“I always tell people I am sort of like a fashion designer,” says Ryan Wainwright, bar director at LA’s Faith & Flower and The Ponte. By that, the California native means that he’s planning menus for the seasons ahead, similar to the way designers map out their seasonal collections: “Even as I’m sweating [during summer] in LA, my head is going to what are going to be the fall and winter flavors, and what’s that going to look like.” It’s an apt comparison for a former menswear designer-turned-bartender.
Originally from Northridge, CA, Wainwright first got into the bartending business while at an event in Big Sur. He was there to help a friend DJ, but when he learned the bartender was a no-show, he stepped in. “I made $300 and had a blast DJing for the psychedelic metal show,” he recalls. “I said, I can make money and be at places I already want to be at, with people I like.” Wainwright had tried his hand at a number of professions: DJ; baker; menswear designer (“It was cool—it was kind of a phase”). But bartending is the one that stuck.
He describes his drink-making style as “very simplistic and classics-oriented.” That austere ethos likely started during his student years. “My degree is in photography, with an emphasis on the Bauhaus, a minimalistic school of design out of Germany.” A phrase from that school will sound familiar: less is more. Wainwright says that tenet drives his approach to cocktails: “I try to use the least amount of ingredients to create maximum flavor.”
Ryan Wainwright Makes the Petit Fleur Cocktail
Often, this translates to subtle tweaks on the classics, such as a Piña Colada variation incorporating sherry and amaro at The Ponte, a restaurant collaboration with celebrity chef Scott Conant, where the drinks showcase Italy’s amari and aperitivi. “I use basic formats we know and love, with little Italian twists to them,” Wainwright notes. Meanwhile, at Faith & Flower, working alongside bar manager Adam George, dark spirits like whiskey are emphasized, resulting in drinks like the bar’s Zombie riff made with Japanese whisky and Chartreuse.
“People say I’m creative, but I don’t think I am,” says Wainwright. “I just try to understand flavors and try to map them in my head.”
So, what does Wainwright do when he’s not behind the bar? Here, he takes our Lookbook Questionnaire to share his weirdest hobby, the best meal he’s ever had, the one thing he wishes would disappear from drink menus and expert tips on how to drink like the French, plus the recipe for his aperitif cocktail, the Petit Fleur.
What do want to be when you grow up?
What does “drinking French fluently” mean to you?
It is a way of understanding the progression of drinking. It is embracing an aperitif and digestif lifestyle. It’s a flow of drinking and understanding the social and time cues all around us.
Tell us about your drink and why it’s a good aperitif. My drink is inspired by the first time I met Madame St-Germain herself, Camille Ralph Vidal. I made her a spritz with St-Germain and Noilly Prat vermouth. She loved it, and we’ve been friends since. Let’s say [this] is an homage to unsuspecting friends. St-Germain is the backbone of the drink, but around its bright and floral aromatics I twist a little citrus, a little vermouth and a little bitter.
How do you define the aperitif? Aperitif is more than a drink to stimulate the appetite. It is taking the time to sit and drink with friends, tie into your community and enjoy a smile. It is not just a style of drink; it is a way of life.
How do you approach creating an aperitif-style drink? Being in California and being a California boy, I put my own touches on the idea. I always infuse a bit of what it means to me to be sitting under the shade of a tree as the heat blasts down from our endless sun. Bright, refreshing, slightly bitter—these are the hallmarks of a perfect aperitif.
What do you most like about French culture?
Best thing you ever drank:
Anything shared among friends.
Worst thing you ever drank:
Weirdest cocktail experiment you’ve ever attempted:
I tried 15 Cosmos with different cranberry sources, different vodkas and different variations on that format. It was a strange night.
What’s your favorite thing to do when you’re not eating, drinking or drink-making?
Listen to music.
If you had to listen to one album on loop for the rest of your life, what would it be?
Rolling Stones, Exile on Main St.
What’s the weirdest hobby you currently have or have had?
When I was in elementary school, I did ballet.
What do you know now that you wish you’d known five years ago?
That it’s OK to not know.
Weirdest drink request you’ve ever gotten:
Pappy and Coke.
Your favorite bar, and why:
Tony’s Saloon in LA. I have been going there eight years, and it always feels like home. It’s a no-bells-and-whistles bar with all the bells and whistles.
Best meal you’ve ever had:
My mom’s taco pie. Sounds real gross, [but] it’s amazing.
What’s your go-to drink in a cocktail bar?
I don’t have one. I’m a moody drinker. But I do like to have a nice chinato or aperitif to start.
Wine bar? I will typically order a white wine that is “shockingly acidic.” I always use those words and love to see what they come up with.
Rum and Coke. I know it isn’t glamorous, but it’s just where I’ve been at as of late.
The one thing you wish would disappear from drink lists forever:
The name of the bartender.
The last text message you sent:
“Changes every minute.”