to the other side of the performance area and asked someone else to dance. The two of them continued to twirl on the dance floor until the woman’s husband got involved. There was a loud exchange and it looked like punches were about to be thrown when Tina stepped in. “My friend, my friend,” Tina said to the husband, “we won’t have any of that in my place.”

“It’s a misunderstanding,” Tina continued with her thick Italian accent and her country lawyer charm. She turned to the wife’s confused dance partner. “Did you know she was married?” Tina asked. After a few minutes everything settled down. “See, it was just a misunderstanding,” Tina said to the husband, “he didn’t know she was married.”

After the husband went back to his table and the young man returned to his spot on the other side, Tina turned to the trouble-making wife. “And you … you little hussy,” Tina said to the wife when the two men were gone. “YOU didn’t know you were married?”

“Don’t be starting trouble in my place,” Tina waved her finger in the woman’s face. “Or I’ll throw you out myself!”

Tina was one of a kind, and she was sorely missed … but no one felt it as much as Carla. She’d lost her mom and her business partner, an important ally in both respects.

Carla DeLellis (Boston Globe photo)

Carla DeLellis (Boston Globe photo)

By now Carla had married and become a mom herself, but when her marriage ended (another nightclub relationship causality) Carla was suddenly trying to raise four young children AND run a successful nightspot.

Maybe that was too long on the history part, but it sets the scene for the one moment in which I knew Carla faced some hard choices.

Carla had been at the club since early that morning, and was finally ready to go home and fix dinner for her kids when I walked into her office. Already held over for an extra two hours, her shoulders slumped when I told her there was something she had to deal with immediately.

“I’ll never get out of here,” Carla said. “Give me a minute. I’ve got to call the kids to tell them I’ll be late.”

While she began speaking to her youngest daughter, who was only five-years-old, it was as though I wasn’t even in the office. This was just a mom talking to a child who didn’t understand why her mother would be late coming home again.

“I know,” Carla said softly over the phone, “I know, honey … I miss you, too.”

“I’ll be home soon,” Carla continued, “but Mommy has to work right now.”

“No,” Carla said to her daughter, “No, honey … of course, Mommy loves you. I love you honey … but there’s something I have to do first.”

As Carla spoke, her voice was soothing and even, but she had tears running down her cheeks. Sitting in the office talking on the phone with her daughter, she continued silently crying.

“Mommy loves you, honey,” she said softly to her daughter. “I’ll be home soon, I promise.”

It took another two years to happened, but I knew at that moment something at Johnny D’s would have to change. When Carla made her announcement this past weekend, people wanted to know when I first heard about it … thinking that Carla might had told me earlier. Nope, I heard last Sunday afternoon the same as everyone else.

But that night with Carla in the office, I’d already seen all I needed to know.

Posted in Life on a Cocktail Napkin | Leave a comment

TAXES, RESTAURANT TIPS, and the filthy rich

Copy of 1040Two(Just finished a big project and will be back next week with new stories. In the meantime, here’s a repost …this issue keeps coming  up.)

We’re taking a break today from our usual bar stories.  Something has been bugging me lately with all the talk about who pays taxes, and how much they pay.

And while my gripe is strickly about restaurant tips and a broken tax system, I think the details might interest everyone.

All restaurant employees who make a living on tips — who make even one dollar from tips — pay federal income tax on what they receive.  My complaint is . . . why do they pay at a rate twice as high as the fat cats who make millions?

How harshly would you expect the US government to tax a restaurant tip as little as a quarter — as compared to someone’s $1,000,000 bonus?  The answer might surprise you.

First let’s look at what a tip actually is, and what it isn’t.

A tip is a gift under $13,000 . . . 

Have you ever seen a customer buy a round of drinks and then say to the bartender — “Get one for yourself.”   It happens all the time.  It’s gesture of appreciation.  It’s a gift.

Likewise when a customer leaves a tip (so the bartender can buy him/herself a drink later — or buy whatever they want), that’s also a gift.

It’s certainly not wages.  There’s no agreement guaranteeing how much will be given, . . .  in fact, the customer can decide not to leave any tip at all.  (What if a tip really was wages?  Would the customer be liable for state and federal employer taxes?)

Nope . . . a tip is a gift, pure and simple, and as a gift under $13,000 it’s not subject to gift tax.

But the government needs money, and I suppose they justify taxing tips because at the end of the day, at the end of the week and the year, we do have that money to spend.

So the government counts these gifts as income.

And they tax them at the same rate as wages.

Now to the fat cats . . .

Everyone knows the tax-system is set up differently for the super-rich, but lately it’s become clear how thoroughly the game is totally rigged.

Even after hiding money in exotic offshore tax shelters and taking advantage of every tax loophole — when declaring what remains the super-rich can still pay at a rate much lower than yours and mine.

Restaurant employees (like most working folks) pay at a tax rate of 25 -35%.  But many of the super-rich often pay as little as 15%, 10% . . . and sometimes pay nothing whatsoever.

How is this possible?

One advantage the super-rich have is the use of clever financial terms like “carried interest,” “capital gain,” and “deferred income.”  They use this high-sounding jargon to suggest that unlike other forms of “income” (such as tips) . . . THEIR income should hardly be taxed at all.

For example by using terms like “active losses” vs. “passive losses,” and “total return equity swap” — the super-rich can essentially choose their own tax rate.  According to Victor Fleischer (a tax expert and law professor at the University of Colorado), these folks save:

“ . . . substantial amounts of money by pretending that regular income received as a management fee for running a private equity firm is not income, but is instead a capital gain.”  (Emphasis mine.  Source.)

That way they only pay only 15%, rather than 35%.  (Fleischer believes this is actually illegal even as many multi-millionaires continue to do it.)

Not only can the super-rich apparently choose their own tax rate — they can switch back and forth when it suits them, to make even more money.  They simply declare their losses at a 35% rate, while paying taxes at the 15% rate.  (Source — Rebecca Wilkins, senior tax policy counsel at Citizens for Tax Justice.)

Those of us stuck at a 25 – 35% rate on tips might wonder  . . . . how do they get away with this?

It’s simply, really . . . just follow the money

The people wheeling and dealing with their taxes simply contribute millions and millions of dollars to influence law-makers and politicians.  Using those clever financial terms, the “influenced” legislators pass tax-avoidance strategies designed only for the super-rich.

Thus the super-rich really don’t have to break any laws (in most cases) . . . because in essence they’re the ones who wrote the laws.  (Or more accurately, paid to have them written.)

Let me just say here, I’m not a communist and I firmly believe in the America way.  I’m not looking to demean someone’s success, or to redistribute any of their wealth.

I just don’t think multi-millionaires should pay at a tax rate one-half (or even lower) than that of bartenders, waiters and waitresses, and the other workers of this country.

Anyway, sorry for the rant . . . back soon week with more bar stories.

(We included the comments from the first time this was posted … please feel free to add your own.)

Posted in Life on a Cocktail Napkin | 18 Comments