As told to Cassandra Landry by Jessica Weinstein | iStock

 

A few weeks ago, Jessica Weinstein made it to the top four at Speedrack, the national cocktail competition for women in bartending. She can hardly contain her excitement at the memory, which she describes as a dream. As the beverage director for JL Restaurant Group in Washington, D.C. (which now includes six beloved properties under the "Hank's" moniker) Weinstein has a reputation for her creative whimsy behind the bar—but that wasn't always her domain. 

A few years back, a bar manager, out on a team field trip, asked Weinstein if she could open in their absence. She said yes, of course, and it was a mostly uneventful afternoon. The only cocktail she remembers having to make was a variation on a Bee's Knees—gin, lemon, honey with a few flourishes—but just like that, she says, like a switch flipping on, or a bolt of lightning, Weinstein realized she wanted to bartend. "I really couldn't turn back after that," she says. "I was still working as a full-time restaurant manager,  still in school full-time for restaurant management—and I wouldn't give up my bar shifts. I just wouldn't. I didn't care if I was dying and had only slept for three hours in a week."

Weinstein's love of hospitality is so infectious it reminds you what it means to truly be a people person; someone who loves the drama and quirks and happy accidents that come with walking around in this world. Below, her reflections from night after night of interactions and tickets, edited and condensed for clarity.


JL Restaurant Group

 

If you're lucky, you get to understand what service means in the hospitality world.

It took me years to really reach this point where I understood how many parts there were, how many people and things and moments. Even on a shitty night, a thousand things have to go wrong for it to actually be shitty—it’s an epic thing to be a part of.

It's really empowering to be beside my team in that moment with the guests —it's this really cool representation of everything that you are and can be. I fell in love with bartending for a thousand reasons, but that's who I am. It's like self-actualization.

I've been running bars for three years, and I love feeling like I’m part of this environment where there's so much stimulation and so many different moves you could make at any given time. When you put down a chilled glass on the bar top in front of the guest, and you strain over, and flame right in front of them...it's just this beautiful, theatrical, all-encompassing moment. It's almost impossible for the environment to become monotonous.

It takes a special human to be a bartender, because it can be brutal. You’re on your feet for 12 hours pumping out drinks, and a send-back can really hurt your soul. It becomes really personal for both parties, and you have days where you don't feel in it. Maybe you’re a little run-down. There are some days where I come in and just want to work service bar because I mentally don't have everything I want to give the world. Hopefully, your fellow bartender, or your chef or whoever, does something that reminds you who you are.

Right now, I’m looking at one of our sous chefs, who’s kind of tall. When I come in, he usually puts his hand as high up in the air as he can and I jump and high-five him. It's always something that puts a smile on my face; it reminds me that I'm playful, and life is silly. When I’m so busy I don't know if I can laugh and smile, one of my greatest friends and I take a knee behind the bar and look at each other for two seconds and say, "We're going down together.” I get goosebumps when I think about it.

The restaurant, the bar, the kitchen—we are in these cross-sections of people's lives. I'm a human before anything, but I happen to be a human who has access to alcohol, and my job is to listen to you enough to figure out what you need. Maybe French fries make you as happy as caviar. It's not as much about talking as it is about listening. Who are you, and why are you here?

There are times where my bar team knows to take care of the people around me if I'm in an in-depth conversation with a guest. Maybe even a first-time guest who's like, "I'm going through a divorce and this shit is terrible." And you're like, "You know what? For forty minutes, I'm just gonna sit here and just make sure your Pinot Grigio is full."

Someone might tell you the most painful thing they've ever been through, and then you never see them again. Or maybe you see them every Friday. And you also get to find out the happiest things they've been through, and maybe you get to be a part of the moment when they get engaged or they're celebrating their raise or whatever it is. You really get to run the gamut with people, and you get to know them, even if it's for a night.

As people, as humans, anywhere we are, the baseline that we want is acknowledgment. Some people want the show—they want you to throw a napkin at them while they sit. Some people don't want to interact, and just want to have a quiet drink by themselves.

The part, for me, that is always and forever vital and paramount is a hello that feels real. I work in a place that encourages personality, and my hospitality is strictly rooted in being a person. I like to make people happy. When you decide how to approach a guest or what they might want for you, I think the first thing is really being naturally empathetic and getting where people are at.

Sometimes you catch this flicker of joy in a guest, this realization that a bar can be a really special place. Maybe they don't even fully consciously understand that that's what they're experiencing, but it's this moment where you know everything is about you, right? When someone cooks for you, when someone makes you drinks, it's a very weirdly publicly intimate experience, even in a high volume bar. This moment is about you. I care about craft, and my bars aren't craft bars. But if you want a shot and a beer? Hell yeah. That's what you get.

That's why I love this industry. Before I was food and beverage student, I was an art student, and after that, I was a psychology student. I've always been trying to find a medium in which I can understand and interact with the world; I want to figure out what it even means to be here. I think the restaurant and the bar is a venue for that conversation in this really weird way because you have these micro-moments.

When you have a good bartender, it is really an irreplaceable feeling. My nightmare is meeting up with friends on a night off and then saying, "Let's go eat a sandwich." I need there to be a bartender. I need there to be a server. That interaction is regenerating for me. I like to be out in the world.

The ones who have inspired me the most have not been in the craft world. They've been the homegrown ones in a T-shirt behind a bar in Baltimore. When I sit down, there's water. The only free thing that a bartender can give you. My glass is always full. And it's not full with the most imaginative, crazy things you can think of—it's simple. It's like, "I give a shit about you. I'm looking at you in the eyes. Your water's full." Those are the things that matter to me.

I feel really lucky. I know so many people in and out of jobs, who haven't found their thing, but I just feel like I was meant to be here.

 

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