In this edition of Shift Diaries, we head to the sunny shores of San Diego — or, more accurately, San Diego and beyond. When talking about adult beverages, locals freely interchange San Diego the city with San Diego the county and its eclectic hodgepodge of suburban enclaves. Such malleability creates an expansive drinking scene featuring strong restaurant bars and allowing for oddities like award-winning establishments in sprawling shopping malls to manifest. The area’s bartenders act as the thread to this communal quilt, and we talked to four of them to see how they apply their hospitality-driven handiwork on a typical Friday night.
Location: Restaurant/bar in Mission Hills
Shift: On Fridays, the first two bartenders come in early to set up the bar and prep. This will include juicing citrus, making syrups, filling up water containers for service, prepping garnish, and making sure we’re set up for success with all the tools we’ll need for a busy Friday night. I’m usually walking in at 4:30 p.m., just in time to catch the pre-shift notes of the day’s activities: cover counts, large party in times, notable VIPs, and anything of note from the past week. We’ll also go over any rotating food items, specials, and any 86s for the evening. By the time we’re finished, it’s 5 p.m., and doors are opened to the public. The first turn is usually lighter than the second, so the three bartenders can focus on guests and finish any prep, if any, that still needs to be done. There’s no barback, so they take care of everything. When things really get started around 6 p.m., each bartender focuses on their section of the bar and communicates any needs if looking for additional assistance from a manager, bartender, or busser.
We sometimes get a turn of guests coming in for a quick round of drinks before their reservations, either with us or at one of the restaurants around us. The 6 to 8 p.m. stretch is usually the bulk of the grind, but another turn around 9 p.m. can definitely keep the drinks flowing. The food is the biggest draw to our restaurant, so we also must be mindful of the steps of service that come with an elevated dining experience. By 10 p.m., the kitchen finishes up with the last of the plates, so it tends to be the time people start to leave, but some will continue into the bar and stay until closing. At this time, it’s down to two bartenders and one will still be hosting the bar while the other starts to close down one side of the bar. By the time the bar is closed, most of the closing procedures are done, such as breaking down the well, wiping everything down, and restocking our beer, wine, and syrups. It’s a total team effort from start to finish. The more we set each other up for success, the more we can continue to do it each and every night.
Location: Restaurant/bar in Carlsbad
Shift: I usually leave for work at 1 p.m. It’s a couple hours before I start my shift, but I have to drive about 30 miles, and traffic can be unexpected. I also like to get to work a little early so that I can have time to make a coffee and catch up with any side projects I might be working on. I clock in anywhere from 2:30 to 3 depending on where I am at for the day. As the other bartenders start to show up, we discuss who will be in which well for the night and who wants to stay or go home early. Most nights, I just expect to stay until the end. We then start the opening process, which involves cutting garnishes, refilling syrups, and batching cocktails. We have a break at 4, then we have a shift meeting at 4:30. The doors open at 5, and we get a good amount of people that sit down at the start. We are very close to the beach, so at this time people have been waiting to get dinner and drinks after a long day In the sun. By 7, we are full force — four bartenders and two barbacks. Everyone is helping with tickets and keeping an eye on walk-ups. Guests seem to be coming from every crevice of the bar. This is my favorite part of the shift. Time is going by quickly, and I feel like I am in a good rhythm.
By 9, things start to slow down. The dinner crowd has finished, and the customers start to become people grabbing another drink after dinner or before they go out for the night. This is usually around the time we start to send the first two bartenders home. By 10 p.m., employees from surrounding restaurants start to come in to get an after-work drink. This is also when we start to see some of the drunk crowd. Before the first two bartenders leave, we all take a cheeky little shot. The last hour is hard, and I’m waiting for last call and the guests to finish up and leave. I might eat a snack I bought from the liquor store earlier, or if the kitchen is feeling nice, they will send us something. Finally, last call hits 10:45 and I can start to break my well down. I get another jolt of energy and work fast to be done. By midnight, cleaning is almost done. We talk a little about difficult guests during the rush, and then I’m out the door by 12:30 a.m. — enough time for me to grab a drink or some food at a late-night spot. I’m home by 2 a.m. The whole restaurant is in a tip pool, so I’ll find out the amount we made the next day. Whatever my amount is, it all goes on the check.
Location: Neighborhood bar in North Park
Shift: Fridays are always a quality experience at my bar. The majority of us only work one or two shifts a week, so it’s nice to get a good chunk of us together. I’m proud to say that our team seems to really enjoy each other, so seldom do we have an awful night.
I get in early to meet up with our prep person. While she has a great deal of experience in restaurants, this has been her first bar job, so it’s been really exciting to watch her skill set grow. She’s got the syrups and juices ready to go for the busy night ahead, and our kegged cocktails and their backups are filled. She’s gotten very, very good at making our jobs as easy as possible.
We get the bar set up together. I make sure to repost any important social media content and check the reviews from the night before. We put the liquor order away and ice down our wells. Our second bartender comes in right as we open our doors. We are in business. Tonight is an odd one. There is a street festival this weekend. We were already expecting a crazy night, but being a newish bar, this is our first experience with the event. We’re a little on edge.
