Bartenders Bible

Southwark’s George Costa Recommends Barmen ‘Always Appear Pleasant with a Smile and Try Not to Swing’

Deep thoughts with George Costa
Deep thoughts with George Costa Photo: Kirsten Henri

Bartenders spend most of their time, well, tending to you. They make you drinks, make you laugh and convince you that your drunken babble is nothing short of genius. Or at least the good ones do. In the Bartenders Bible series, we let the folks manning the speedrails and taps around town have their say. This week, we’re talking to Southwark’s George Costa, who tries his hardest to pick his favorite liquor, explains why the question “What do you make that’s good?” drives him crazy and reveals how he’s “perpetually fishing.”

Name: George Costa

Coordinates: Southwark

Bartender or mixologist? Bartender.

Tenure at Southwark? Five years. I’m the general manager and the bartender. I’ve been here since before they opened - I put the lights in and the fans in and painted a good percentage of this place.

Total years behind the bar: I guess about 11 years, on and off, since I moved to Philadelphia from Long Island. I’ve done more management stuff in restaurants than bartending.

One unexpected fact about George:
If I’m not working here, I’m probably fly-fishing. Valley Creek, Ridley Creek, Tulpehocken Creek or I go to the beach and fly fish off the surf. I’m perpetually fishing. I tie my own flies, build rods. It’s my little side business for myself. Philly’s great because you can drive a half an hour in any direction and be fishing. That’s one of the things I love about this town.

Favorite beer: I’m a big fan of white beers - I love the Allagash White. Probably Saint Bernardus Wit if I had to pick my very favorite. I like Founders’ Pale Ale, too.

Favorite liquor: Oh god, I love all my children. Whiskey, gin… I’ve been on a rum kick lately. I don’t know, it’s so hard to choose! It’s usually just whiskey. I’m a big fan of the rye. Probably the Michter’s US 1 is probably my favorite to mix with and to drink.

Favorite cocktail: Ooooof! Before dinner, I love a Negroni. After dinner, I like an Old Fashioned. If the wind is blowing from the west… if it’s a south wind it’s rum. A nice rum.

Your best customer in five words or less.
Beer, shot, five bucks, thank you. Something along those lines. Somebody that knows what they want.

Your worst customer five words or less.
“What should I have?” Even better than that is: “What do you make that’s good?”

All bartenders should know a good joke. What’s yours?
I know a lot of jokes. What do you want to hear a joke about? Seriously? I need to figure out which you want because I like all of them. A lot of mine are pretty long.

There are three guys out standing in a field. They’re all screwing around, shooting off guns. First guy turns to the other two and says “Get a load of this, boys.” Walks over to his backpack, pulls out a bottle of nice, single barrel aged bourbon. This is the nice shit, you don’t get this bourbon every day. Walks down across the field, puts it up on a fence, walks back. Takes out his rifle, takes aim, BOOM! Blows it to smithereens, the bottle shatters all over the place. The other two guys are like, “What the hell is the matter with you, man? That was good fucking whiskey - we could have drank that shit!” He’s like, “Boys, I’m from Kentucky, and where I’m from in Kentucky, bourbon like that is a natural thing. My pappy had barrels of it, my grandpappy had barrels of it, I got barrels full of it. For me it’s nothing to shoot it to smithereens.”

The other two guys are like, “What an asshole! That’s guy’s a dick!” Not to be outdone, the second guy reaches into his briefcase, pulls out a bottle of 1946 Chateau LaTour, the real deal. Goes down to the field, puts it up on the fence, walks back, takes aim with this beautiful engraved shotgun, really nice, wood inlay and everything, and BOOM! Blows it to smithereens.

The other guys say, “What the fuck is wrong with you, man? That was one of a thousand bottles left in the world of that! We could have had that with lunch! That’s one of the best wines ever.” The guy looks at them and says, “Gentlemen, you see, I’m from New York, and I have an extensive collection with over 20,000 labels in my wine cellar and wine stores on every corner of the block. To me, this is nothing.”

So the other two guys are like “What an asshole! That guy’s a dick!” So sure enough, the third guy’s just kind of standing around. He shrugs his shoulders, pulls out a Glock, puts it to the guy from New York’s head and fucking BOOM! Blows his fucking brains out all over the place. Guy from Kentucky says, “Jesus fucking Christ, you just shot that guy!” The other guy says, “Yeah, I know. I’m from Philadelphia, we’ve got New Yorkers all over the place.”

