Why Little Wisco's Brian Bartels' Tombstone Will Read "Here Lies Rose's Little Bitch"
If chance encounters make the world a small place, then Wisconsin is downright little. Just ask Little Wisco director of bar operations Brian Bartels, who cut his teeth serving an "underage Gabriel Stulman" alongside Jim Meehan at Paul's Club in Madison before heading to NYC for a series of bartending gigs and a Hamptons stint spent perfecting the caipirinha for Mel Brooks. "'More limes, Brian. More limes and more cachaca,' he'd say," says Bartels. "And then, 'More limes, Brian. And Brian -- good to see you, and don't be so strange.'"
In 2009, Bartels and Stulman teamed up for the opening of Joseph Leonard, and in the five years since then have outfitted the West Village and Chelsea with Montmartre, Chez Sardine, Fedora, Perla, and Jeffrey's Grocery.
If it's not the cocktail slinging itself that's keeping Bartels up at night, it's the name creation; the well-read bartender seeks as much inspiration from nostalgia (like his parents' home address) as he does from on-the-fly anecdotes (e.g. a conversation with a guest about California's surf). Here, the Wisconsin native reveals what's really in a name, what summer drink has him totally whipped, and the flavor of the 1980s (yes, he confirms -- "it had one").
How would you define your approach behind the bar?
I was lucky enough to have the proper tutelage from bartenders back in Madison who embodied the almighty balance of hustle, attentiveness, and grace under fire. A man named Evan Lehman trained me at Paul's Club on State Street. I drank at Paul's Club countless nights prior to working there and can say Evan was one of the most engaging and attentive personalities I had seen from a bartender: always smiling, always shaking hands and celebrating his surroundings. Then I got hired to work at Paul's Club, and on my first day, I was trailing Evan to find where everything was, and I watched him scoop ice faster than anyone I'd ever seen. We were not behind in our set-up and Evan wasn't angry at the world, but the way he scooped ice for set-up was an invaluable lesson. It revealed how important a bartender's extended awareness mattered when we couldn't see around the corner, or how busy the bar would be upon opening. Since that day, my approach to the bar has been about preparation. I want to make sure everything is set up and ready to go so I can engage the guests. That almighty balance of readiness and hosting the party means everything. That, and run a clean bar.
How do you differentiate the cocktails and overall cocktail lists between the six restaurants?
That's a work-in-progress and something we're always looking to showcase. "No stone left unturned" is an expression I often remind staff. There's been such overwhelming attention, inspiration, and assembly to the new cocktail movement we can't help but reach out and grab an idea and explore its potential. I'm confident in saying I could oversee the program for the next 100 years and we'll still be incorporating new ideas and avenues with everyone's creative input. We want to celebrate new ingredients brought in by the kitchen and see how the staff's creativity unfurls. We do seasonal updates at each restaurant, as most places often showcase, but the kitchens are ongoing sources of inspiration. We're updating the restaurants and bars to reflect the summer menu shortly, which we'll be tasting and testing in early June, and the chatter happening right now is (pun intended) intoxicating.
Which restaurant would you most likely find yourself grabbing a drink at post-shift?
It's been Fedora lately, as I've been working more services there. The bar staff is so strong. So consistent. And they're like that at all the restaurants, really. Go sit and be humbled by Brad at Perla, and go watch the Matt Carr Show at Montmartre, and have Prudence provide some amazing libations for you at Jeffrey's. We're lucky to work with such terrific and talented people. But I spend longer hours at Fedora, so if I'm doing research and want to test a cocktail, I have a wider selection of spirits to work with, I'll stick around and try something new with them. They're all a bunch of champions. Gabe McNeil is basically everything great about Wisconsin placed behind the Fedora bar. But lately, knowing I'll be drinking more spirits in June and July, I've been drinking beer. I love beer. Because, yum. Yeah. And rosé wine. But rosé is my crack. When I die the headstone will most likely be, "Here lies rosé's little bitch."
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