Stars behind the bars 

A few top tenders revealed

Page 3 of 4

Morton is so in synch with his regulars that he might as well set a clock by their schedules. There's Gene. She's 94. "I'm her boyfriend," Morton quips. "She wants me to visit her at Grizzly Peak," the retirement home. And then there are the Hardin brothers, who will be here tomorrow night at 6:15. The Hardins call and check in with Morton if they can't make it on any given Thursday.

The analog jukebox, featuring classics from Roy Orbison, Elton John, Neil Young, Patsy Cline and Garth Brooks, plays four songs for $1. It's an old-school amenity, as is the silver dumbwaiter that delivers food from the upstairs kitchen to the bar below.

The dumbwaiter testifies to the history of the building on West Alder Street. Between 1909 and 1920, it was a pool hall. Rumor has it that during Prohibition, it was a bootlegging joint. It was dubbed "Double Front" because of its two entrances, one on Alder and another on Railroad Street. The Herndon family took it over in 1961 and is still going strong.

Morton has several qualities that endear him to the Herndon family, says Double Front manager Jason Herndon, among them the fact that he's a hell of a cribbage player. What's more, not only does Morton remember patrons' names, he has the uncanny ability to recall what they drink and eat. "He's just off the hook," Herndon says. "He's got food out there, he's cleaning tables and he's pouring drinks...Thor is our one-man show downstairs."

Morton says he's happy presiding over bar-side banter Sunday through Thursday from 3 and 11 p.m. In fact, he looks shocked when I ask him if he ever tires of bar life.

"What kind of question is that?" he asks.

— Jessica Mayrer

Claude will fix it

Like most good bartenders, the Golden Rose's Claude Alick is a babysitter, a psychologist and a friendly ear. Most customers are on a first-name basis with him and speak his name as they slide onto cracked faux-leather stools like it's part of their drink order. Alick doesn't need to know your name. He most likely remembers what you drink; and if he doesn't, his smile and booming laugh are enough welcome, even for the most browbeaten sad sacks.

It's easy to see that Alick, in his 60s, has been doing this for a very long time. So long, in fact, that he can't say for sure without a long pause. "Officially, I've been a bona fide bartender for 25 years," he says. "That might be disputed by some." It could be more like 30 years.

No matter, he makes each customer his personal charge, whether it's early in the evening on a slow Thursday with older gents yelling at "Wheel of Fortune" contestants' stupidity on the TV or jabronis and Jennys packed nut-to-butt clouding the red neon lit room with abundant sex hormones and a not-so-ironic taste for the band Poison. ("You know, Bret Michaels's band, the guy from 'Rock of Love?'" These kids make me sick.)

On this night, a woman in her mid-20s arrives with her boyfriend and a lady friend. She's been laid off and is visibly upset. She's looking to get good and drunked up. Later in the evening, she'll cry a little. Right now, she needs one thing: inspiration. She asks her bartender for it. "Clyde, I know you don't know me well, but I've had a bad day," she says, "and I need to hear something inspirational."

Alick feigns shyness and is demure in his response, never giving a sign of whether he knows this woman or not. He simply smiles and laughs and says, "Inspirational, huh," while mixing their cocktails.

They ask for shots and he gets downright inspired with his personalized take on the Tootsie Roll: coffee liqueur, vodka and perhaps some orange liqueur. The drinkers revel in how it tastes exactly like the fake chocolate candy. The laid-off lady is happy and looks momentarily relieved.

A regular who has been nursing a pitcher of PBR at the opposite end of the bar begins to talk Salman Rushdie with a new arrival. Alick laughs at me when I give him my best "What-in-the-wide-wide-world-of-sports-is-going-on-around-here?" face. To be fair, the look came due to the gentleman's poor showing during the aforementioned episode of "Wheel of Fortune." The gentleman hears Alick and me laughing and says, "You are sitting in a fairly literary bar, you know."

click to enlarge Golden Rose bartender Claude Alick is one generous bastard. - PHOTO BY CHAD HARDER

Seriously, though, what bar isn't "literary"?

The man continues, "He's the only bartender in town I can talk about books with—and he knows what he's talking about."

"Unlike other bars, you can walk out of here with literature in your hand," Alick adds.

Alick recently finished a play about the history of Haiti, featuring historical luminaries such as Napoleon Bonaparte, Frederick Douglass and Jean-Bertrand Aristide. With customers, he has an easy in for pimping his wares. He's from the Caribbean island country of Grenada, so his accent sounds exactly as one might expect.

"People ask me where I'm from and I say, 'Oh, there's a bio on the back of my book'—then they're hooked."

It works: Alick has sold more than 4,000 copies of his self-published works. It also reminds you that he really is at work to make money, not to be your besty. He'll even take your quarters, dimes and nickels. He puts the tip change in a large container and it comes out to $1,200 to $1,500 per year—plenty for a season pass to Larchmont Golf Course, where he's an avid player. "If that's the last of a customer's cash and he gives it to you," Alick says, "he is one generous bastard."

Alick is the generous bastard. He allows a regular who has forgotten his wallet to have a few drinks before the girlfriend arrives with wallet in hand. He allows people to whoop, holler and swear. "I figure you got the bastard drunk, if he wants to make an ass of himself, let him. We should tolerate him a little bit."

Around 11 p.m., the room begins to fill and the bastards get younger, the jukebox less ironic and louder. The laid-off woman is drunked up now and smiling. Alick's laugh can be heard over the din now and then. He moves from one end of the bar to the other, no specific pattern. If he recognizes your face, you'll be served first, like it or not.

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