Instinctively, I like bartenders. That’s probably not the healthiest admission, yet there it is. So, Matthew Bettinger really doesn’t have that much to prove when I saddle up one of the leather bar stools at C. Grace on Glenwood Avenue. Scanning the shadowy underground room, I realize I might have stumbled into a cliché. It honestly is a dark and stormy night; I have the soggy shoes to prove it. Live jazz emanates from the small stage, and I swear to God there is a shapely blonde in a little black dress off to my right. I have no doubt a haze of smoke would waft lazily above the bar, if not for N.C. General Statute 130A-497. This is going to be good.
Bettinger is a veteran of the local bar and restaurant scene. He’s been at C. Grace for four years. He gets passionate when talking about booze. I respect that. “Well-made drinks can be a form of escapism.” His hands wheel in the air, accenting key points. “Whether you had the best day or a shit day, this drink will be your best experience for those 45 minutes.”
The drinks Bettinger pours are both fancy and schmancy. When accused of being a mixologist, he waves it off. “Bartender,” he corrects. “Everyone wants to party with the bartender. Nobody wants to party with the mixologist. Bartending is easy. It’s basic formulas and you get better through repetition. That’s the trick, knowing palettes and products and interpreting what the customer wants.”
Matthew starts interpreting. “What do you want?”
“I have no idea.”
He presses. “What do you feel like?”
“My shoes are soggy,” I answer.
“What flavors to you like, then?”
“I like mint. Something sort of light, I guess. I don’t know.” I’m panicking. I might be the worst drink orderer ever.
The experience at G. Grace and a handful of similar speakeasy-type establishments is a bit of a throwback – a resurgence of the mid-twentieth century American cocktail culture and all the sleek snazziness that implies. That renaissance of the hooch – with its attention to the careful crafting of cocktails – originated as a backlash to the 80s era club scene with its high volume, assembly line drinks served by young Tom Cruise.
The shaker in Matthew Bettinger’s right hand is a silver blur. “Drinks should be balanced and unique, with an attention to detail,” he tells me. An amber liquid funnels into the small cocktail glass before me. “This one is called the Corpse Reviver Number 2. The Corpse Revivers are a family of cocktails. They were originally brunch drinks. Hangover cures, really.”
The Corpse Reviver is light and a little thick. It’s a gin drink with a good dose of lemon. It starts sweet and finishes a little sour. If I was going to choose a hair-of-the-dog method for hangover recovery, this drink seems good as any. It’s as if Matthew can see my soul.
I pass the time, savoring my drink, occasionally chatting up Matthew and getting ignored by the blonde in the black dress. Emptying my glass, I toss some bills on the bar and leave to the wail of a saxophone. On the street, I pull my collar up against the drizzle and wind. I check my watch; in there just about 45 minutes.