This is The Gatekeepers, in which Eater roams the city meeting the fine ladies and gentlemen that stand between you and some of your favorite hard-to-get tables.
[Photo: Justin Stone/Rachel Leah Blumenthal]
As host at Drink, the five-year-old Barbara Lynch Gruppo establishment nestled under Sportello in Fort Point, Justin Stone spends his shifts "helping to manage a really big cocktail party of about 70 guests." It's not just about keeping the often long line in order. As the first and last face that many guests will see during their time at Drink, Stone has a range of responsibilities to ensure that everyone enjoys their stay, whether he's providing guidance on how things work at the bar or embarking on smaller but useful tasks, like helping people find their blind dates or letting a bartender know that a guest is pregnant but not ready to tell the friends she's with.
What are the busiest times at Drink?
Every day is busy at Drink at some point. Thursdays after work — this is the Innovation District now, and we've got a lot of people coming in after work. Fridays and Saturdays are pretty typical; your after-work crowd blends into your pre-dinner crowd blends into your post-dinner crowd. You might get a lull around 8:30 or 9:00, but then it picks right back up again. Saturdays we've had a line of as many as 40 people at the door at 4 p.m. People ask me why I'm holding the line at 4:30 — they're a little incredulous. I thought we would be getting here early, they say, and I say, Four o'clock is the new early. It's a great problem to have, but it's slightly off-putting for people who are trying to get the worm. Tuesdays have actually been really busy lately, too.
Do you feel like a "gatekeeper"?
I feel as though I represent something very special. This is much more than just standing at the front door of a restaurant and checking in reservations — first thing being that we don't take reservations — so you have to be ready for just about anything. We have a reputation, not just locally but nationally and internationally, and that provides us with some very unique opportunities and challenges. We have bartenders who are visiting from Rio de Janeiro, Paris, San Francisco; we're a very strong community of beverage hospitality professionals, and we have friends in every city — friends in New Orleans, friends in San Francisco, friends in Seattle. When those friends do want to pay us a visit, that's when things get a little bit interesting, depending on the flow of the bar. Do I feel like a "gatekeeper," per se? I'm not guarding anything exclusive. What I am working to provide is a fair environment for people to enjoy the best of what we can provide inside the space.
Do people try things to get around the wait?
The classic things always happen, and they happen to every doorman everywhere. Host at The Capital Grille, doorman at any dive bar — they all pretty much get the same two or three things, which are: "It's my birthday," "It's my anniversary," and "I came here from X location that's really, really far away," and then there are the usual financial incentives, and I don't work with any of those things. My hands are tied most of the time, and it's very reality-based down there; we're not holding a special area of the restaurant for VIPs. We want to stay busy, and it's an everyman's bar. With regards to financial incentives, I don't take bribes, flat out. I've been offered money before — a lot of money — but there are people out there standing, watching me; it is a stage. Not that I would take it if they weren't watching either. I have principles.
What's the weirdest question or request you've received from a guest?
I have had guests ask me to say something to somebody who's arriving, something rude or something off-putting. I don't generally like to play along with that. I'm representing a very fine hospitality establishment, and things that come out of my mouth can be misconstrued and broadcasted. I've had times when women will ask me to convey to the bartender that they're pregnant; they don't want to tell the friends they're with yet. I've had people ask me to give their phone number to someone else, and I've helped along a lot of blind dates, especially on Fridays.
Any particularly interesting blind date stories you can share?
I think it's interesting that anyone would want to arrange a blind date at a place that you're not guaranteed any kind of access, because then you end up having the awkward moment of standing in line with someone whom you've never met before in a space that's equivalent to standing in the stairwell of your apartment. The strangest ones are the Tinder dates, because they're usually not as familiar with that person as they would be if they met on Match.com, for example. Guys have just admitted to me straight up, I met her on Tinder; I don't know what she looks like. Sometimes I've let in one part of the party, and the other part of the party is stuck on the line outside, and they're just asking me, Could I please come in? I have a date in there...but I don't know what she looks like. I've had to introduce them.
Have you facilitated any marriage proposals? Do you get many of those at Drink?
No...I would hope that a gentleman would try and find maybe a more guaranteed venue for this sort of thing. We have hosted a lovely cocktail reception after a wedding, which was fun, but no marriage proposals yet. I have seen some dates go very wrong, but that's natural at any bar. Some people just get up and walk out.
Any glasses thrown?
No, but there was once a woman who basically said, I'm leaving, and if the guy I was with asks where I am, just tell him I left. It was kind of like a Bon Jovi song. It was really sad. But sometimes things don't work out.
How would you describe the clientele?
