In a world of pop-up breweries, Phil Richardson is a monument to swanky cocktail nostalgia. He’s tended bar in Boston for 41 years, first at Café Budapest — in a tuxedo, mind you — and later at the Palm for 17 years. He’s been at the Fairmont Copley Plaza’s OAK Long Bar + Kitchen for five. (“People still call it the Oak Room,” he says.) Not bad for a guy who moved to Boston from rural Connecticut with $150 to his name.
What’s the first restaurant you ever ate at in Boston? Friday’s on Newbury Street. I had just moved from the Cape, landed a job at Café Budapest, and celebrated by having lunch at Friday’s. I don’t remember what I ate. I was so excited and nervous. I was a 21-year-old kid, and my first shift was the next day.
What’s one thing you’d like to fix about the restaurant industry here? Two things: Staff — put your cellphones away! And stop calling in sick. You’re really not, and if you are sick, play hurt. I haven’t called in sick since I’ve been here. I’m an old curmudgeon. I don’t care if you’re hungover; you got yourself that way. Do your shift. Also, for the management, if you have a bad customer, show them the door. Don’t be afraid to ask them to leave. Sometimes we kowtow. If you’re disruptive, a bad person, causing numerous scenes, here’s the door. With 99.9 percent of customers, I’d have them to my house. But you get bad people. If it’s repeated, we don’t need your business.
How has the restaurant landscape changed since you arrived in Boston? When I started here, there were three or four good top-name restaurants. Now there’s that many on every few blocks of the city. Café Budapest, Locke-Ober, the Bay Tower Room. Elegant spots. You could list them on one hand.
What other restaurants do you visit? Let me give a plug to this place called Erbaluce. It’s a hidden gem: It’s cozy, Charlie Draghi’s food is imaginative, and I like a cozy bar. It’s welcoming. If I had to pick another, it’s Caffé Bella in Randolph. It’s been consistently great over 25 years, chef-owned. I get tongue-tied even talking about it. It’s packed all the time.
What’s your earliest food memory that made you think, “I want to work in restaurants”? I’ll bring it back to drinks: seeing two actors drink a Grasshopper being served in a coupe, a type of a martini glass, a throwback glass, in Ogunquit [Maine] at the Fan Club. I was 18 years old, I walk into this place, and there are a couple of movie stars at the bar — Ethel Merman and Rex Reed! Back then, Ogunquit was really hopping. It was a magical place to go, with live entertainment every night and a million restaurants.
What’s the worst restaurant experience you’ve ever had? Getting shut off at the Sail Loft in the 1980s. I was in my 20s.
How could Boston become a better food city? More outdoor seating with portable heaters, extended into the fall. Let’s also find a way to lower the cost of valet parking. You’ve already spent $30, and you haven’t set foot in the restaurant!
Name three adjectives for Boston diners. Savvy. Thirsty. And “dressing on the side” — I realize that’s not an adjective. But so many people just come in and want their dressing on the side! You haven’t even tasted how the chef prepared [the dish]. Why try to change it? Just try it the way the chef is making it!
What’s the most overdone trend right now? Bourbon. It’s hip to like bourbon. I see young guys coming in and grimacing after tasting bourbon, but it’s cool to order it. I don’t want to be mean-spirited. Also, 9 percent ABV beers, which I think is because the beer movement is raging, which is great. But with 9 percent alcohol, you have a good buzz on after two or three, and you have to be careful.
What are you reading? I just finished great nonfiction by Tom Bowen, “Pouring and Drinking: My Life on Both Sides of the Bar.” He’s right there with me. Over the years, we shared a lot of the same experiences and customers. We’ve been to weddings and funerals together, that old-school camaraderie. My wife is always prodding me to write a book, too.
How’s your commute? The Red Line. Horrible! And it’s about to get worse. I live in Quincy. They’re closing the Wollaston T stop for two years. Is it OK for a salty, 61-year-old bartender to ride a Vespa?
What’s the one food you never want to cook again? I’ll bring it back to drinks. The winner would be the Woo Woo. It’s vodka, peach schnapps, and cranberry. It was extremely popular for years in the 1980s.
What kind of restaurant is Boston missing? A big, noisy, moderately priced seafood restaurant with a raw bar overlooking Boston Harbor. Almost weekly someone asks me, “Where do I have to go?” And you want to say, “Like an Anthony’s Pier 4, but casual! Bob Marley music playing in the background!” Something [that’s] boisterous, fun, and . . . not going to cost you $300.
What’s your most missed Boston restaurant? The Capital Grille when it was on Newbury Street. It was the place where everyone congregated. We had beautiful cigar dinners. It was the first real steakhouse gathering spot. The cigar scene pretty much started there. And a couple more: Seasons at the Bostonian Hotel, where so many great chefs got their start, like Lydia Shire and Jasper White. The European on Hanover Street, with Chuck the maître d’ in his powder-blue tux greeting you at the door. The food was OK, but Chuck always made you feel welcome.
Who was your most memorable customer? Two: First one, Colonel Klink from “Hogan’s Heroes,” with the monocle. And I made a reverse martini for Julia Child at the Palm. The ingredients for a martini are a dash of vermouth and almost all gin. Hers, because she was elderly, was almost all vermouth and a dash of gin. I had her sign her caricature on the wall at the Palm. I got her up on a chair, and I had my hand on the small of her back, and I was saying, “Don’t drop Julia Child!”
If you had to eat your last meal in Boston, what would it be? After working at the Palm for 17 years, it would have to be a rib-eye, charred, medium rare, a Monday night salad, a bottle or two of a wine called Tignanello, and a Montecristo cigar.Kara Baskin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.