Sometimes, you meet someone and know right away that person is going to become an important part of your life.
But most of the time, it sort of sneaks up on you.
When I walked into my home bar a couple years ago to find a new dude slinging drinks, I was disconcerted. He wasn’t smiley and warm like the original GM I got to know, who’d make a big fuss when I’d walk in, come around the bar to give me a strong, happy hug, and introduce me to the other folks sitting there. And he wasn’t like the more recent bartender, who was slick and witty, all mixologist mustache and hipster attired.
No, the guy behind the bar wasn’t anything flashy. Normal looking gent in an untucked button-up and jeans, he nodded as I sat down and placed a menu in front of me before taking drink orders from a couple of ladies. When Eli found his way back to me, I ordered my usual, a sazerac, and he nodded in appreciation. But we didn’t really talk much, and it was a quiet night at the bar, so I finished up my drink, paid my tab, and walked home, forgetting his name before I’d even crossed the street.
Z Cuisine, a French-inspired farm-to-table restaurant, and its bistro bar next door (appropriately named A Côté), has been a magical place for me ever since I moved to the neighborhood. I’ll never forget the first time I walked in, finding a good friend working behind the bar. He was pleased to see me, and immediately introduced me to the aforementioned GM, a jovial guy who charmed everyone who came through the door.
When my pal asked me what I wanted to drink, I asked for a “Ketel, up, dirty.”
He nodded, and said, “Well, you’re in my bar now, so I’m going order you what I think you should be drinking.” Which actually sounded pretty awesome to me. The dirty martini had become my cocktail of choice because I really didn’t know any better. It was easy to order, hard to mess up, and looked sophisticated. It was the one drink I knew wouldn’t give me a headache or result in a terrible hangover, no matter how many I consumed the night before. I’d developed a taste for the icy, briney flavor, and had mostly managed to figure out how to drink out of a martini glass without spilling half of it down my sleeve.
But the the cocktail they made me that night — a Silvertree vodka martini with Lillet Blanc — changed my life. By the second or third sip, I realized I’d been ordering a caveman drink all that time. The Z-tini, as they call it there, was subtle and elegant, and tasted like sips of sunshine.
“Right?” My pal Johnny said, nodding his head. The GM just smiled wisely, and went back to working the room.
From there on out, I’d hit up Z at least once or twice each week. Whether it was with friends, or on a date, or just me plopping myself down on a bar stool, I was greeted with warmth by the staff and owners every single time. When my pal Johnny left, I still had the GM to welcome me. And by then, I’d gotten to know the owners, very French Patrick and his wife Lynnde.
Z is where I would go on a Tuesday night when I didn’t have a date, or a meeting, or plans with my pals. On non-parenting weekends, after a boozy Friday night out, and a lazy pj Saturday, I’d get cabin fever and wander over in the evening for a cocktail or two. Sometimes, I’d just hang on my own. Other times, neighbors or other regulars would stop in and I’d surrender to their orbits, joining them as they moved on to the next place in the neighborhood.
Eventually, the bartenders at A Côté and my other favorite local bars weaned me off of vodka and introduced me to the joys of variety — the brown sugar burn of a good bourbon cocktail, or the spicy undertone of something made with rye and bitters. By the time Eli came around, I was a bit more sophisticated in my love of spirits, but I still had a lot to learn.
The thing about Eli is that he’s the consummate professional. Some bartenders are overly familiar, others are inappropriately informal. Too many bartenders are cool and remote, hurriedly serving up your drink and then moving on. But Eli is this awesome combination — he has that classic, old school service deference, combined with a true enthusiasm for the stories behind the wine and spirits he procures and serves. So, as a hospitality professional, he maintains a respectful distance if that’s the vibe he gets from you, but if you engage him in conversation, he’ll regale you with history and details, the provenance of the grapes in your wine, or the secret that makes the double-rye you’re drinking so damn interesting.
He’s crazy smart, too, which means you can hit him up for a conversation about the current state of the legislature, the buzz about the Broncos, or his thoughts on repercussions of the demise of the Ottoman empire.
In other words, my pal Eli is a true renaissance man.
But it took me a few visits to realize this.
It was one of those sloshy Tuesday nights at the bar, when I was the only customer in the little place. I was pondering whether to have a third sazerac or just go on home and get ready for bed, when Eli brought out the night’s dessert special and poured me a taste of his favorite brandy to go with it.
“I hope you don’t mind,” he said. “It’s one of the best desserts we’ve done, and it goes really well with this Germain Robin.”
