Elio’s, the Upper East Side, white-tablecloth clubhouse for the well-heeled, is given a good dose of salt-of-the-earth integrity by longtime bartender Brien Drew. The tall, burly New York native has been behind the eatery’s small and tidy bar for near a quarter-century, offering advice on the nightly specials and wine list in a soft, but wised-up (and sometimes wise-cracking) voice.
“What’s the difference,” an expense-account suit asks when Drew sets down two wine lists. “This one’s blue collar, that one’s white collar,” says Drew. “The white collar has a little pair of handcuffs in the corner.”
He tosses out a quick welcome to every person who comes through the door. Many of those are regulars whose order he anticipates before they sit down. For the middle-aged mover-shaker in the leather jacket and denim shirt, he pours a glass of preferred red before any order is placed. Before the reedy professorial type he sets down a goblet full of ice and vodka and a chaser of orange juice. For one elegant, razor-thin lady, he pours a glass of white wine and pairs it with a glass full of ice, so she might keep the drink cold while she nurses it. All the while, he answers the phone and rings people up on the old metal cash register.
“Same old cash box, too,” he says, pulling out a beaten metal box. “Between the three of us, it’s like the Smithsonian Institute.”
How did you find your way behind the bar?
“I was in the construction and carpenter’s union. A lot of vodka. A lot of partying. I was out of work. I started working weekends bartending in the city and I liked it. I was doing a little construction work on the side. Picked up a few more shifts here and there… I worked at an interesting bar, at 23rd [Street] and 3rd [Avenue]. We had the cops from the 13th precinct around the corner, and Hunter had their dorms down there. So I’d have a bar full of cops and college kids. It was a good mixture. It looked like it hadn’t seen a lick of paint in years. Used to work weekends there. Cops shooting their guns into the dartboard. Crazy stuff.”
How did you get this job at Elio’s?
“A gentleman I used to golf and play cards with, Danny, he worked here for 30 years. He said they’re looking for bartenders. 100 pounds and 24 years later, here I am. The judge gave me 30 years hard labor here. I’ve got six years to go.”
Is this a good place to work?
“Yeah! There’s no TVs, no jukebox. It’s good food, good booze.”
Do you like tending bar?
“It beats digging ditches. You get to meet people.”
What do you think makes for a good bartender?
[Turns hand into a talking mouth.] “That, and a clean glass.”
What advice would you give a bartender just entering the field?
“Work your way up. Work your way up from the local pubs, do a restaurant. Get your balls broken the right way first. Go from the outhouse to the White House.”
What’s the strangest drink request you’ve ever gotten?
“I get some strange ones here, but I just go, ‘Ahhhhhh, functional illiterate! I can’t do this, I can’t do that. I’ve been here 24 years, I don’t even know the address. Leave me alone.’”
What’s an unusual encounter you’ve had at a bar?
“Tom Selleck comes in here all the time. I would never ask him for a thing. But a director on Blue Bloods comes in and asked, ‘How’d you like to play a bartender?’ I went downtown, stood behind a bar for a day, made $1,600. Next time Selleck comes in, he says, ‘I hear you’re up for an Emmy.’”