Most people go to Olive Garden for the enormous servings of pasta and unlimited breadsticks. Some of the wiser ones who frequent the chain’s Times Square branch—wedged into a narrow stretch of West 47th Street between Broadway and Seventh Avenue—go for Chanta Hunter.
Hunter has presided over the eight seats of the second-floor bar for 15 years; that is, most of the franchise’s life. There, the Brooklyn native, her hair always decorated with a oversized bow or flower, calmly dispenses Bloody Marys, Mojitos and Margaritas the size of upturned Frisbees to the often frenetic Times Square crowd. (Asked if the bows are part of the required corporate uniform, she says, “That’s one-hundred-percent me.”)
The hectic location notwithstanding, Hunter commands a civil bar. She’s quick with a napkin, a menu or a suggestion, all spoken with a friendly and unflappable politeness that is returned by her customers, who include tourists and local workers on their lunch break. Nearly everyone at the bar dines as well, an easy bit of multi-tasking for Hunter as the kitchen stands just steps from her station. She also handles the service bar and the espresso machine, should you need a post-liquid-lunch jolt. And those breadsticks? She can make that happen, too.
How did you find your way behind the bar?
“I went to answer an ad for a cocktail waitress, and at the time I was fresh out of high school. I didn’t have any experience. When I got to the bar, it was an exotic dancer place. It was in Queens. One night a bartender cut her hand and they said, ‘Anyone here know how to make drinks?’ and I said, ‘Yeah, sure!’”
What do you think makes for a good bartender?
“A good bartender is observant. Being in Times Square, I get a wide variety of guests. I get visitors from other countries, I get people who are on lunch, I get people who are families and just love the traditional Olive Garden style. I have to be aware of what that particular guest needs. So one person could be on lunch and not want to talk at all. One family could be in Times Square for the first time and they want to know all the happenings. Other people can just be chilling and want to talk to you the whole time. It all just depends.”
What advice would you give a bartender just entering the field?
“Learn the oldies but goodies, but keep abreast of all the new cocktails. The cocktail life is changing all the time. You need to have those recipes stored. Visit a happening cocktail place right now and see what’s exciting to people right now.”
What’s an unusual drink order you’ve gotten?
“I had a girl ask me for a cocktail that was completely white because she just had her teeth whitened and she didn’t want to stain her teeth. She said that she liked desserts, so I made her a vanilla Martini with some almond milk in it.”
You’re in Times Square. Have you served many actors?
“Not from Broadway. But I was at the bar when Jimmy Fallon and Post Malone were there. They were having dinner. Apparently, Olive Garden is one of Post Malone’s favorite restaurants. I did make their drinks, whether they know me or not.”
What’s an unusual encounter you’ve had at a bar?
“I had a woman come in, and she said her father just had surgery and he couldn’t eat, but he insisted on having Olive Garden. So she asked what I could do. I asked her what his favorites were, and she said he really loves the soup and salad. So I actually blended a soup until all the ingredients were liquid and gave it to her in a cup for her father to drink.”