It's surprising me, actually. I figured it was going to be a lot more of the cocktail-enthusiast crowd, people who had had drinks at The Aviary in Chicago and PDT in NYC and all of the different locations all over the country that are the real cocktail hotspots. I'm seeing so many college students, groups of five or six young ladies in their early twenties. I tend to see a lot of women going out, having cocktails. The demographic is swaying that way right now. The cocktail is no longer a men's after-work thing or a martini lunch thing. It's turning into something that people are interested in. You don't just have to go out and get a strong, boozy old fashioned or a martini. I think one of our most popular drinks is the Bohemian, which is very light.
We do get some businessmen and a lot of the international crowd as well. (Bring your passport or driver's license from the United States, please.) But the most surprising demographic I've seen is the college students. We're a destination whether you're coming from outside of town or outside of the country, or you're coming from Northeastern. I have conversations with these people; I say, When I was your age and living in the city, I was going to the Pour House, not going out and getting a $13 cocktail. That's starting the bar pretty high, you know?
Do you have any regulars that kind of stand out? What makes a particularly interesting regular?
We're so lucky. We have a gentleman who is a very famous architect in the city, wears a beret, comes in, drinks Death in the Afternoons — the Hemingway cocktail — and leaves us a bunch of drawings on napkins and things like that. Super interesting guy. We have a lot of really interesting people who have lived in this neighborhood for a long time, people who have seen the neighborhood grow and change. Our bar is in a residential building, so we have people who are our neighbors. This is not like living in the Back Bay, where you have people living in the brownstones. This is a developing neighborhood.
And we have our neighbors from other restaurants. I like seeing familiar faces from the industry. I like how we all try to patronize and support each other. It's hard to pick people who stand out. Our neighbors at Barrington Coffee are very special to us. They usually bring us coffee late at night. It's really great to have them just next door, because we all work pretty late hours. It's good to see our friends and neighbors in general.
Many celebrity sightings?
No. Well, we had our Toques & Tonic event, and there were chefs at Drink for the after-party. It wasn't a random celebrity thing — they were here on purpose — but we had some really wonderful people who, to me, are the celebrities: Daniel Boulud, David Chang, Bryan Voltaggio. Those were a really big deal for me. David Wondrich, Dale DeGroff, two very big cocktail personalities in New York. But frankly speaking, I work with some of the most famous people in the beverage industry, so my colleagues are my celebrities.
What's the best seat in the house?
I love the seat all the way in the far right-hand corner by the ice block station, because you can see just about everything. If you're on a date, we have our corners at the bar. And if you're a bartender, everybody's favorite space to stand or sit is always at the service bar, all the way down the side, right by the kitchen doors. The last two chairs are very industry-heavy chairs.
How should a first-time visitor to Drink best experience it?
We are in the business of making recommendations — with our service model, we don't have a cocktail menu — so there's a lot of room to play. For a first-time guest — and we do still get a lot of first-time guests; I'd say 60% of the people I talk to in line are first-time guests — I would recommend maybe trying a Sunday. If you've been walking around the city, especially now that the seasons have changed, take a walk by the water and come on a Sunday. Just stroll in at 4:30, 5:00, maybe for a pre-dinner drink, even if it's an apertif-based drink. Have a negroni. I think that's how you'll really be able to take advantage of the ambiance and our service model and really get to know some of the bartenders. The reason why our service model is the way it is is so that you can try and get to know that person on the other side. That's why we don't pack it elbow-to-elbow, too.
Where do you like to drink when you're not at Drink?
Our after-work bar is Tavern Road. They're great bartenders, great friends of ours, great neighbors. I can go in there and just get a Miller High Life and a shot of whiskey, and I don't have to worry about cocktails, and it's fun and social. The Drink experience is a really good time, but sometimes you just want to go somewhere like Tavern Road, where there's Def Leppard and the bartenders are having a super good time. It's a different kind of party. On my days off, you can find me at Eastern Standard, and I'm thrilled about the reopening of Audubon [formerly Audubon Circle]. I've been a regular there since 1998, off and on. I also love Silvertone and jm Curley. Now that I work down here, I've kind of gotten closer to those folks over there. I live in Brookline, so it was always little places around the corner, like Matt Murphy's back in the day, but I don't do it as much anymore. On my days off, I try to go see friends from the industry. When I was living in Somerville, it was always Trina's Starlite Lounge. Now that I have an office in Central Square for my other job, I'm at Brick & Mortar all the time.
Any other thoughts you'd like to share?
It's always great to see a first-time guest come in, someone you may not expect to be a cocktail enthusiast. We're a bar — you can come here and get a glass of beer, a glass of wine — but we are a cocktail bar. I love seeing those people come in, people who may look unlikely to be into cocktails. My first-time guests are my favorite. On the way out, I check in with just about everybody, and they're blown away by it. Those are the really special moments for me.
Typically someone who is a cocktail enthusiast comes down and just has a great drink and says, Thank you, goodnight, and they walk out — that's great. It's great that they appreciate our product. But what I really love is when our first-time guests give me that feedback; it's just wonderful. You can see that they got the whole Drink experience, that they really got taken care of. And when people say, I'll be back — that's what you want to hear. That's what you care about.
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