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Checking into classic hotel bars

December 8, 2008 |  1:47 pm

Belairbar2 The Wall Street Journal ran an interesting feature over the weekend on the state of grand hotel bars nationwide.  The piece, written by Eric Felten, takes several venerable hotels to task over their respective bartenders' lack of ability to handle a classic cocktail request. 

In California, Felten reports on the sad state of affairs in San Francisco, especially considering the city has so many talented and knowledgeable bartenders (working at hip restaurants and bars outside of hotels, mostly). 

"There were no Americanos to be had at the St. Francis, the Sir Francis Drake Starlight Room, or the Mark Hopkins Top of the Mark, where a waitress came back to me with the definitive, 'That's not in our computer',"  he wrote.

Things are a bit better in L.A., at least at one hotel bar, according to the writer.

Felten praises the Hotel Bel-Air's Gus Tassopulos as a bartender who can handle the classics from his perch at the Champagne Bar, which was all decked out with Christmas wreaths for the holidays Sunday evening. 

"He started at the Beverly Hills Hotel in 1959 and came to the Bel-Air in 1990. Mine wasn't the first request for an Americano, which he mixed right up," Felten wrote. "His Sidecar was a thing of beauty, made with fresh lime juice, and every ingredient carefully measured to make sure the drink would have the correct balance. Mr. Tassopulos was also a paradigm of dignified, old-school service -- friendly but formal, attentive without being intrusive."

Inspired by the article, I checked in with Tassopulos on Sunday night and ordered a Pisco Sour.  The bar was embarassingly out of Pisco, but Tassopulos made up for it with a nice vodka substitute.  The friendly bartender admitted that he hadn't made the drink in "20 years."   And while, in general, there are better bars and bartenders in town for classic cocktails, it's hard to find fault with Felten's praising of the head bartender at the Bel-Air.  After all: Tassopulos served the likes of Frank Sintara over his five decade career, and has the stories to prove it.

The barman said Sunday that he was a bit uncomfortable with all the attention, and the sudden influx of customers to the bar. The normally quiet lounge at the Bel-Air was busy Sunday.  He also relayed that he had received "around 25 phone calls from all over the world" from loyal hotel guests and friends who read the piece (Tassopulos' picture ran with the feature).

Felten finished his round-up of hotel bars (he also bemoans the Biltmore Hotel's Gallery Bar's fall from greatness) with a scathing report from Hollywood's Roosevelt.  Here is how he ended the piece:

"Take the young man I found tending bar at Hollywood's brilliantly restored Roosevelt Hotel. He happily told me that he didn't know how to make many drinks at all. When needed, he could always just look something up in the bar book behind the counter. But most of the time he didn't bother to use the book: "If people ask for a drink I don't know," he explained, "I can always kind of make something with sour mix and vodka and they'll be happy." A more eloquent and concise expression of the state of bartending in America you couldn't hope to find."


-- Charlie Amter

Photo of the Hotel Bel-Air's bar: Mary E. Nichols