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 hear from Erik Boardman, who divides his six days a week of bartending between Rittenhouse’s Alfa and Headhouse Square’s Xochitl. Erik discusses his admiration for the old-school bartenders who taught him his trade, reveals why it’s important to be crazier than a drunk patron and explains how a tussle over a chicken wing during Center City Sips is both the worst thing he’s ever seen and a metaphor for our times.
Name: Erik Boardman
Why do you work so much? When do you sleep?
These days it’s just nice to be employed. Believe me, I take plenty of time off when I can go get into trouble somewhere, but I’ve never had a problem with working for a living. As for sleep there will be plenty of time for that later on.
Why do you work at two different bars?
I’ve been very lucky in my long tenure behind the plank to work with great people and for great proprietors everywhere I’ve ever been. Joe Beckham and Giancarlo DiPasquale at Alfa and Steve Cook and Michael Solomonov at Xochitl make it all look easy. It’s not like they inherited a trust fund, started banging cocktail waitresses three at a time and decided to open a bar for giggles so their friends could drink for free. They are smart about their trade and that lessens the pain of clocking in at three o’clock everyday. At least most days. Besides when you work too many days in a row at one bar you start to see the same faces and hear the same stories all the time. Splitting up the week keeps it fresh. And both establishments offer completely different experiences, have hilarious staffs, and competent management. Which isn’t as easy to find as you may think.
Bartender or mixologist? I’m not really sure what a mixologist is. Does that mean you can follow a written testimonial on how to make a beverage? If it takes you five minutes to get me a drink after I’ve ordered it, I’m probably annoyed to no end and would really just like a High Life and a shot of Powers by then. I was trained by cranky old Irish bartenders and I try to emulate them most of the time. Much to the chagrin of my managers but usually to the delight of my regulars.
Tenure at Xochitl/Tenure at Alfa? Ive been at Xochitl since the day they opened, and at Alfa for most of their tenure …. So three years at Xochitl and almost four years at Alfa.
Total years behind the bar: I started bartending in 1987 at a corner bar in Liege, Belgium. Its been downhill ever since. It’s a real reality check when you card someone who was born in 1989 and is legal to drink now. I should have invested in John Powers years ago.
One unexpected fact about Erik:I’m a people person. I love people. [Ed.: This is sarcasm. I double-checked]
Favorite beer: Whatever is ice cold
Favorite liquor: Green Chartreuse. By a landslide.
Favorite cocktail: That’s like asking “what’s your favorite band?” As most people who ever met me can well attest, I’m a moody human being. It all depends. I love Campari and orange juice when I’m brutally hungover … Fernet Branca after a great meal … Anything Kip, George or Paul put in front of me at Southwark.
Your best customer in five words or less. Anyone who knows what they want, what their friends want and has their money ready to pay for it. I was never very good at math.
Your worst customer five words or less. “What do you make that’s good?”
All bartenders should know a good joke. What’s yours?
This is a family website.
It’s really not. We’ve heard some racy stuff from bartenders who are 65-year-old grandfathers.
Okay, then it’s a fucking family website.
Have you ever had to break up a fight at your bar? What was it about?
Whenever you mix human beings and alcohol things are going to get weird. A sage man once said ‘when the going gets weird the weird turn pro’. Breaking up fights is akin to cleaning up vomit in a bathroom … if you can’t handle your own personal issues you probably should have stayed home and watched another episode of Friends.
It’s okay to sleep with customers. Yes or no? Xochitl’s bathrooms are kind of small … sleeping with your staff is fine (My girlfriend works at Xochitl.) I’ve had my eye on Kenny Sug [a fellow bartender] for some time now.
The best tip you ever got? Bottle of 1952 Chartreuse VEP.
What’s the best part of the job? Picking up half-eaten chicken wing bones off the bar when there is a empty plate next to them. Actually, sitting around the table after work putting the night back together at 3 a.m. I work with some very funny people.
What’s the worst part of the job? Cleaning the bathroom after our fellow human beings. The things that occur behind those doors is an anomaly to the human condition.
What’s the worst thing you’ve ever seen at your bar?Actually the best thing … During Center City Sips a few years ago at Alfa - when we still had to give out free food - there was a scuffle for the last two chicken wings in the bottom of the trough between and old woman and a young Penn student. Classic. A real metaphor for our times.
What’s your patented drunk-handling technique? ”Have you accepted Jesus Christ as your personal savior?” Once you get crazier than they are, you have the upper hand.
Give us one of your bartending tips-of-the-trade: Fill the glass with ice. It’s the only thing free going in it.
Why should people get a drink from you rather than the bartender down the block?I don’t know. I’m surrounded by great bartenders at both bars. I send a lot of people to Southwark, Chick’s, Noble and Village Whiskey. And not just the ones I don’t want to serve anymore.
Where do you like to go for a drink when you’re on the other side of the bar? The aforementioned. 700 Club, N. 3rd, Anthony at El Camino Real, SPTR. If you have cold beer and whiskey and I can wear shorts I’m probably going to stay.
What’s the secret to being a great bartender? We are not landing planes here. If you start telling people you’re a great bartender, or ‘The best bartender in Philly’, you should check yourself into rehab.
Know a bartender who should be part of the Bartenders Bible? Tips gladly accepted at email@example.com.