Have you ever had to break up a fight at your bar? What was it about?
Not really. Most of the places I’ve worked - we had bouncers and we never really had to deal with it. The only time anybody ever hit anybody else in here was kind of funny. This guy came in to try and panhandle and somebody that he had previoulsy scammed recognized him and decided to openhand smack him in the face. It was a beautiful sound because I was pretty close to kicking the guy out anyway. It was just the most glorious smack I’ve ever heard at my life. It was a resonating WHACK! He left pretty fast after that.

It’s okay to sleep with customers. Yes or no?
[Laughs]. Well if I wasn’t married - I don’t know! I hadn’t thought about it. Probably a bad idea. You should’ve asked me, “Is it okay to sleep with the waitstaff?” and then I was actually going to say yes to that! No it’s not okay to sleep with customers, only the help.
[Ed. Note - George’s wife also works at Southwark.]

The best tip you ever got?
A bottle of Plymouth Navy Strength Gin that our friend brought us back from the U.K.

What’s the best part of the job?
Never having to take it home with you. No matter how shitty your night was or what the hell happens, it starts new every day and shit doesn’t carry over, for the most part.

What’s the worst part of the job?
Dealing with the people who have no idea what they want, why they want it or what they like. It’s very specific to [Southwark]. It’s one thing to be genuinely curious about what a liquor is and to want to try it for another time. It’s another thing when people want you to pick a drink for them. When someone asks “Will I like that?” I usually say, “I don’t know you, I don’t know what you like, I don’t know what your styles are, if it sounds like something you would like, then get it!” Lady, I don’t know you from Adam, I don’t know what you like or what you want to drink! That’s the worst part, dealing with those people. I don’t mind dealing with people who are genuinely interested in something and want to try it, but people who just want to be part of something like that, like “Oh I had this great drink over here, bla bla blah.” Whatever!

What’s the worst thing you’ve ever seen at your bar?
Puke in the urinal is always fun. Always a good time with that. It has happened more than once. Less than ten times. Here it’s happened a couple of times. It’s fresh in my mind from two weeks ago. It’s fucking horrible, it’s the worst thing ever.

What’s your patented drunk-handling technique?
Generally, to drop the tab, say “thank you very much and have a good night.” It depends on what the situation is - it’s so hard to answer something like that. It depends if they’re a happy drunk who’s just been over-served or if they’re becoming a belligerent drunk. If it’s a happy drunk that we actually like, usually it’s like “You know what? You’ve had enough. Time to go. Here’s your tab, we’ll see you next time.” And if it’s somebody we don’t know that walks in drunk, then it’s just a very polite, “I’m sorry, but I think you’ve had a little bit too much tonight.” Polite, non-confrontational and assertive. Basically, when you talk to anybody, you can’t give them an in. It’s like “I’m not going to serve you, here’s why, I’m sorry, thank you very much.” You can’t do the whole “Get the hell out of here” thing because then people get more uppity with you.

Give us one of your bartending tips-of-the-trade.
Make sure the ice is cold and the glasses are clean.

Where do you like to go for a drink when you’re on the other side of the bar?
It really depends on what kind of mood I’m in. I like the Artful Dodger because generally I just want to hang out with some people I know and drink some beers. If I’m in the mood to carouse… I always seem to end up at Alfa at some point in the night if I’m at that end of the town. I have friends that work up there. The Franklin, Village Whiskey. And I like Pub & Kitchen a lot.

Why should people get a drink from you rather than the bartender down the block?
[Laughing hysterically] They probably shouldn’t! O’Neal’s pulls a great draft.

What’s the secret to being a great bartender?
I’d have to quote Kip [Waide, co-owner of Southwark] and just say “humility.” Try to figure out what somebody is going to want to drink, as annoying as it is - Mrs. Main Line isn’t going to want to drink some fancy whiskey drink, she’s going to want a cosmo - gauging your customer and where they’re at, without being pompous about it. Just treat people with a little bit of respect, as much as it fucking kills you. Always appear pleasant with a smile and try not to swing.

Read more: Felicia D’Ambrosio of The Belgian Cafe Will Beat You With Your Own Muddler If You Put Cherry Juice in Her Manhattan – Grub Street Philadelphia

Know a bartender who should be part of the Bartenders Bible? Tips gladly accepted here.

Southwark’s George Costa Recommends Barmen ‘Always Appear Pleasant with a