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The Washington Post
Dec. 28, 2004 12:00 AM
To celebrate their 30th birthdays last spring, Elena and Sherban Naum threw themselves a party at their Washington area home. They wanted it to be special, more stylish than their usual parties. More sophisticated.
It wasn't a caterer they needed. Elena, an avid and organized cook, made everything from the beef tenderloin to the shrimp cocktail and asparagus tips. But as she contemplated the way the evening would play out, she envisioned Sherban serving drinks all night, leaving her alone to chat up the guests. So she suggested hiring a bartender.
He resisted. "I didn't see the value. I thought, 'Why couldn't I just do it?' "
She persisted. She just liked the idea, and, as it turned out, it wasn't so expensive.
The Naums hired bartender Antonia Andrasi of Potomac, Md., who, besides her expected duties, washed glasses, tidied up the table and disposed of trash.
"It was the most fun I've had at one of my parties because I didn't have to do anything," Elena said.
The bartending bill came to roughly $125 for five hours' work, but the Naums were so pleased they threw in a giant gratuity and handed over $200. "I saw the true value," Sherban said. "We focused on the party."
The hired bartender? "I'll never go back to not having one," Elena said. No longer an extravagance just for the rich, bartending is picking up clients among young professionals, who have discovered it's both affordable and worthwhile. With fees starting at $20 per hour (higher for holidays), bartenders are being hired for engagement celebrations, christenings, housewarmings and "divorce parties." For the young, it's a way to prove that they've graduated from kegs and margarita machines.
Calls for bartenders have "easily doubled over the past 15 years," said Fred Ireton, former president of the U.S. Bartenders Guild. "More people are finding it to their advantage - they didn't realize how easy and cheap it is."
"It's very fashionable to hire bartenders in D.C.," confirmed Jim Hewes, bartender at the Willard InterContinental's Round Robin Bar, who has been in the service industry for more than 30 years.
Bartenders suggest a number of reasons for the trend. Younger people "want a more polished look to their parties - a "function" as opposed to a house party," said Patrice Hammond, 31, who works at Tonic bar in Washington.
Hiring a bartender equates to "having a real DJ rather than throwing some CDs on a stereo," offered Michael Brown, of Degrees Bar at the Ritz-Carlton Georgetown. Trained bartenders know the tricks of the trade, such as that a "splash" equals roughly .25 ounces and that "the secret to a great martini is in the shake."
"Having a party at your house is one of the biggest stresses ever," said Andrasi, 30, "and if you get a good person, it takes the stress away.... You're guaranteed good drinks, and it's impressive. It's a nice touch."
Andrew Law, 35, a Washington designer who regularly hosts staffed parties with his partner David Rattner, thinks ambiance alone is enough reason to hire a bartender. "At a dinner party for, say, 12, the presence of a bartender lends itself to the feeling of a special occasion, even when it's a casual function. I think that's when it's the nicest."
Sandy Dodson, assistant to the director of the Maryland Bartending Academy in Glen Burnie, said her bartenders will suggest ways for the host to save money.
Limiting what is served is the most obvious way. Dodson recommends displaying a drink menu at the bar to let guests know what is available. The menu is also a good way to introduce unusual cocktails, prompting guests to try something new, like a passion-fruit martini rather than the ubiquitous sour apple variety.
The simple presence of a bartender may reduce the amount of alcohol consumed. When left to their own devices at an open bar, guests become a little overzealous while pouring liquor. "Not to be stingy," said Glenn Graziano, an Alexandria, Va., business owner and frequent entertainer, "but some people make themselves extremely strong drinks and then don't drink (them) because they've made (them) too strong."
For guests who overdo, professional bartenders are able to control the amount of drinking so hosts don't have to, according to Holley Paris of the Arlington (Va.) Bartending School.
"It's not the easiest thing to do," said Paris, "because people don't like being cut off." But the Arlington school teaches ways to handle these situations. A bartender might casually say, "Let's make this your last one." If that doesn't work, another option is to hand the guest water or a fruity drink that doesn't contain alcohol. "If they're at the point where you're cutting them off," said Paris, "they probably won't even notice." And a bartender can monitor underage guests.
Bartenders will customarily touch base with the host a few days before the event to discuss logistics - full bar, or beer, wine and mixers? Any specialty cocktails? If asked, they will offer suggestions on what to serve, as well as give advice on how to stock a bar and how much liquor and ice to have on hand - something, Andrasi said, "people always underestimate."
On the day of the party, the bartender will arrive anywhere from 15 minutes to an hour in advance to set up the bar and cut garnishes. Bartenders usually bring their own mixing equipment, such as a shaker, strainer, corkscrew and speed-pourers, but everything else is the host's responsibility.
Bartenders can act as servers and heat food, though that should be discussed beforehand. Some, said Dodson, have been asked to help cook. "You'd be surprised how much help a bartender can be," Dodson added, recalling with a laugh a pool party for an 8 year old. The bartenders were supposed to serve sodas and punch but never did. "The host wanted them to oversee (the children) in the pool." Dodson said. "They stood around doing nothing for six hours."
While the list of reasons to hire help will vary from person to person, most everyone who has hired a bartender will tell you that the greatest benefit, by far, is that it allows them to enjoy their party.
Nancy Averill, 41, of Gaithersburg, Md., hired her first bartender five years ago after she and her husband Blake, also 41, hosted a holiday party at their home. With 25 to 30 guests, Blake spent the entire evening behind the bar, refilling drinks. "He couldn't enjoy himself," Nancy said. "And I was constantly picking up after everyone."
The following year, they hired a friend's college-age son to tend bar, an experience that paved the way for every future event they've hosted. "We'll probably always do it for a party of 20 or more. It frees you up, and you enjoy yourself more." Averill views the price - $25 an hour - as just one of the bare necessities of being a host: "Other people doing the work so you can have fun - it's so worth it."
1. Check that the bartender for hire has his or
her own bar kit. Pros travel with their own wine opener, pour spouts, cocktail
shaker, strainer, long-handled spoon, towel and knife for cutting garnishes. You
provide the blender, beverages, glasses and ice.
2. Test expertise, since good bartenders for hire know major mixed-drink recipes by heart. Ask how many years of experience the bartender has and of what kind. A tap person used to working in pub-style establishments may not know cocktails.
3. Quiz prospective bartenders for hire on how they set up their bars and how they cope with nonstop drink demands and empty glasses and bottles. They should be in command of their work space, trash containers, and supply of glassware and beverages.
4. If you're planning the party yourself rather than hiring a caterer, ask the bartenders for hire advice on what to order. An experienced bartender can help you calculate how much and what alcohol you'll need.
5. Avoid novices or anyone fresh out of bartending school. Look for a tidy appearance and attire.
Good bartenders for hire ask about guests' ages and tastes, and know which drinks different groups favor. A bar mitzvah calls for a different approach than a wild crowd of 20- something revelers or a relatively sedate gathering of over-50s.
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