The musician turned bartender who was at the heart of the cocktail renaissance
If Chad Solomon, one of the most distinctive figures of the American cocktail renaissance, looks like a musician, it’s probably because he is one. So it was quite fitting that we decided to interview him at Floridita last June, while the band was playing. Drinking Daiquiris and listening to the music, Chad told us "I think this city share its DNA with New Orleans, only on a bigger scale". We agree, and it was not the only thing we’d agree on over the course of our conversation.
As many who started before people realized they could make a career in bartending, Chad became a bartender by accident. When 9/11 happened, he was in the film business, working on sets in New York. All of a sudden, the city suspended filming permits and he lost his job. A good friend of his managed to help him get interviews at some of the few good cocktail bars in town at the time. It was meant to be a temporary solution. He couldn’t imagine that, 15 years later, he’d be running a bar in Dallas, Midnight Rambler, with his partner Christy Pope (they met at his first bar gig) and a consulting company called Cuffs & Buttons.
"Back then, it was a very tight community. If you were interested in cocktails, you knew everyone. In a way, there’s a bit of luck: the right timing, the right friendships. It all lined up. But we worked our asses off and I would also say it was all about recognizing the opportunity and deciding to go after it." It’s really in late 2004, after three years working at Sasha Petraske’s seminal Milk & Honey but also at other, much less illustrious or cocktail-focused places, that Chad realized he was in for the long haul. "We started to understand that the cocktail thing was not going away, so the mindset changed from ‘I’ll go back to film or to music’ to ‘no, we’re going to go forward with this’. It was very exciting".
At the time, Chad was working with Julie Reiner at Flatiron Lounge and it all accelerated when he joined Audrey Saunders to take part in Pegu Club’s opening team (if this starts to read like a cocktail who’s who, it’s because it is). Business was booming: by 2006, Chad and Christy had launched Cuffs & Buttons (initially with Petraske as silent partner),"New York’s first beverage only catering company" and landed a gig working on the bars of all the Fairmont hotels in America. Their ‘shift’ bartending career was essentially over. After a spell in LA, they settled in Texas and now split their time between Dallas and New York.
This very short summation of Chad’s career shouldn’t lead you to think it was all easy. "The idea that it was going to become as big as it is and you could go to hundreds of places and get a good Daiquiri with fresh lime juice really seemed far off. We had to train the guests and hope that they would get what we were doing. There was something almost monastic and church-like. You’d sit down, contemplate the drink and watch the bartender work." The era of seriousness is now on the way out, as he is quick to add: "It had to happen that way, but now that the guests are well informed, we can say: ‘We won those battles, we reclaimed what had been lost. We can now relax’." Amen to that!
Relaxing has helped fostering a new kind of approach, in New York at least: "If anything, the biggest thing that’s happening right now is the ‘fast casual cocktail bar’. It has a neighborhood feel, it’s not jaded, it’s much faster service, solid drinks, super fun atmosphere". Which, in an abrupt transition that wouldn’t please careful editors, brings us back to Havana, with its equally super fun atmosphere. "For Sasha Petraske and Audrey Saunders, the Daiquiri was the measuring stick they used to judge us. So having those drinks on their home turf is fantastic. Havana is very laid back, positive. You understand why it’s romanticized. But, you know, if you think it’s a time capsule, you’re limiting your understanding of this place. Life has moved on: Havana oozes with creativity, vibrancy, music".
Speaking of creativity, we had to ask Chad, before we let him go, if he missed working in music or the movies. Apparently, not really. "The medium is different but it satisfies the same creative impulse. Seeing how places such as Milk & Honey, Flatiron, Pegu worked, in a way that nobody did at the time, focusing on product and a new kind of guest experience really spoke to me". And to so many people with you, Chad!