On any given weeknight, Paddy Ford is easily the most magnetic figure in Wollensky’s Grill, the narrow bar and eatery on East 49th Street, just around the corner from the Manhattan steakhouse, Smith & Wollensky. With a full head of salt-and-pepper hair that belies his 63 years, prominent glassware, a toothy grin and a salty remark, his is the sun around which all his patrons orbit. And he makes sure to give every one of his satellites their moment in the sun, spinning out stories, jabs and jokes. (Customer question: “Where is your bathroom?” Ford: “Next to my bedroom.”)
Watching him work is to see him give each customer a Paddy Ford lean-in, putting his face a few inches from yours, granting you full audience of his low, rumbling voice, which would sound gravelly to gravel. He’s good with names, too. “Simonson,” he said, 10 minutes after meeting me. “I knew some Simonsons up in Buffalo. Owned a bar. Good people.” If you don’t know him, chances are you don’t frequent Wollensky’s; he’s been there more than three decades. And if he doesn’t know you, you’re probably a newbie. Ford estimates that, on an average night, he can identify 90 percent of the people in his bar.
How did you find your way behind the bar?
Mulligan’s Brick Bar. First bar in Buffalo without a jukebox; two turntables, Bose speakers. The place opened in January, 1970. I’m in high school. When I turned 18, they made me a bartender, like on my birthday. I made three times what my old man made—overnight. Everything was cash. There weren’t any charges, tabs or credit cards. It was sex, drugs, rock and roll and fighting. It was downtown Buffalo. You could not get in. I used to blow Zippo lighter fluid out of my mouth every night. The music would be blaring. Beautiful. The place rocked.
What do you think makes for a good bartender?
It’s about looking someone in the eye. It’s about one word. In every article you read about me, there’s one word: acknowledgment. If you don’t know the customer’s name and what he drinks, what the fuck are you doing? Are you being all you can be, or did you come here to watch cartoons on TV and the baseball game? What’s the guy’s name who’s in front of you?
What advice would you give a bartender just entering the field?
Get the job, then get the apartment. People move to the West Side and then get a job at Wollensky’s. What are you doing? Do you hate yourself? Move next door to the joint! Then, you know everyone in the neighborhood. I knew that when I was 18. Dry cleaner, garage, doorman, the guys in the deli—I know everybody in the fucking neighborhood. If I don’t know you, you came from someplace else.
How has bartending changed over the course of your career?
Every 10 years, everybody’s a mixologist for about two years. Then they find out it’s all a bunch of bullshit and they become a bartender again.
What’s something you’ve learned behind the bar?
If you don’t really have a passion for doing this, why waste your time? If you didn’t love it, it must be a terrible job. I love it. I couldn’t believe they paid guys to do this. I still can’t. You pay guys? All they do is have a good time.