Cook Sip Party Primp Interviews Raw Canvas Home

01.04.11 by  

Garnish Your Glass with Magic

Now you see it, now you don’t. Enjoy a little sleight of hand while sipping a drink at Tribeca’s new Theater Bar. Bonus points if you can pull a rabbit out of your cocktail shaker.

Bartenders have a long list of unspoken duties, and performance has always been a huge part of that. Pushing the envelope one more stage is NYC’s Theater Bar where drinks are served in acts instead of flights. Stop by when they open and you might experience cocktail ingredients changing right in front of your eyes. Magician/Bartender Jeff Grow slips us a few secrets on how he plans to surprise you, amaze you, and keep you on the edge of your bar seat.

served raw: what came first, the magician or the bartender?
Jeff Grow: The magician … I started doing magic when I was 7 — my grandfather was a magician, which is how I got started — so I’ve been doing it for much longer than I’ve been able to bartend. When I first moved to NYC after university, I was performing magic, theater, doing commercials and bartending, all at different times to varying degrees. New York is a much bigger ocean than where I’m from, so initially I wasn’t able to work on a lot of the projects I’m able to do now, but I always performed magic behind the bar while bartending.

When I met Albert Trummer, I did some magic for him and we talked about working both magic and bartending for Theater Bar.

take us back to where the combination of magic and bar began …
There’s actually been a fairly long history of “bar magic,” it’s a distinctly American tradition, like jazz. Chicago, in the 30s, 40s and 50s had quite the heyday. In Los Angeles there’s the Magic Castle and even in the ski town Snowmass, Colorado where Doc Eason, Eric Mead and others performed at the Tower Restaurant & Magic Bar. Tom Mullica is another stellar bar magician, during the late 70s and 80s his show, An Evening at the Tom Foolery ran in Atlanta. The space was set up with tiered seating, you were served drinks while watching his show behind the bar. Though we did have Mostly Magic here, it has never particularly flourished in New York City. Apparently there is some interesting bar magic work in Japan now too, where it’s got it’s own style. Theater Bar will be quite different, originally the performances were off-the-cuff and spontaneous.

how will Theater Bar up change up the traditional experience?
What was happening in those bars was gritty … kinda wild. Especially in Chicago, it was just as much about playing with the audience as it was about doing magic. They were improv artists, so to speak. Often, the shows had a sort of rowdy caliber, just as much about gags or making the audience laugh and interact with the bartender, as it was about the magic.

Theater Bar is an elegant, sophisticated lounge. At Theater Bar the magic routine will build into the creation of a cocktail, or the cocktail will unfold into a magical creation, it’ll be more of a show. Though, Theater Bar will probably still get a little rowdy at times.

talk about the role performance plays behind the bar.
Being behind the bar, you’re on stage regardless of what’s going on, even whether or not the bartender is aware of that. So, it could be anything … from how one handles the shakers, how you open a beer bottle, and how you garnish a drink is huge. It’s the little flourishes that people do that equates to magic. Dai Vernon, one of the most influential magicians of the 20th century, even used to say that he could tell how adept a magician was by the way they picked up a deck of cards … it’s the same with mixology, and how the tools and ingredients are handled behind the bar.

Theater Bar bar is a stage, literally. Gorgeous Venetian-style archway, granite bar … Emily Waterhouse did an amazing job designing the space. You can’t get behind the bar through the front of the house, there’s no bar door. So, on a direct level that aspect will highlight the fact that the bartender is a performer.

can you talk about the drinks being crafted for Theater Bar.
We have an insanely creative group working on the menu. Everyone on the team has their own style and will bring something original and new to the bar. People draw from their backgrounds, for example, Duane Fernanez Jr. is drawing from the days of Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway in Harlem. Others are drawing from cultural backgrounds like Italy and South America. I came from the standpoint that there were a few tricks I wanted to incorporate into the cocktails. I also like to stick to the classics, the standards — that’s what I know best — and then do little variations on those drinks.

how do you balance making amazing cocktails while entertaining?
When I’m behind the bar, the cocktails come first. I don’t perform for anyone unless it seems like they are open to it. Bartenders by definition have to be good at reading people. Everyone has to have a drink in their hand and then the magic can begin. I usually try to structure the interaction around something that is happening, or maybe a sort of game, or a puzzle unfolding … so, not just “Hey, do you want to see a magic trick?”

The magic has to come out naturally, so I’ll ease into it in a fun way. At Theater Bar at tables, or in the VIP area guests might actually order “magic” — for example, bottle service: I’ll go to the table and make a bottle appear. Or do a simple routine with cards or the garnish of a champagne cocktail. I could have a magic routine with that garnish, a sugar cube, fresh raspberries, which could lead to the appearance of a bottle of sparkling wine. It’s quick, but entertaining. And more enjoyable to experience in-person, than to read about.

for someone who wanted to try throwing a little sleight of hand into their bartending bag of tricks, how can they get started?
It’s challenging because magic, like mixology, is something that you have to start from the very basics. Becoming familiar with how to present a trick and how to handle a deck of cards, for example, before you get into anything super crazy. There’s also bar stunts. Todd Robbins has a book and DVD called Modern Con Man which is a series about betting, and he’s got things like how to drink from a shot glass without touching it, little flare things, things with matches and bottles. Those are maybe the easiest way to go. There are plenty of resources out there, including basic magic books, and then just going from there. But definitely learning the basics first, before diving into it. Younger magicians might learn a single trick on YouTube or the Internet and they can replicate that, but they don’t know why they are doing certain things. They are just imitating what they saw on a video somewhere.

Similarly, with cocktails, you could watch someone make a cocktail and imitate that, but at the end of the day, do I know why I’m adding ingredients, what bitters does to a drink, why add it or leave it out. And on that point, I’m very thankful to Albert and the amazing crew at Theater Bar for their generous advice. Perhaps we’ll get some of them doing some magic as well, beyond the conjuring they already do with their cocktails.