Duke's Spirited Cocktails, Healdsburg, California
“We’re all about equal opportunity drinking here,” Tara assured a woman after checking her I.D.
But Tara didn’t check my I.D. or Mindy’s. I assure you, I look young enough, but Tara’s known me for years. Actually I’ve known most of the staff at Duke’s Spirited Cocktails for years. Most of them used to work at Spoonbar in Healdsburg, the restaurant that shared space with h2hotel, where I worked. Back then, when I was beginning my night audit shift at 11:00 pm, bartenders Tara, Cappy, Steven, Laura,and barback Jose were finishing up their nights.
Duke’s opened on June 26th last year, while Mindy and I were still on our every state tour (I believe that was the day we flew into Fairbanks, Alaska). In fact, Cappy was one of the first people I told about our plan to visit a church and a bar in every state. He suggested “American Institutions” as a name for the project (which might still work its way into a book title).
During my final year at h2hotel, I watched the above mentioned employees of the Spoonbar depart. Cappy had been the first to go, when he left to open an establishment in Southern California. Next Tara (who had taken Cappy’s role as Spoonbar manager), then Laura left, then Steven and Jose. And then, at the end of 2015, I left as well.
It was always fun working with these folks, because they all enjoyed each other -- has carried on into Duke’s.
Laura told me that if we came in on Thursday afternoon, we could see almost all the old Spoonbar staff. And we did. Most greeted me with a hug. They asked how my year went, and I said that -- unlike many -- we’d had a great 2016. Tara agreed that for them it had been a great year as well, because they been able to open their own place. Laura said, “We had our dreams come true in 2016.”
Tara, Laura, and Steven got backing to open a bar on the Plaza in Healdsburg, which, over the last decade and a half, has become a mecca for food and drink. They asked Cappy to come for their “solid opening date” of May 5th, but construction issues postponed the opening for a month and a half. But when the bar opened, in the midst of tourist season, they opened big. Not only were they busy, but they were greeted with critical acclaim in the media, particularly for their creative mix of fresh herbs and spirits.
Before we even sat down, Tara brought Mindy and me a glass of Fool’s Paradise, which she told us is one of their signature drinks. Mindy especially liked the fresh bay leaf garnish and was surprised to like a drink with passion fruit puree and tequila.
Watching the staff working together behind the bar is a pleasure. They enjoy each other, joke with each other, work efficiently with each other. Tara said, “This was meant to be. We are all still madly in love with each other.”
Laura said, “The gang’s all back together and we’re having so much fun.” Tara and Laura with prefaced many statements with “Not to be corny” and then go on to express their joy at working together.
I asked Tara and Laura about the struggles and trials of opening a new place. Laura told me about the struggles of working with one contractor for months before having to switch to another, which greatly delayed their opening.
Tara said, “One of the reasons we opened this bar was to give all our industry friends a place to drink.” They dreamed of making a neighborhood bar for their friends in hospitality and winemaking (and winegrowing), businesses that many people in the area are involved with. That dream has come through, with many old friends coming in throughout the week.
Things change a bit on Friday and Saturday nights “when we become a nightclub,” Tara said. It’s a different crowd, and they’ve had to cut people off and even break up a fight or two. “We had a guest throw a grapefruit at Steven!” she added, but said they appreciate that those nights help keep the doors open the rest of the week to do the work that they love.
Tara said they want to be the kind of place where a field worker can come in with dirty boots and still feel welcome. Tara said the town has gotten a bit snooty at times, but “we try not to keep our pinkies in the air or up our nose when we drink.”
But this isn’t a simple beer joint, though they do have a wide variety of craft beers on tap. The staff takes pride in making sophisticated drinks and selling quality brands. While we were there, Laura was working on a variation of The Sound of Music, a seasonal drink that they wanted to make available more of the year. After tasting it, Tara said, “I’m so excited right now. Are you excited?”
But eventually we needed to do what we have been doing for over a year now, ask our two bar questions: “What makes for a good bar?” and “Whether you go or not, what would make for a good church?”
It was fun to ask Cappy our questions, since he’d been in on our project since its inception. Cappy said, “It’s a hard question. There are so many types of bars: neighborhood bars, hotel bars, cocktail bars… I guess a good bar makes the clientele feel it’s a good place to meet. To ease up a little. Meeting up, spending time with people, relaxing.”
As for what makes for a good church? “A church should be inviting, people should be made welcome.”
Tara, coming over after helping another guest and thinking we were talking about bars, added “People should feel at home.” When Cappy said we were talking about churches, Tara replied, “Oh, if I went in a church, I’d light on fire,” but we agreed that feeling at home was good for a bar or a church.
Cappy said he also appreciated the sense of history many churches provided. Many neighborhoods have areas where houses have come and gone, he said, but often the church has stayed around. Cappy likes that.
A couple came in and sat at the bar next to Mindy. We realized they were our former neighbors, Ben and Brianna. We had fun catching up on their kids and what they’ve done with their house, but then I had to ask about bars and churches.
At a bar, Brianna said the key is talented bartenders. “They either know what they’re doing or not.”
Ben concurred, “That’s exactly what I was going to say.”
As for a church, Brianna said she want to be somewhere with people who are real.
Ben added “Whether you know the Gospel or not, people you can have a conversation with.”
Since Tara didn’t answer our bar question, Cappy took me to the office, so I could ask her what made a bar good. “A great bar comes with the bartenders.You can have good bartenders but it’s the bartenders that bring you back. Will they make you what you want? They should offer a variety of spirits and make it special, memorable.”
Laura was in the office as well, and she seconded what Tara said. She also added that as a new owner, “I am grateful and appreciative of every person who comes in.” She pointed out that it’s important for a bar, or really any business, to make the “experience of the customer take precedence over everything else.” As for what makes a good church, she said many of the same things apply: they should make people welcome, feel warm, make people happy. She said she’s appreciated the times she visited her husband’s parents’ church where she was welcomed with handshakes and hugs.
In 2015, Steven was a finalist in a cocktail making contest that earned him a trip to Marrakesh. (When a computer ate the essay he’d written for the competition, I was happy I was able to help him make the deadline). I caught Steven just before he headed out the door. “Good booze, fun bartenders, good atmosphere, welcoming, engaging and educational.” Educational isn’t a word I’ve heard very often in reference to bars, but Steven loves to learn and believes that Duke’s does provide people to learn about drinks. For a church, Steven would look for many of the same things: providing an atmosphere where people can learn in fun and engaging ways.
We spent last year meeting mostly strangers in bars. It was great fun to meet old friends in a new place. It felt more like being welcomed into their new home -- their new home that serves award winning beverages.