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The Last Great Bartender

To channel Andy Rooney, did you ever notice how local publications are obsessed with covering "The Best (fill in the blank: pizza, pedicure, pediatrician, Pad Thai, pet-walker, etc.) in Chicago!"
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To channel Andy Rooney, did you ever notice how local publications are obsessed with "The Best (fill in the blank: pizza, pedicure, pediatrician, Pad Thai, pet-walker, etc.) in Chicago!"

How could you not, since another "Best" issue appears every month? In a city populated by millions of people with millions of unique and compelling stories, is there really so little to write about that the respective editors of those rags throw their retro Chuck Taylors up on the desk and stroke their ironic porn 'staches while mumbling, "I wonder who sells the best messenger bag in Chicago? Let's make a list!" As of this writing, we're at the precipice of "The Best of Best Lists in Chicago!"

Last fall, one publication ran "The Best Bartenders in Chicago." Its roster of candidates was like the cast of a lousy sitcom in which every stereotype is perpetuated, including the Goth girl, the hipster-dandy, and the crusty S.O.B. Maybe it's me, but I don't trust the pour of a person with the emotional make-up that would allow her to tattoo her own face, or a guy dressed like an 1860's riverboat gambler in a brocade vest and arm bands who refers to himself as a "mixologist."

Worse of all is the sour old bastard grousing behind the bar where he's worked since the Paleozoic, treating patrons like shit and getting away with it because he's an "institution." As a point of fact, he's not an institution - he's the same unpleasant asshole at age seventy-five that he was at age thirty-five.

When I walk into a bar, the last thing I need is a pierced lip, sugary prose about artisanal gin, or an old fart with nose hair. What I want is succor, which means bourbon poured generously over ice in a not small glass. It means conversation infused with humor, substance, and asides. It means that drinking is one thing and talking is another, but the ideal establishment is one where the two blend seamlessly.

In a distilled sense, it means John Rogozinski.

He delivers all of the above in a voice that's one part exclamation and two parts stand-up comedian, shaken with a jigger of machine-gun laughter, making drinks and rapid-fire chatter in a joint the size of a millionaire's walk-in closet. It's called Marty's in Andersonville, on Balmoral Avenue just west of Clark Street.

The room is dark and clubby, close quarters but comfortable, open from 5 p.m. to 2 a.m. every day of the year, and for the record, it's a cocktail lounge for adults. Remember those? I mean adults, not cocktail lounges - those full grown human beings who frequent an establishment not for hot wings or hot chicks or televised sports packages or trivia nights, but for good booze mixed well by people who treat the creation of a worthy drink like the important work that it is, and who can converse intelligently while doing it. When you walk through the door at Marty's, three things are immediately apparent. First, a warm greeting is proffered by a cadre of bartenders (also adults, as proven by their collective demeanor, like friendly surgeons handling cocktail shakers instead of scalpels) who, second, wear the 'Men in Black' attire of professionals while, third, the big grinning guy coming at you with look on his face that's half pleasure at seeing you and all business about getting you seated and sipping, is John. When the conversation begins - and it will begin - he may lean in like LBJ strong-arming Abe Fortas or he may cross his arms and listen soberly, recalling a young Raymond Burr in court. And then he'll offer an opinion or anecdote and build on it, talking and dealing napkins, popping bottles and pouring all the while until time has passed and you're late for wherever you're supposed to be, and you don't care.

Coming from a generation of bar people, I know that a key to success in running a joint is ubiquity - simply stated, the owner has to be there, and if John is not at Marty's then it's only because it's 2:02 a.m. and he just locked up, or because it's 5:01 p.m. and he's on his way. He's there so much that one wonders if he's a twin, and he is, but he doesn't look much like his twin so it really is him there, all the time. The other key to success is more abstract, and that's the ability to tell a story. Anyone with good aim can tip a bottle and any knucklehead with two hands can crack ice, but it's the rare bird that can do those things while spinning a yarn engaging enough for the person sitting at the bar to order a second drink. John Rogozinski can talk and pour, chat and mix, and converse and shake, and after a while it all becomes one refreshing thing.

If you happen to stop by Marty's, ask the big man about the time he and his wife spent a long holiday weekend in Mississippi. And then order your favorite drink and sit back and listen, and before you know it you'll be ordering another.