If you frequent the “21” Club in Manhattan, you’ve most likely met Tara Wright. For many of her 14 years there, she has been the only woman behind the bar at the storied former speakeasy, where change comes slowly, and social progress outside its 52nd Street perimeter is given only glancing notice.
In fact, not every regular was exactly enthused when Wright was hired more than a decade ago. But they’ve come around, won over by her skill, professionalism and her way with a drink. Petite and slim, she can knock out a round of cocktails in record time, moving about efficiently behind the bar, her long ponytail swinging as she works away muddling the mint in a round of Southsides or eyeballing the ratios in a Plymouth Gin Martini.
When she joined the team in 2005, Wright also brought a little modern mixology to the restaurant, which, with its intimate, wood-paneled interior, resembles an in-house canteen at a private meeting hall. “21” traces its history back to a 1920s speakeasy in Greenwich Village, but has long since worn a reputation for starchy conservatism, in both the politics and the dining and drinking habits of its regulars. Wright can match cocktail knowledge and discuss gin preferences with the best of drink geeks—something unfamiliar at the dyed-in-the-wool den. But she’s up for any line of chat—whatever she can do to keep the conversation flowing, to create connections between customers, or to make what she calls “bar magic.”
“Everyone’s read a book, everyone’s seen a movie, there’s something we all can talk about,” she said. “We can find commonality. Bars are the best place to explore that.”
How did you find your way behind the bar?
I started working in restaurants when I was 13. And I didn’t really like it. But I always thought the job that would be cool would be being a bartender. There were very few female bartenders around. It was a summer job at a ski resort right after college. I was working as a counter person and there was a banquet I was going to be working. The bartender was unable to make it, so I volunteered. The manager said OK. I looked at him and said, “I’ve never done this.” And he basically told me that most drinks are simple, you’re either serving highballs or pouring beer or wine. He showed me how to make an Old-Fashioned. He didn’t show me a Manhattan or Martini. So, I worked the banquet and everyone ordered Martinis. It was all men and they all ordered Martinis. I said, “If you tell me how to make it, I’ll make it for you,” and they were very specific. And I was the first bartender at that event to ever get tips.
How did you get the job at “21”?
I was looking for work. I was not a young bartender and I applied everywhere. It was a Friday afternoon and I hadn’t applied anywhere that day. About 5:15, I went on Craigslist and I saw that “21” was looking for someone. I sent my résumé and I swear, within 30 seconds of hitting send, my phone rang. And a very professional voice at the end of the line said, “This is the ‘21’ Club.” And I said, “Oh, that was fast!” He had been a customer one night at Lure Fishbar. He had seen that on my résumé. I had been the bartender who waited on him. He called me in the next day.
What do you think makes for a good bartender?
There is one bartender I will always remember as one of the best. He remembered everyone. If you hadn’t been in for eight months, he would remember you and what you drank. I wondered, “How do you do that?”
What makes for a good bartender at the “21” Club?
One of the lovely things about the “21” Club is that, if you’re at the “21” Club, everyone assumes that you’re a good bartender. That’s great to have that as an immediate assumption. For me, it’s a little bit different because I was the first woman behind the bar [here]. Actually, the second, but the first one didn’t last. So, there was some irritation that they had hired a woman. All of it has worked out in the end.
What sort of customers do you get at “21”?
“21” is more of a place where, when they walk in, they know what their drink is. They know they want Johnnie Walker Black on the rocks. They know they want an extra dry Martini, or a Martini with some vermouth. But we still get people who are undecided and look at the list. I’m always surprised when people study the list for 10 minutes and say, “I’ll have a Manhattan.” Like, that took a lot of work.
What’s an unusual drink order you’ve gotten?
A B&B Manhattan. I remember it struck me as strange, and then I ended up drinking them for a while.
What’s an unusual encounter you’ve had at a bar?
A couple had come in at the Mayflower Hotel and they were from England, and they were on a long weekend trip to New York. One thing they wanted to do was go to a Giants game. They were trying to get tickets and they couldn’t get tickets to this game. It was Saturday night and they had their beers and then went up to their room. About 10 minutes later, a man came in and he was sort of full of himself. He said, “I have these tickets to the Giants game and I’m trying to see the pay-per-view fight tomorrow. I have these great Giants tickets to trade.” And on and on. I looked at him and said, “I can’t help you with the pay-per-view thing, but if you don’t want to go to the Giants game, I know a couple that would love some tickets.” About a half-hour later, he said, “OK, I’ll sell them to them.” I called up to the couple’s room and told them tickets were available. They came back the next night and said, “If the Queen had gone to the game, these were the seats she would have had.” They were thrilled. Just being part of that, I liked it. I liked making someone’s weekend come true.