A Former Bartender On What It Means Not To Drink
Contemplating hospitality without booze, just in time for Dry January.
December 29, 2017
By Rachel Gepner | Image Nastco via iStock
When I finally got my first “real” restaurant job—that is, in fine dining—I was poor.
I lived in Boston, in a room with a hole in the floor that you could see through to the street outside. In Roxbury. In February. I slept under many blankets, and I made my art: pieced together collages of paint chips stolen from Home Depot by the thousands since I couldn't afford paper or paint.
Going to work meant entering a different world, where clothes needed to be pressed, where your hair and makeup could alter a guest’s experience for good or ill, where you collected personal details to make an experience unique and magical, and, most of all, where you had to know your shit. How is the monkfish prepared? What exactly is hanger steak? What’s so special about Pol Roger?
I ate and drank, and learned. Suddenly the things that rich people had and could pay for, I could taste and appreciate without ever being able to afford them. I knew to start a meal with oysters and champagne, which Burgundy would be most lovely with the striped bass, and which glass of Armagnac to finish with.
Before long, I had money of my own, and I knew how to use it. I was better at being rich than the rich. I had the knowledge: how to order everything good from the menu, how to accept service with grace and gratitude, how to never eat or drink like you were afraid what things cost, how to share with your server or with strangers at the bar, how to over-tip when given something free, and how to make generosity into a work of art. That is rich.
Today, I no longer work behind a bar, and I’m sober.
When I go out, I sit at the bar and order soda with bitters. If I know the bartender, I’ll ask them to come up with a soda for me. If they have it, I’ll order chinotto (with a big rock and a twist, of course, because I’m not a peasant). Sometimes, I embrace the awkwardness and simplicity and drink only water, as if to reject all the decadence around me. If I want to make people around me visibly uncomfortable, I order hot tea. I flip through the wine and cocktail menu like it’s an old yearbook.
I accept no generous gifts of free liquor. I avoid them so studiously that it’s easier to just go to a place where a friend works, so that the offer never comes; When I go out with my boyfriend— who still works in the industry—to visit a bartender he knows, he drinks my gift quickly and stealthily and sets it back in front of me. I hate refusing hospitality. It makes me feel poor.
As a bartender, I hated the idea of a mocktail. To me, it fit neatly between the hateful categories of vegetarian meat and gluten-free pasta. Go ahead, I’d think, have a soda—they’re delicious—but don’t kid yourself. When my offer of alcohol was refused by a guest, I was never sure whether to just lean into it, to offer options, creativity, care, or just ignore it and act like it was perfectly normal. I don’t like to fuss, but when you have so much at your disposal and suddenly nothing to offer, it’s hard not to. How does one celebrate without champagne? As your bartender and de facto hostess, it’s hard not to ask: Why are you here?
Now, as that person on the other side of the bar, I don’t know. I, along with so many non-drinkers, wonder what it means for a beverage to define so much. Booze casts a long shadow. What I’m certain of is that I still know how to order food, but without the total package that a drink makes, I no longer feel rich. My dad always had decaf coffee with dinner, which I always saw as adorably Midwestern. Decaf coffee? It seems so Protestant, so joyless a dinner companion. Now that I’ve been sober for a year, I’m not sure—maybe it wasn’t a stodgy choice. Maybe it worked for him because it was what he wanted. Maybe decaf coffee was his luxury.
Alcohol for me was never about excess, or carelessness. I reveled in the art of it, its power to shape a moment in time. A perfectly old riesling. Unfiltered lager on a hot afternoon. Warming a snifter of Calvados in your hand. Staring at and smelling and sipping and losing yourself in a glass of bubbly.
So, I go. I sit at the bar and watch the show. As it unfolds, I still feel like I’m a part of its world, even if I’ve chosen to opt out. I’ve been sober. And I’ve drunk. And I’ve gone back and forth, attempting to understand what it means to drink. Am I just in love with discovering my own palate? Does it make me a part of something? What do I expect to find in the performance?
I stopped drinking because I wanted to be freer. There's a richness in that, too, right?