Besties: The OG New York Bartender Edition

Welcome to the 2015 "Besties Guest Bartending Series," a monthly event and column in collaboration with Momofuku featuring two bartenders who've inspired each other's work. This month: Brooklyn bar owners Toby Cecchini and David Moo on Japanese whisky, growing up (or not) and the best bars lost to time.

Welcome to the second installment of the 2015 “Besties Guest Bartender Series” a collaboration with the Momofuku team that pairs up two bartenders (with a history—good, bad and ugly) behind the bar at Má Pêche each month.

The concept originated with Momofuku as a way for former co-workers and bartender friends to join forces again, and it’s since evolved into a monthly celebration of camaraderie and good drinks, with part of the proceeds going to charity. In advance of each event—with the aid of a Proust(ish) questionnaire—we’ll talk to the bartender pair about their connection and common influences behind the bar, all while testing their knowledge about one another. Join us for the next event on Wednesday, April 8th, from 5 to 10 p.m. (open to the public).

Up this month: Brooklyn’s vagabond intellectuals, Toby Cecchini and David Moo.

The combined book smarts, cultural trivia and oddball cocktail knowledge of Toby Cecchini and David Moo is enough to fill several tomes. Like most longtime New Yorkers, they’ve lived multiple lives and seen a sea of humanity pass before their respective bars—from celebrities to vagrants to the neighborhood regular seeking solace.

Cecchini (The Long Island Bar, formerly Passerby and Death & Co., among others) is an essential figure in the New York bar world, beginning his career in the 1980s at The Odeon, then an iconic downtown celebrity hang out. The reluctant inventor of the novelty drink that launched a thousand pink cocktails—the Cosmopolitan—Cecchini has settled into his own art deco diner-cum-bar on Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn. Moo (Quarter Bar), Cecchini’s good friend and sometimes guest bartender at Long Island Bar, first got behind the stick nearly 20 years ago as a way to buttress his theater career.

The two—both sardonic, nebbish Brooklynites—will never provide a straight answer about their friendship’s beginning, though they might offer some tale about meeting on the lido deck of a cruise liner, or while betting on horses at the Aqueduct racetrack. This is mostly because neither actually remembers anything beyond the fact that mutual friends introduced them around five years ago.

Classicists at heart, Cecchini and Moo work within the same philosophy of tweaking canonical drinks to make them their own, eschewing the avant-garde for balanced versions of what regulars and everyday drinkers want. Most importantly, if all the cocktail frippery were stripped away, they’d have their tried-and-true New York stories to keep the bar alive. And a whole lot of Japanese whisky. —Joanna Harkins

TOBY CECCHINI

TOBY

What do you want to be when you grow up?
What do you mean “grow up”? That’s going to happen?

If you could come back as anyone or anything, who or what would it be?
A C-list 1970s celebrity. Dick Van Patten, most likely.

If you could only have one drink for the rest of your life, what would it be?
Well water, duh; that’s a trick question. But if I could only have two it would be water and then Hakushu 12.

What is your spirit ingredient?
Calpis, or Calpico, as they say here.

What’s on your essential behind the bar playlist?
Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page and Jimmy Cliff.

Living or dead, who would you most like to see bellied up to your bar for a drink?
Vince Lombardi, Cyd Charisse and Oscar Wilde.

Who would play you in a movie?
There would be a ferocious casting scratch-off between Judi Dench and Mr. T. But then, in one of those tricks of fate, Pee Wee Herman would waltz off with the part.

Your three essential New York bars?
Ichibantei, Bemelmans Bar and Attaboy.

If you could resurrect any bar out there what would it be?
Le Fitzcarraldo in Paris. They changed the entire décor of the place each month. There was always manic, ballistic stuff going on there every night.

What do you find to be the most underrated thing about being a bartender?
A lot of people ask me why I’m still tending bar at my own place. For someone who is working a lot at something else—i.e. when I’m writing—bartending is a job, but it’s also sort of a social life. You have to interact with people. It doesn’t replace your real social life. That would be sort of pathological. But when you’re staring at a screen all day or stocking and making orders, doing the grunt work, when you step behind the bar you realize there’s something beautiful in the fact that you have to talk to people all night. Sometimes it’s really restorative in a social way. You have your own circle of friends you interact with, but how often do you get to meet all kinds of people that you don’t know? Sometimes that can be a great gift.

Do you find there to be anything missing in today’s bar scene?
A lot of friends my age are always talking about how things have gone down hill or New York isn’t as great as it used to be. But I just say, I’m sure it’s still a cool town, you’re just getting old. Yes, Palladium’s gone and replaced by an NYU dorm, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t still kids out in Bushwick partying, doing coke and having a blast – you just don’t know where it is. There are still 23-year-olds in this town, believe me.

