Hidden in the back of circa-1900 Midtown hotel the Iroquois is dark, seductive Lantern’s Keep. At this post-Broadway show hideaway, the chaos of nearby Times Square feels far, far away, aided by a cozy fireplace and well-crafted drinks. Overseeing the classic cocktail program is head bartender Rene Hidalgo, a New York native who launched his career as a barback a decade ago. Here, he uncovers the historic parallel between fashion and cocktails, reveals hospitality lessons learned and discusses the importance of drink-making risks.
So tell us about your first bartending job.
I started working about 10 years ago, at a place called the Whiskey Ward, on the Lower East Side. I was actually hired as a door guy, a security guard, and spent my off nights barbacking and eventually bartending. In all honesty, I got into it to make a bunch of bucks, but then I fell in love with it.
What was that “aha moment,” when you knew a career behind the bar was one you wanted to pursue?
It was a slow progression. I was doing a bunch of things — I was in a band, sold antiques and studied writing — and over time my last band broke up, I quit working in retail and eventually I realized the bar was the only thing I’d stuck with. In my free time I wasn’t practicing guitar, I was reading books about whiskey and the history of cocktails.
Before devoting yourself to the bar world, you ran vintage clothing and antique stores. Does that background inspire what you do today, and if so, how?
I got into it in high school at Housing Works, where I was a volunteer. It eventually turned into a real job. Then I started working for an older dude who had owned a few vintage clothing shops in New York since the ’70s. I look back and it’s kind of funny that the two things I’ve been professionally into make me think of the past. When you’re dealing with antiques and old clothes you have to look at things in a historical context. You watch some old movies and look at the pants they were wearing then for the bigger picture of that time period, and you do the same with cocktails. You see a drink with vodka in it and you know it must be post-1950s, just like you can look at clothing and know from the stitching on it that it was made by a particular machine they stopped producing in 1932. It’s completely unintentional, but there’s something oddly coincidental how I’ve gotten into two different careers like this.
At Vintry Wine and Whiskey you were immersed in wine, working with a reserve list that dated back to the 1870s. How does this deep wine knowledge help you in the spirits world?
I was brought in because whiskey was my specialty; wine was new to me. I was the youngest guy there by 10 years, the kid, which was awesome because I worked with some dudes who were real veterans. We had 100 wines by the glass, all old world and American. It was a good primer for me when I went to Gramercy Tavern. Here, I’d come across guests who knew more than I did. I love small bars. It was a tiny staff and we all got to spend a lot of time together, which is why I still like small bars. The guys taught me a lot about the intricacies of wine.
You worked for a year at Gramercy Tavern, where restaurateur Danny Meyer is known as the ultimate hospitality teacher. What did you learn from him and others there?
After a year I definitely felt like I had a good understanding of hospitality. At a place like Gramercy Tavern you have to be exceptional at everything you touch. I did a captain trail, pastry trail, cheese trail — you have to learn everything from top to bottom. On the service side you learn to see a problem before it starts. You notice when a guest is about to have a bad experience before they do, and no matter what you make sure they are happier when they walked in. Even if there’s not a problem per se, for someone having an anniversary you don’t want to just give them a regular dinner experience. A little goes a long way in this business.
What trends are you seeing behind the bar? What kinds of drinks are popular with your customers?
It’s tough to say because it changes all the time based on who walks in. One of the first lessons I ever learned is from the owner of the Whiskey Ward. He said you build a bar, you have a concept, you open the door and everything goes out the window. It’s something I think about every night. Some nights you’re selling a million Daiquiri variations, and some it’s stirred Manhattans. The great opportunity is we can make drinks on the fly. Oh, it’s cold? So we know we’re going to sell a lot of egg yolk drinks and Scotch. It’s not as mundane as a lot of bars where you work off this 15-drink cocktail menu you have to churn out every night.
Are a lot of guests eager for you to make them an off-menu special?
Bartender’s choice is the majority of what we’re doing now. It’s great if someone picks something off the menu, because we make those 30 drinks well, but what about if you want something different? Or want to be surprised? Everyone here is trained to have a conversation with guests. So much of this is based off a language. The guest says they want something spicy, but they don’t necessarily want a drink with hot sauce. It’s about understanding all the little things customers say to you and boiling it down to something they don’t realize they want. But when they sip your drink they say, “This is what I meant.”
What drink order makes you cringe? What’s your favorite to pull together?
I’ve been doing this for 10 years, so it takes a lot to gross me out. The one thing that everyone behind the bar wishes is that guests have an open mind, so when we say we don’t have Bud Light, instead we can say, “Let me make you something. If you don’t like it I won’t charge you. Let me give you an opportunity to blow your mind.”
We did a nightcap menu on our last incarnation, and, admittedly, I was like, let’s see what happens. I’m shocked by how successful it’s been. The Grasshopper, for instance, has this reputation for being a dumb ’70s cocktail. But we make it with a quality crème de menthe and crème de cacao, and it makes a difference. I like to make someone something they think they’re not going to like so they have a new interpretation of it, or offer them the first taste of something they’ve never had — anything that’s going to be a surprise.
Which of your own signature cocktails are you most proud of?
You have your drinks that you make and say, “I don’t think this is going to work,” and then it does, or “I don’t think it’s going to sell,” and it does. Then you have ones you think are going to be crowd-pleasers that never find their groove. I wanted to do something savory and did a drink called the Clean Shave for another bar, with gin, Aquavit, lemon juice, Campari and cayenne pepper, and it ended up doing really well on the menu over here. Another one is the Trust Fall, an Old-Fashioned variation with bourbon and Cognac, allspice dram, Licor 43 and Peychaud’s bitters.
What cocktails do you turn to when the weather starts to chill?
The Chancellor, with Islay Scotch, sweet vermouth and port. It’s a smoky, sort of richer Scotch Manhattan. Another is the Coffee Cocktail, which actually has no coffee in it at all. It’s just Cognac, port, egg yolk and a bit of sugar with some fresh nutmeg grated on top. Absolutely delicious, it’s a little on the rich side and a great dessert alternative.
Given the location of Lantern’s Keep, it’s the perfect spot for post-theater drinks. Do you attract a Broadway crowd? Any celebrities stop by after their shows?
It’s popular with Broadway fans, but after the shows, not before. Celebrities come in all the time, but I can’t tell you who they are because we want them to come back.
The mixology scene has changed considerably since you first started making cocktails. What advice would you give to a budding bartender?
Be humble, know what you don’t know and pick your mentors wisely. If your mentor, manager or head bartender says something like “Because that’s just how we do it”, it’s time to move on, you aren’t going to learn anything there. There’s nothing more valuable than a good mentor.
What do you drink on your night off?
I’m not a huge beer drinker, although I do enjoy the occasional IPA. I drink a lot of sherry, mostly Amontillado and Oloroso, something I got turned on to while working at Gramercy Tavern. Also Scotches, particularly from Islay.
Find out more about how New Yorkers are making it in the big city with our Cool Job Q&As.