Welcome to The Barkeepers, a regular feature in which Eater roams the city to meet the fine ladies and gentlemen that work behind the bar at some of LA's hottest cocktail parlors.
Karen Grill may not have the grizzled demeanor of a long-overworked bartender, but make no mistake: this 27 year old has been behind the stick for quite some time. After helping to open Sotto and then climbing up the ranks behind the bar at Bestia, Grill has now stepped into the General Manager role at Hollywood’s Sassafras Saloon on Vine, bringing with her a strong sense of customer service and a dedication to batching cocktails, which helps on nights where 400 guests swing through the saloon doors.
Grill sat down at Sassafras to talk about her fondness for New Orleans, why working side by side with your staff is important on every level, and why Sassafras may well be her perfect bar.
How long have you officially been with Sassafras? I just came up on three months here. Before this, I was at Bestia downtown. I was part of the opening team there, from when it was Test Kitchen to the day we opened Bestia, and through last August.
Was there something that made you want to make the jump to Sassafras Saloon? I was a regular here when it first opened. I live in the neighborhood, and I always though that this bar was just so beautiful.
I remember walking in here for the first time, I think it was on Repeal Day like two years ago, which was a crazy night, and I just stopped in my tracks. I thought, god if I ever had a bar, this is what it would look like. It’s perfect, old timey, gorgeous, open — I loved it. So when I found out that the General Manager position was open, I emailed the Director of Operations that day and said that I wanted in. It’s been kind of like a dream come true to be here, just because of that first experience.
You also just have a love for New Orleans in general, right? Oh yeah. I love New Orleans. It’s beautiful. And coming from a music background before I got into tending bar, it’s a magical place. I go there a lot, and not just for Tales of the Cocktail; I just love the city. So this place is a natural fit.
We’re not reinventing the wheel.
It does seem like a real confluence for you, between personal passion and professional needs. Oh, absolutely. When I was first learning how to bartend, you get that initial structure. These are the classics, and if you have a base knowledge of this, you realize that everything is based off of the classics and what’s already been done. And that’s kind of the philosophy here. We’re not reinventing the wheel. We’re not doing molecular, we’re not going too far out there. We’re staying really close to home, and so it feels natural to me to be in this setting, to stay close to those classics but do them in a setting like this.
Is that how you’d classify your new cocktail menu here? Pretty much. I have my riff on a Hurricane, my riff on an Old Fashioned, a Pimms Cup, whatever. And that’s basically the job of a new bartender, to create cocktails and make them our own, but they’re always just slightly different than something that may have been done before.
How much of your menu is a balance between what the neighborhood wants and what Sassafras is? I think it’s pretty even. I’ve taken cocktails that are familiar but aren’t always done well, like Hurricanes or Pimms Cups, and executing them well. It’s keeping true to what we do as craft bartenders, just translating it into crowd-pleasers. We’re not going for the ultra nerdy here, we’re not going to get overly bartender-y.
Hollywood has no patience for that. They want their drink and they want it now.
This is also a high volume bar. On a busy night, we’ll see 400 people walk through the door, so we have to work on speed, which means I need a way to do great cocktails in less than a minute. That’s the hardest part here: there are lots of great cocktail bars, but you might end up waiting a while for your drink. Hollywood has no patience for that. They want their drink and they want it now. So I think finding ways to do quick service is what I’ve become enamored with lately.
Batching is so essential. I know that some non-industry people look at it like, oh, this is premade? They’ll even say it with our barrel aged cocktails. But really, it’s all for them. I’m taking one bottle of non-perishable ingredients and putting them together, instead of running around the bar grabbing three or four bottles, which gives me more time to make your cocktail. So batching is the best thing that’s ever happened to a bartender. If you’re in this neighborhood, in this high-volume environment, and you’re not batching your cocktails, you’re not only hurting yourself, you’re hurting the guest.
This is obviously such a different place than the bar at Bestia. Have you felt that difference since starting here? I’ve always worked at bars within a restaurant, so it’s interesting to see the shift from bar-restaurant service, to a Hollywood bar service. I was definitely caught off guard the first couple of weeks here, just seeing the sheer madness of people that come in on the weekends. And a lot of them just want to party. At Bestia, it’s beautiful service, it’s fine tuned, and you’re working with a chef and a line and runners and all that. People come here just for the drinks, and to have a good time, which is great, but it’s a lot of work.
I mean, Hollywood is a beast. There’s so much stuff going on here, and so many great bars within walking distance of us, so you really have to pay attention to the guest and make sure they feel welcome, so that they stay. They have their choice of every bar in the neighborhood, and they came to yours. So it’s madness, but it’s also a really important thing to realize. Anyone can walk out, go down the block and have a drink somewhere else, so you have to make everyone feel welcome, even if you feel like you’re drowning sometimes.
How has it been for you to transition over the course of your career into a more managerial role, as opposed to just slinging drinks behind the bar? I mean, this is the ultimate goal, right? There’s lots of bartenders that just tend bar, and they’re fantastic at it. That’s their job, but this is a career for me. I started out in L.A. with Julian Cox at places like Playa and Rivera, working as a prepper, then I moved to barback, then bartender, head bartender and so on and so forth. But I’ve always had this philosophy that the best bartenders are the best barbacks first. Those people know what it takes to get service up and running, what it takes to not have something you need, then run and go execute that thing you need, but make it all look flawless.
The best bartenders are the best barbacks first
More than anything, I try to lead by example. It’s not just me making a menu and handing it to my staff. You have to be in it with your staff, or what’s the point? What are you really doing? You’re not just here to do interviews, take a couple of pictures and stand behind the bar once or twice a week. I’m working five shifts a week, doing the prep, helping bartenders break down at night, scrubbing the wells. It’s important to do everything.