Brian, another bartender, had just started doing some side work next to me at the bar, wrapping napkins around silverware or something, and he nodded. “It’s really good,” he said. “And Eli loves Germain Robin.”
Then he rolled his eyes good-naturedly when Eli began to tell me the story behind the distillery, because he’d heard it a dozen times already. But it was the first time I’d heard the recently promoted GM to speak more than a few words, and his way of talking about it made me want to hop a plane for California and visit the place, myself.
The more time I spent in my comfy spot at the bar, the more stories Eli told me and the more spirits and wines he encouraged me to try. I don’t believe Eli thought of it this way, but for me I was getting a true education in the magic of the good stuff. And what I learned from hanging with him served me well at other drinking establishments around the world — I knew what to order, I knew what was being served to me, and I knew how to talk about it.
“Eric, I’m going to make you the best sazerac you’ve never had,” Chad told me. And then he proceeded to do it up with half-rye and half-petit champagne cognac (rather than all rye), the usual bitters and the absinthe rinse. The result was a sparkle-filled version of the cocktail I’d come to love.
Brian ended up moving on, as can happen in a city full of opportunities for talented staff, but Eli stuck around, his managerial skills and deep knowledge quietly but steadily making Z better and better. The depth and quality of the wine program now holds up against anything you’d find on either coast. The idiosyncratic spirits on the shelf would make even the most indie of the craft distillery lover smile with appreciation.
And what I started to realize was that, rather than heading over to A Côté because I didn’t have anything better to do, I was hanging out there in order to get some time with Eli. I’d take my perch at the bar, order that first cocktail (or turn the reigns over to my friend to come up with something good), and then sit contentedly while he worked, talking to him during the ebbs of service and enjoying conversations with my neighbors or the owners during the busy times.
We’ve had a couple of awesome food and beverage adventures together in San Francisco, too, when we both happened to be in the city at the same time. The first one ended up being so debaucherous that we needed Eli’s moms to rescue us. The second was one of the best New Year’s Eves I’ve ever experienced, even if I didn’t have anyone to kiss at midnight.
Eli has always done a stellar job of making me look like a hero when I bring guests into the bar, whether it’s a date, a business contact, a best friend, or a parent. And he and the owners treat Simone with kindness and respect, when she stops in with me, treating her to a special mocktail or the perfect crème brûlée.
The day my father died, Eli had the kitchen put together a meal for Simone and me. When I walked over to pick it up, he hustled out from behind the bar to hug me tight before pouring us each a dram of Germain Robin XO, toasting my father with me, and sending me on my way with enough food to last us through the rest of the weekend.
I’ve also spent my last three birthdays eating dinner at Z Cuisine, and each time Eli has orchestrated a truly spectacular meal, custom-curated to my tastes, but with extra details to make sure Simone is well-cared-for, as well. (Simone adores Eli.)
Now you understand why I call the place my “home” bar.
I don’t know exactly when Eli became one of my best friends — someone I could count on, someone I enjoyed hanging with when he wasn’t busy at the restaurant, someone who felt comfortable coming to me to ponder aloud about his career and dating and whatever else was on his mind. But, damn, I am so lucky that’s how it worked out.
Sadly, for those of us who’ve become accustomed to seeing the big guy running the show at Z Cuisine (and that includes Patrick and Lynnde, the stalwart and supportive owners, whom I count as friends as well), Eli is moving on at the end of December. His future brother-in-law has asked him to run the front-of-the-house at his first restaurant, and it’s an opportunity Eli just can’t pass up.
I’m heartbroken, of course, but also really happy for him. In a city that prizes its world champion bartenders, many of whom I’m honored to call friends, Eli’s gentle, quiet, self-effacing demeanor means that he’s gone largely unrecognized for his contributions in Denver. SF is a much larger pond, but the opportunity to shine and do something substantial is much greater, too.
And I know he’s going to kill it there.
So, if you’re one of those lucky enough to have enjoyed the hospitality and expertise that Eli has brought to Z Cuisine over the years, you have about six weeks left to stop in and enjoy his company. And if you’re a Denverite who has never experienced the magic that is Z Cuisine and A Côté, I highly recommend you get your ass over there in the near future.
People come and go in the restaurant industry, and it’s rarely smart to get overly attached to someone serving you at the bar, because you never know how long they’ll stick around. The last two years have been a damn good run. I’ll still spend a bunch of time and money at Z after Eli leaves, because it’s a local gem and we’re lucky to have it in our neighborhood.
But I’ll miss my pal, his manner, and his stories.
*Note…if you order a SazerEric from Chad at Williams & Graham, where he now tends bar, you will be mildly scolded and told that the proper name is Chaderak.