A few years ago at Circus Flora, we saw the Flying Wallendas perform their high-wire act. Astonishing from start to finish, it culminated when two members of the troupe walked out onto the wire about six feet apart and placed a pole across their shoulders. A young boy climbed up one man's back and onto the pole, the man handed him a wooden chair and the boy balanced it precariously on the pole. He gingerly sat down on it and crossed his legs. We wanted to watch, we wanted to look away. He uncrossed his legs, hoisted himself onto the seat of the chair and slowly stood up. Looking up at the teetering boy high above, we were thrilled, and at the same time a little queasy.
The conversation we are having in an intimate little booth in the back corner of the bar at Herbie's Vintage 72 feels a lot like that. Fortunately, we are able to get a cocktail in front of us before it takes hold in earnest. When our server, Tony, goes to remove the ashtray from our table, we stop him, asking, "Do you sell cigarettes here?" Though we're no longer a regular smoker, the vice is awakened in times of high drama and writhes up from our subconscious. "No," he replies, "but I can get you some for six and a quarter." We ask no further questions and plunk down our money.
The drink is a Sazerac.
We had asked Tony, who was stepping behind the bar, to just make us something, whatever he likes to make. We didn't feel like thinking about it. A by-the-book Sazerac is built like this: Muddle a sugar cube with Peychaud's bitters, top off with rye whiskey, stir. Rinse an old-fashioned glass with absinthe, add the whiskey mixture and garnish with a lemon twist. Herbie's version, an off-menu seasonal offering, evokes fall by replacing the sugar cube with maple syrup. It is served with a wide swatch of orange peel floating like a fallen leaf in the brown liquid.
With only four ingredients, it may seem simple on the surface, but there's a lot going on in this drink. The myriad herbal flavors of the absinthe and Peychaud's mingle with the rye; maple adds an earthy sweetness, and orange oil floats on the surface and flirts with our nose. The Sazerac is a great cocktail, one that has been around since the 1800s, because it is more than the sum of its parts. When we taste it, it's hard to pull apart all the different elements. It just tastes...complex. It suits the situation we are in, which seems equally complicated.
The Sazerac matches the atmosphere in Herbie's -- the high ceilings, the black damask wallpaper, the low, low lights and flickering candles. It's easy to imagine we're in antebellum New Orleans, where the drink originated. The service here, too, is from another era. The requested pack of cigarettes appears, each time one is snuffed out the ashtray is replaced by a clean one, no glass is allowed to go dry and when our companion orders dinner, the table is draped in a white linen.
Having worked in the restaurant industry, we can be a bit of an uncomfortable diner. Empathy for the waitstaff prevents us from embracing the role of patron completely. We are always a little bit on the other side. Quick to scoot our chair if someone has to reach awkwardly to set a plate down, careful to make eye contact and smile each time our water is refilled, we strive to be an unimposing and gracious customer.
Tonight, engrossed in our tête-à-tête, plied by the solicitous service, we submit to being waited on. We submit (over and over again) to the craving for a cigarette. We submitted when we let Tony choose our drink. In ceding control, we implicitly asked him to take care of us. It took him out of his smooth, professional routine for a minute, made him look at us, ask a few questions about what we like, think about how to please us. Great service is also more than the sum of its parts -- more than promptness, politeness and competence. An experienced server or bartender can read people and provide them with what they need without them having to ask for it.
After a few drinks and a long walk on a tightrope, we realize that sometimes you gain if you let go. On the car radio on the way home, Billie Holiday echoes this sentiment with the despairing yet resigned "Comes Love":
Comes the measles, you can quarantine the room Comes a mousey, you can chase it with a broom Comes love, nothing can be done
Herbie's Vintage 72 405 North Euclid Avenue; 314-769-9595