A journalist walks into a bar. It’s a stately room — leather furniture, framed maritime paintings, and shiny, dark wood paneled walls. She plunks herself down at the mahogany bar.
“Good evening. What would you like?” says the bartender with conviviality, but also with a determined seriousness. Ella Fitzgerald is crooning in the background. Baseball is playing silently on the television.
She orders a manhattan.
“I love it when women order whiskey drinks,” he declares with a smile. “How would you like that? Bourbon? Rye? Canadian?” This kind of transaction-cum-cheerful remark is the modus operandi for Brian Billotte, bartender at the Boston Harbor Hotel’s Rowes Wharf Bar. And it’s been his M.O. since the day the hotel opened, in 1987. White Snake and Whitney Houston were dominating the Billboard charts, gas cost 89 cents per gallon, and the Rose Kennedy Greenway wasn’t even a glint in any construction company’s eye.
A lot has changed since then. Billotte’s daily routine hasn’t.
‘Every day I come in, I look around the room. Everything stays the same, and it needs to be what it is: a time-honored, old saloon.’
“Every day I come in, I look around the room. Everything stays the same, and it needs to be what it is: a time-honored, old saloon,” said Billotte, 55, who has a slightly grown-in crew cut, a linebacker’s shoulders and the kind of gentle, unassuming manner that evokes a barkeep in a no-frills, small town tavern, a character in a Frank Capra film. “It’s withstood the last decade of change — the vodka invasion, people drinking double-infused rosemary-sage vodka martinis with a dash of basil oil. There’s a place for the classic cocktails.”
Anyone who’s been behind the stick for a quarter century can, of course, easily rattle off a checklist of the many ways in which what he pours today bears little likeness to what he served in the late 1980s. Wine drinkers fell into one of two camps: burgundy or Chablis. A bar’s craft beer selection was limited to what Sam Adams’s founder Jim Koch was peddling door-to-door. Espresso was a breakfast beverage, not a martini variety. And a cellphone? A thermos-size military instrument.
But from his perch over the past 25 years, Billotte has made far more interesting observations. The Bruins are “nice kids,” he says, and they drink ginger ale — or at least they did when he served the players during the first round of the playoffs leading up to the 2011 Stanley Cup victory. Just one exception: a backup goalie. He drank beer because he knew he wouldn’t be working much the next day, Billotte divulges. American governors and senators opt for any drink over beer, a tidbit he picked up while serving the many lawmakers staying at the hotel during the 2004 Democratic National Convention. And 9/11 was a testament to the power of comfort in anonymous crowds. (He opened early, the bar was packed, nobody spoke for hours, he recalls.)
Despite being the object of several dozen people’s attention for 12 hours at a time on a nightly basis, Billotte does not strike you as the type to relish the spotlight. He’s efficient without being frantic. He’s chatty but without being intrusive. He’s vigilant but subtle.
“I spent 25 years hiding out. I like to stay under the radar,” he says, an attitude that’s hardly typical of today’s mixologists. Sure, he’ll tell you about the tears he’s seen (“always”), the unprintable activity that’s taken place on the leather couches (“it’s not pretty”). He’ll tell you about boisterous post-wedding-reception throngs. But none of those things really faze him like one thing does.
“Since it’s a college town, people bring their kids in when they come to Boston to check out BU, BC. Then the kids come in later with their kids. That’s disturbing,” he says, remarking on how quickly the years whiz by.
When Billotte was a sports fanatic kid in South Boston, the plot of land along the water where the Boston Harbor Hotel stands was a dirt parking lot in the shadow of the overpass. His hooligan schoolmates would rip up the parking meters that stood on crooked poles and smash them for the coins. The elevated highway made Atlantic Avenue a grim industrial landscape.
He’d tended bar in Quincy, then got a job as a manager at the Embassy Suites on Soldiers Field Road. (It’s now the DoubleTree). He opened Scullers Jazz Club. But when the hotel company built a new outpost on the water, he figured it’d be a good opportunity to jump back behind the stick. Good thing, in retrospect. He never presumed pouring pints and Scotch-on-the-rocks would all but guarantee job security. After all, people drink through recessions.
But no matter how long the tenure, every-day aggravations never cease. “I was a one-armed hanger back there,” he says of a recent busy night when he was pivoting left and right to grab a wine glass here, a bottle of Scotch there, and pull a pint further down. “And that dishwasher,” he says with a sigh. “I’m gonna blow it up!”
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