Friday happy hour is usually nuts from 4 p.m. on. We have a small selection of unusually inexpensive cocktails, so we’ve developed a bit of a cult following. It’s not unusual for two people to pump out 100 to 150 cocktails in that first hour. Around 5, we begin to see the rest of our staff roll in, and we scramble to reset as the 4 p.m. frenzy dies down. We restock glassware, clean up the empty bottles, and ice down the wells. We fly through breaks as quickly as we can during the dinnertime lull, making sure we’re well staffed in the case of a rush.
By 7, we’re fully in the throes of service — hordes of people coming through our doors. We’re lucky to cast a wide net of guests. A lot of college kids in San Diego have a taste for craft cocktails as well as our more adult guests. That being said, it seems imperative to have a solid knowledge base. I’ve been blessed with having an experienced staff of incredible bartenders. They are friendly, fast, and really know their shit.
With service in full gear, our team is clicking. We share a couple safety meetings. We loudly greet our friends and regulars. With breaks over and food service done, I move out of the way and let the barback take over. I clock out and have a beer or two while I mingle with some of the homies who’ve walked in. I sit back and watch my amazing team rock through last call with ease and aplomb. They make me very proud. I usually stick around and help finish entering slips and count the drawers. We close down the bar and usually have some spirited discussion about service, cracking jokes and debating the merits of how best to express citrus. A couple of us live in the same direction, so we’ll hit the bar next door for their last call, and then we’ll all walk home together. Another day in the books. It’s a damn good night.
Location: Restaurant/bar in La Jolla
Shift: It’s 5 p.m. Friday night when the first wedding party of 40 starts trickling in the door. The floor staff, my co-bartender, and I are still hammering out the details of the show plan for the night when we’re forced to scatter to our positions and await the onslaught of the first party, which will be followed 30 minutes later by a second party of 35 — another wedding welcome. We’ll be closed to open service tonight until about 7:30 with a handful of exceptions for friends of the owner and my bar regulars. I hear the familiar ding of the well service printer and am greeted with a ticket 12 drinks long, a healthy mix of our curated cocktails, happy-hour beers, and classic cocktails. Next, a ticket of 12 oyster shooters comes in: ”Excellent,” I think to myself. “I only have six glasses.” I hand the pantry chef 12 short buckets and tell him to improvise while I start shaking cocktails. I yell over my shoulder at my co-bartender (who’s also my younger sister) to start pouring beers and working the rail for the handful of guests trying to beat the wait and get drinks directly from the bar. In the first 15 minutes of the rush, we pour approximately 60 drinks as the partygoers clamor to make the most of the host’s open-bar window. A manager taps me on the shoulder while I stir an Old Fashioned. The second party has started to arrive, and a group of the owner’s friends have also posted up at the end of the bar. I nod — I’m not a big talker during service — and finish the ticket I’m pouring.
I spy a regular at the end of the bar talking to our oyster man. I grab him the Estrella he ordered and place it down with a nod. “Oysters?” He nods; I ring a dozen of his usual. I pour shots of 1942 for the owner’s friends and put in a 24-ounce Tomahawk for them to share. I know they’re texting my boss during their experience, and I make a note to the kitchen.
Back to service well. I’ve been gone too long, and there’s about eight tickets totaling about 35 drinks. I shout again over my shoulder to my sister for beers and wine while she simultaneously takes walk-ups and chats with the bar guests. My well is cleared quickly, and before I know it, a gentleman I’ve never seen before slides me a $20 and asks to open a tab. I realize he’s the fill-in musician for the night, and it’s already 6:30 p.m. Service is cruising by, smoothly it seems, although I’d never dare utter the words aloud. Dirty glassware is starting to pile up, so I call for a manager to come do the dishes. He’s a team player and loves being behind the bar, so it works for everyone.
The service well has calmed down now that most of the guests from both parties have settled into their seats for dinner. Tickets are more wine-heavy now, with the occasional Manhattan or cucumber-infused Margarita. I’m running low on fruit and realize I haven’t had a drink since I got there at 2 p.m. I grab a quart of ice water and head out back to the parking lot to chug it, crossing paths with a joint-smoking chef and an irritated server. Minutes later, I’m back in the well for a few minutes of calm. The musician starts — he’s quite good.
As the host from the first party asks for a last call on the open bar tab, a flood of drinks come in. We’ve moved onto Lemon Drop shots, much to my dismay. I loathe sugar. I take note of the rail. We need to bus some plates and clear some glass. I feel a sharp jab in my back; my sister is poking me with the corner of a Herradura Reposado bottle. It’s 8 p.m. Time for a quick safety meeting.
The first party departs quickly; we’ve moved onto open service and finishing up the second large party of the night. The bar guests are full, slightly inebriated, and in great spirits. The staff is laughing — an excellent sign. I start closing down one of the wells. For the first night in a long time, I’m technically done first — although I know I’ll likely be there close to the bitter end. Last call is at 9:30, just around the corner. I see the chefs hovering around the end of the bar, champing at the bit for their shifties. I discreetly flip them off while pouring their beers. I’m hopeful for family meal tonight, but it’s been rare lately.
It’s 10 p.m. All the guests are gone. The staff is cleaning up. I’m sitting at the bar chatting with management about the next service, and they remind me there’s a 70-person cocktail reception after hours the next night. I gather my belongings and head out the back. I crack open the RTD Paloma I had stashed in the fridge for my two-mile beachside walk home.