When The Campbell Apartment, the hidden speakeasy inside Grand Central Terminal, reopened in spring 2017 after a change in management, there weren’t many things that connected the old regime with the new. Even the name changed, to the simpler The Campbell. But there were two constants. One was the space itself, a grand, high-ceilinged, dark-wood nest that was once the office of American financier and railroad executive John W. Campbell. The other was bartender Paris DuRante.
If DuRante has served you once, it’s unlikely you’ll forget him. He keeps his head nearly shaven and in a city full of elaborately bearded bartenders, he may take the prize for most distinctive facial hair. His goatee and mustache, both neatly trimmed, spread horizontally across his face. The effect is vaguely Mephistophelean, which probably aids him in establishing authority over what can be a boisterous room.
He is the correct man for this bar—a calm eye of a nightly hurricane of commuters that hits Campbell every night, gracefully handing out menus and stirring cocktails in crystal mixing glasses. And he moves with confidence behind the stained-glass-frames bar. He ought to—it’s the only bar he’s known for nearly two decades.
How did you find your way behind the bar?
“Years ago, as a young Air Force officer, I was stationed out of Boston. I’d go to this little Cambridge college bar called the Boathouse. I went every week. After about a year, the bartender who worked there, who happened to be in the Army Reserve, said, ‘You know, if you started working here, you wouldn’t have to pay for your drinks.’ That sounded like a good idea to me, so I started working as a doorman-in-training, a bartender-in-training. I got into the business for free drinks and college girls, I guess.”
What do you think makes for a good bartender?
“I always try to be the bartender I want to have. Everyone who walks into a bar wants something different. Some days you want to talk, sometimes you don’t. You have to get a feel for what people want. The most important thing is not to be fake. You have to be who you are. Fake always feels fake.”
What advice would you give a bartender just entering the field?
“The most important thing is, whatever you’re making it with, make the best drink you can. People always remember a bad drink more than what the bar looks like or how nice you are. If the drink sucks, they hate it, you and the place. The other thing I would say is, put the cell phone away. As a customer, the most annoying thing for me is a bartender fooling around with their phone. They look like they don’t care. And if I’m working while they’re doing it, it looks like I don’t care, either.”
Has bartending changed over the course of your career?
“I would say the biggest change is the number of brown liquors. It’s amazing how many more Bourbons and Scotches there are. Thirty years ago, if you wanted a rye in a bar, you’d be lucky to get a dusty old bottle of Old Overholt in the corner. The expansion of brown liquor and tequila was a big change. You had two tequilas at your bar back then. One of them was Cuervo, one of them was something else.”
What’s an unusual encounter you’ve had with a customer?
“This goes way back. Years ago, I had this customer who was a regular. He came in late at night, two or three times a week. And then 9/11 happened. He worked in finance. And he stopped coming. I’m just assuming this guy was dead. Then a few months later he just walks in. I said, ‘Man, where have you been. I was sure you were dead.’ He just says, ‘Obviously not.’ It was the strangest interaction. He acted as if the previous months had just not happened.”
What’s the most unusual order you’ve gotten?
“As a bartender, you think about what a person is going to order before they order it. It’s a game you play with yourself to prove you’re so smart. An older woman, distinguished looking, comes in. I’m thinking pinot grigio or Champagne. And she orders Chivas and milk. That drink has certain connotations. A hard drinker gets ulcers and starts drinking whiskey with milk on the side. It’s kind of like the Sasquatch of drinks. In 30 years of bartending, it’s the only time I’ve made it.”