the making of
Rob Roy's Anu Apte on ending up where you're heading.
1.21.15 | Issue #9
When we meet up with Anu Apte at Seattle's Rob Roy, her plush den of a cocktail bar, it's a quintessentially gray and misty day in the Pacific Northwest and she's getting over a cold. The owner of this spot for five years now, she and her team have helped set the industry standard in this town for expertly-made classics. The walls are covered in quirky art and antlers, a whole wall is stocked with an old reel-to-reel player, an 8-track, and records reaching to the ceiling. The backbar would make anyone who knows their booze blush.
In this column, we highlight the moments in time that lead to something great.
Apte is something great: as a boss, as a bartender, and as a voice in a
efining generation of drink-making.
“There was a DJ booth in that corner…it was one row of booze, and it was all flavored vodkas. It was one of those places.
It was a happenin’ spot when they first opened, but Seattle in 2008 was rough times. It was like a ghost-town. That’s when they asked me to come over and help switch the vibe. My first Sunday, I rang $98 for a 12-hour shift. I remember thinking, what did I just do? Within that first week, I had a lot of cocktail people come in to visit me, so while it was still really dead, it was great—Robert Hess stopped by, Murray Stenson too.
These two guys walked in one day and were looking at the furniture and touching the walls, and I knew the place was for sale. My first thought was, ‘Oh well, guess I’ll have to find another job.’ But then—it was such a whirlwind—within six months I had bought it.
I’ve lived a very strange life. I dropped out of medical school. I was going to the University of Utah med school, and I dropped out immediately. I was 25. I had my quarter-life crisis, and moved to Seattle on a whim, after my boyfriend at the time flew us up here to have dinner at the Space Needle for Valentine’s Day. I had no money, and my parents were pretty pissed at me for dropping out of med school. So I went to the Art Institute because I knew I could get student loans to help me live and go to school, so I did fashion design for a year, which was very satisfying for me in terms of getting creative.”
“I started bartending while I was in Utah, and the first cocktail I ever made was called a Cock-Sucking Cowboy, which was basically a Buttery Nipple. It was a nightclub kind of place, and it was stripper money. I would work there only once or twice a month, and make enough money for food and a living. I wouldn’t wish my job there on anyone, though. People would throw drinks in your face, spit at you...it was just a rowdy, disgusting bar. After that, I figured I’d be able to get a bartending job in Seattle, but no...finally I got my favorite job ever at Cafe Minnie’s, which was a 24-hour dive. It was so divey. Everyone that worked there was so punk rock, and they all had mohawks and wore Doc Martens. It was the weirdest clientele, but I loved it. The food was so bad. Sometimes the cook wouldn’t show up because he was a heroin addict, so I learned to cook and serve and bartend. I can make perfect over-easy eggs now, too. I think I won over Chris [Elford, a fellow bartender and now fiance] with my egg-making skills, actually.
Scott and Josh [of Bon Vivants] and I were counselors that first year at Camp Runamok, and Chris was in their cabin. It’s in Lebanon Junction, Kentucky, and you go to at least three distilleries a day. You have to wake up early and go to the tours, and then at night it’s just parties and seminars. Lot of chaos. That’s how Chris and I met: I needed to get away from the crazy loud madness, and there was a little lake and a dock. So I went down there thinking I would just fish. I was talking to myself, untangling the fishing poles, and it turned out Chris was in the hammock and heard me. He also had gone to the lake to get away. I called my bar manager and said I was going to be gone for three more days, and then I roadtripped back to New York with him. Now he’s lived here for over a year and we just got engaged. I used to tell myself all the time that I would never date a bartender, but Chris is a diamond in the rough. He was raised right."
"The cocktail community is so great about being open. Jamie Boudreau and I used to sit and talk a lot about business stuff before he opened Canon, and he would come work here and figure out what he wanted to do. It is hard not having a sounding board on a day to day basis, and the first two years I did everything...in hindsight I think I would have just hired a bookkeeper immediately. And a maintenance man. I didn’t sleep for two years, and I was bartending all the time. I love bartending, and I don’t do it much these days. As an owner, I think it makes things better for everyone that I am a bartender, though. I understand where they’re coming from. I will spend thousands of dollars on comfortable mats to stand on, because I get it.
I’ll usually have people make a Manhattan and see what they do. For the first four years of this bar, it was all seasoned bartenders, so my interviews were more like, “Uh, you’re hired!” The first year was just one page of classic cocktails. Then it turned into the classics and the originals, on a two-sided paper. Everyone that works here has one or two drinks on the Originals menu, but I tend to do a lot of things with Indian spices. One of our top-sellers, the Blue Bark Rickey, has a turmeric syrup. They’re just flavors that I love, something exotic that plays off a classic. The Saffron Sandalwood Sour is the same way. Like, that is just a gin sour. Classics are classics for a reason. There’s no reason to get crazy."