Behind Bars

Chick’s Phoebe Esmon Has Wit, a Charming Personalty and Makes Drinks You Won’t Find at Other Bars

Phoebe Esmon
Phoebe Esmon Photo: Collin Keefe

Bartenders spend much of their time, well, behind bars. They make drinks, make jokes and make you feel welcome, even when you’ve had too much. The good ones do, anyway. In the Behind Bars series, we give barkeeps a chance to speak their mind. This week, we catch up with Chick’s Cafe & Wine Bar’s Phoebe Esmon, who tells us how she fell into bartending, why the word mixologist is stupid, and where she goes to find Flemish sour ales.

Name: Phoebe Esmon

Where she is serving:
Chick’s Cafe & Wine Bar, 614 S 7th Street.

Time served there: A little more than a year.

Where else have you served?
Ugly American

How many years have you been behind bars?
10 years

How did you get into bartending?
We all get into it because we like to drink. I sort of fell into it. I used to go on these research binges, like learning about tiki or learning how to make the perfect Margarita. I once went down to the Kentucky Club in Mexico where the Margarita supposedly originated to see how they made it. Then I graduated from grad school with and art degree and I needed a job. I naturally gravitated toward bartending full time.

How did you go from being just another bartender to a key player in the artisan cocktail renaissance?
I guess from reading a lot of books. My boyfriend is Christian Gaal from Noble. We used to share a house with Nick Jarrett who works at the Franklin and Maria Polise who works at Amada, and it was this torrent of information, and just an accretion of this knowledge. I also think it also comes from knowing how to cook and understanding how flavors interact. I’ve been cooking my whole life.

Do you consider yourself a bartender or mixologist?
Bartender. I don’t think we need that word mixologist. Any good bartender knows how to mix good drinks and take care of customers. I think mixologist alludes to the fact that you know how to mix drinks, but service is one of the most important parts of bartending.

Where did you pick up your bartending skills?
It’s mostly been through learning, exploring my own interests and watching other bartenders work.

Do you have a favorite beer?
I’m really into Flemish sours. I’m kind of obsessed with that style right now and open to all of them. I’ve been picking them up at the Foodery and I had a really good one at the HeadHouse before it closed.

How would you describe your ideal customer?

Open to unlikely combinations of flavors. Not overbearing or planning on making out with anyone at my bar. Respectful and treats the bartender like an equal.

How would you describe your worst customer?
That would involve making out at the bar. I’d say anyone who causes the other people sitting at the bar any sort of discomfort, whether its through vocalizations or actions. People who pound on the bar, wave dollar bills in the air, yell or pick fights. Your worst customer at a bar is exactly what comes to mind when you think about an obnoxious person.

Most bartenders know a good joke or two, do you?
I’m more of a snappy comeback girl than a joke teller.

Have you ever had to break up a fight?
Just barely once; it was verbal fight that was just on the verge of going fisticuffs.

How do you deal with unruly drunks?
Everyone who sits down at my bar receives a glass of water. If they come in and they’re obviously drunk, I don’t ask them what they’re drinking and just leave them with the glass of water.

Do you think it’s okay for bartenders to hook up with customers?
I don’t think it’s very professional to do that.

What’s the best tip you’ve received?
This old guy from South Philly came in one night and he was talking to the owner. I guess they knew each other. He and his friends kept trying to one up each other. He insisted on buying their drinks and kept tipping on them each round. Then as he was leaving, he stepped back in and said, “Sweetheart, sweetheart, sweetheart, thank you so much.” He took my hand and palmed me a $100 bill.

What is the best part of being a bartender?
In my case I have a lot creativity at my job. I have a lot of freedom to do stuff. I really like the interaction and making sure people are happy and comfortable.

What’s the worst part?
Having to clean the bar at four o’clock in the morning, and they way my hands look after working three or four days.

Where can we find you on the other side of the bar?
Southwark, Alfa, Village Whiskey, Franklin. Southwark is probably my favorite bar.

Why should I come and get a drink from you as opposed to the bartender at the next bar?
I’m better looking, I have wit and a charming personality. And, the drinks I make are different. The drinks I make are not the same as what you might find at the next bar.

What’s the secret to being a great bartender?
Caring and not taking any shit.

Know someone who’s spent time Behind Bars? Tips gladly accepted here.

Chick’s Phoebe Esmon Has Wit, a Charming Personalty and Makes Drinks You Won’t