A Good Daytime Bartender Is Hard To Find

Nov 10, 2011 2:01 pm

Seattle's Robbie McGrath is one of the good ones

Robbie McGrath keeps a notebook log of his customers.
Robbie McGrath keeps a notebook log of his customers.
 

A good daytime bartender is hard to come by. True lushes realize this, and take full advantage when they find one, generally because: 1. Bloody Marys are bloody difficult to find on a weekday. 2. Daytime drinking is highly underrated. This may account for the three days in a row while in Seattle I lunched at Matt’s in the Market where barman Robbie McGrath presides over the sunny, lofty space. One of the first remarks I heard him make was, “My twin brother and I used to think we were going to be cremated, but then we decided we wanted to be confit’ed — cooked in our own fat!” I liked him. And then he made me a Bloody Mary with a snit (a small pour of beer on the side) — a Midwestern detail. I was smitten. See the Ultimate Bloody Mary recipe.

McGrath is a classic regulars’ bartender. Almost everyone at the counter knew him, and over a piquant Bloody Mary updated him with his or her latest travels or dinner plans. A couple next to me at the first lunch was planning their surprise wedding that weekend. McGrath was one of the only people privy to their secret. The groom leaned over when McGrath disappeared for a second and whispered, “He keeps a notebook on customers. He remembers the first time I came to the bar he poured a Bitburger with my Bloody Mary because they were out of High Life, so he pours me a Bitburger every time now.”

Over his 1950s style spectacles, McGrath peered across the counter after I’d finished a halibut sandwich. “How about some ice cream, on me?” I’m not sure how he knew that my heart takes the shape of an ice cream cone, but he won it with a scoop of huckleberry and a refill of my High Life snit. I asked him for a conversation after service, and he replied, “Not on Mondays, my dear. On Mondays, I have drinks with the Bishop on his boat.”

Having observed the familiarity with which he fell into dialogue, I wasn’t surprised, but more puzzled, at the Bishop’s own lushiness. McGrath explained, “He came in one afternoon and had a margarita. When he finished, I asked if he wanted another one. He looked around to see if anyone was watching, and I said, ‘It’s not like there’s a priest in here!’ It turns out he’s the Bishop!”

Nearly 60, McGrath has a hundred stories like these. He once owned and operated two bars in Illinois, aptly named Robbie’s, where he tended for years. Eventually he left a muggy Midwestern summer behind to visit family in Seattle. Within twenty minutes of touching down to the city’s cool, verdant coastline, he’d decided to stay. Having been at Matt’s nearly four and a half years, he’s gained a firm following that gathers every afternoon around his L-shaped bar to drink mostly classics and carouse with the Minnesotan transplant who loves entertaining everyone from the Bishop to the tourist. “You know you’re in the wrong job if you wake up on Monday dreading going to work. Mondays should be good. I’m very lucky to have a bunch of Mondays.”

Robbie’s Guide to Seattle. Still hungry to explore his city, McGrath hosts regular eating and imbibing tours around Seattle. These are McGrath’s regular haunts with a few new stops thrown in.

 Quinn’s "I make it to Quinn’s a least once a week," says McGrath. "It’s a bit like the Spotted Pig in New York, but better. They have a great burger. But you have to get it with bacon. Bacon, but one piece is quite enough."

Tilikum Place Cafe "This is a great, comfortable neighborhood spot. I come here usually once a week too. Everyone’s friendly, and the soups are always very good."

Bisato "Bisato means little fish. It used to be called Lamprey. They do small Italian plates. The lamp chop lollipops are wonderful, and the chocolate mousse and orange confit will make you cry. You’ll run up and down the street after one of those."

Marjorie’s "I like a big stirred vodka martini. Ben Sherwood at Marjorie’s makes a good one."

"I’ve recently taken people to La Bête for wonderful food—heavy, comforting stuff. Jamie Boudreau just opened his new place, Canon, where Murray Stenson from Zig Zag is working behind the bar. Artusi, next to a wonderful Italian restaurant called Spinasse, is doing fancy Italian style cocktails."

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