In 2017, Michael Gorman, the senior bartender at Miller’s Pub, a Chicago Loop institution for decades, retired. He had been behind the stick at Miller’s for 43 years. That sort of tenure is typical of the bar, which was founded back in 1935 by some brothers named Miller, and has been run by the Gallios family since 1950. Kevin Mongoven, one of Gorman’s mentees, has tended bar there for 24 years. When Gorman left, he gave his junior barkeep one piece of advice: “Just be nice to people.”
Mongoven does that, and does it well. He’s a stout, friendly looking man who moves around the long bar with ease, advising tourists on nearby restaurants and sights; offering suggestions to groups of revelers on which spirit to shoot; recommending Miller’s ribs (“I was skinny when I started here”); and inquiring on refills the moment any glass is emptied. To Mongoven, the bar feels like home. “It’s the only bartending job I would have,” he says. “If I didn’t have this one, I wouldn’t take another.”
Miller’s hours are generous. The bar opens at 11 a.m. and closes at four in the morning. When he first came to Miller’s, Mongoven pulled some evening shifts, but in recent years he has only worked days. Even so, Miller’s—which is located on Wabash Avenue just a block or two from a variety of hotels, including the Palmer House—is never not busy; during the Christmas season, the bar can serve up to 7,000 of its famous Tom & Jerrys a day. And Mongoven’s shift start at 9:30 a.m. and ends at 7 p.m. Still, when asked if he gets tired, he smiles and says, “Well, we’re not breaking rocks.”
How did you find your way behind the bar?
“I used to work at the Board of Trade. I was a clerk in the bond room. I was looking to pick up some part-time money, so I got a job bartending at the Snuggery in Edison Park, Illinois. Things didn’t work out with the Board of Trade. I knew the owners of Miller’s Pub and asked if they needed anybody, and they didn’t. Then, one of the owners—we went to high school together—he called me and said, ‘We need somebody now.’”
What do you think makes for a good bartender?
“I think it’s all about personality, to tell you the truth. If you are a social person and are organized and really like people, that’s what it’s all about. I go to work to have fun. I don’t worry about money or anything else. You talk to people, you meet people and ask them how they’re doing.”
What advice would you give a bartender just entering the field?
“I would say, number one, put away your phone and don’t take it out during your shift. Number two, it’s all about the customer. I have a cell phone, but I rarely take it to work. A lot of people, they’re into themselves and into their phones. I’m not really a phone guy. One of the girls I worked with, she sprained her ankle. She was walking down the street and she walked into a pothole. People ask me for a phone charger all the time. I tell them I have a flip phone and that’s usually the end of the conversation.”
Has bartending changed over the course of your career?
“There’s a lot more women bartending now. There weren’t many when I started. There are also so many different drinks now. We have 24 taps. And we have all these specialty drinks. It can take two minutes to make a drink. It makes the bosses happy, so we do it, and it makes the customers happy.”
What’s the most unusual encounter you’ve had with a customer?
“I meet interesting people every day. That’s what’s nice about Miller’s. I meet people from China and Europe. I work days so I don’t deal with any drunk people. There’s no drama. There’s no trouble. If there is, I keep it to a minimum. The other day, a lady came in and ordered a drink. She gave me a credit card. I ran it through a few times and it was declined. She called her bank and asked them to give me her pin number. I said, ‘Lady, this is a bar, not a bank.’”
What’s the most unusual order you’ve gotten?
“The other day someone asked for Rémy Martin and orange juice. How the heck do you even think of drinking that? People ask about Malört. They ask me how it tastes. I tell them it tastes like ‘ass in a bottle.’ If they still order it, I line up shots and put a bucket on the bar in case they spit it out.”