I think that the only thing that’s missing in this whole cocktail renaissance is easygoing bars making really good cocktails. But more and more you’re seeing places like Attaboy that incorporate both things. Cocktail bars were too snooty; you had to hold your hat in your hand and tow the line, you couldn’t talk to women you didn’t know…enough already. A bar is a bar—make some great drinks and let people do what they do in bars. There have always been dive bars and there’s always been the King Cole Lounge at the St. Regis. Its just [finding] that amphibious creature that is both things combined.

Toby on David

What does David want to be when he grows up?
The first Jamaican-Jewish-Chinese President of the International Society of Breeders of Scottish Fold Cats. He’s already well on his way: Assistant Treasurer at present.

If David could come back as anyone or anything, who or what would it be?
The Pope, obviously.

If David could only have one drink for the rest of his life, what would it be?
A Negroni made with Wray & Nephew Overproof.

What is David’s spirit ingredient?
Milo.

What’s on David’s essential behind the bar playlist?
Lee Scratch Perry, Perry Farrell and Perry Como.

Living or dead, who would David most like to see sit down at his bar for a drink?
Bettie Page, Rutherford B. Hayes and L. Ron Hubbard.

Who would play David in a movie?
Jeff Goldblum in blackface.

David’s three essential New York bars?
Lot 2, Last Exit (R.I.P.) and Lace.

DAVID MOO

david boo besties ilenia illustration

What do you want to be when you grow up?
I feel like at 44 I’m now allowed to finally admit that I have no idea what the hell I’m doing. I’ve found myself in my career—I’m clearly a career cocktail bartender. I’ve been doing it for 18 years. I’ve been an actor, I’ve been a theatre director; I would like to do those things again. Maybe I want to be a theatre director when I grow up. But I have to admit that I have no idea what I will be going on in five years.

If you could come back as anyone or anything, who or what would it be?
Someone like Nikola Tesla.

If you could only have one drink for the rest of your life, what would it be?
If it had to be a cocktail, hands down I would have a Manhattan. I suspect you will get that answer from loads of other bartenders. I might also choose, probably similarly to Toby, just to drink a really good whiskey. In my case, on-the-rocks, and in his case, neat.

What is your spirit ingredient?
I do find that more so than other bartenders I know, a lot of grapefruit juice ends up in my drinks.

What’s on your essential behind the bar playlist?
A lot of funk, soul and reggae. I’m a huge Sam Cooke fan, James Brown, George Clinton, Sly and the Family Stone. With reggae that list just goes on—The Mighty Diamonds, The Termites, etc. Lots of rocksteady.

Living or dead, who would you most like to see bellied up to your bar for a drink?
Harry Houdini.

Your three essential New York bars?
Sunny’s is one of the greatest bars on the planet. Since Last Exit closed I don’t really have a bar I go to regularly anymore. And I’d have to make a shout out to Attaboy, a room I’ve spent a lot of time in over the years.

If you could resurrect any bar out there what would it be?
Probably Last Exit. And as far as cocktail history goes, I think it’s sad that the Manhattan Club doesn’t exist anymore.

What makes a bar comfortable?
Making fine cocktails is certainly important, for the customer’s enjoyment, for the reputation of the bar, and for reasons having to do with your own personal pride. But honestly, I would say that as far as the customer goes, as long as the cocktails aren’t terrible, they only make up about 10 percent of the experience. I think people whose heads are really far up their cocktail asses are doing a disservice to themselves and to the customer, not realizing what it is that the person’s really there for, which is solace. That’s absolutely why people go to bars, for solace of various kinds. To talk to other human beings, to be in a place that has life, and to cry on someone’s shoulder every once in a while.

David on Toby

What does Toby want to be when he grows up?
He’s going to give you whatever ridiculous answer first pops into his head. Probably something like the cultural minister of a small and unheard of European country.

If Toby could come back as anyone or anything, who or what would it be?
It would actually probably be a more accurate answer to say that Toby would come back as Tesla. I’m entirely positive he will say that.

If Toby could only have one drink for the rest of his life, what would it be?
Either some kind of scotch or Japanese whisky.

What is Toby’s spirit ingredient?
I’m going to say frustration.

What’s on Toby’s essential behind the bar playlist?
Toby has a particular fondness for early-20th-century German brass music. Like, Bavarian-style Oompah bands from the beer halls of southern Germany.

Living or dead, who would Toby most like to see sit down at his bar for a drink?
I think Toby would be truly fascinated to have Dorothy Parker sitting at his bar.

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