Going 10 Rounds With Top Bartender Frank Caiafa
The director of food and beverage at New York’s Lexington Hotel and author of “The Waldorf Astoria Bar Book” tackles our speed round of questions.
What is the all-time best dive bar jukebox song? ““You Never Even Called Me By My Name” by David Allen Coe (the long version, with the Steve Goodman bit) and “I’m Bad, I’m Nationwide” by ZZ Top. I could go on.”
After all these years bartending and creating drinks, do you still enjoy going out to bars? “I certainly do, though if it’s someplace new with some industry buzz or pedigree, it winds up becoming more work focused. Whereas if I just go to a tried and true saloon, it’s much easier to just relax and have a few.”
Name the first good drink you ever drank and where you had it. “Initially, it was probably my parents and their friend’s classic cocktails, which set a proper bar. As for having a drink out, when I was coming up it was steak houses that set the standard. Being raised in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, it was most likely a Martini at the bar in Peter Luger’s. (FYI New York’s drinking age limit was not always 21).”
What book on cocktails or spirits is your go-to resource? “Lately, I’ve been finding it fun to go through some unheralded compilations, like Stan Jones’ Complete Bar Guide from the ‘70s, and try to unearth or try to improve upon some long-forgotten recipes.”
What’s your favorite cocktail and food pairing? “Every year around my birthday, I try to treat myself to some cold lump crab and a Martini. Just so good. That’s why I celebrate my birthday about once a month.”
What drink are you most proud of creating? “I have many that filled holes and bring back memories (and if you’d ask me the same question tomorrow, I’d probably have a different answer) but right now I like the Bagpiper. A unique Scotch-based cocktail, which incorporates Pama Liqueur, cloves and the recently polarizing, orange juice. Don’t hate the orange, man.”
Is there one person (dead or alive) you’d like to make a cocktail for? “I’ve been fortunate to have made a few for some notable folks in my career but I would love to make a ‘Terence Stamp’ for the man himself. I included the recipe in my book and he sent me a heck of a letter afterward. One of the coolest things ever.”
What’s your favorite shot-and-a-beer combination? “In the summer, I love an easy pilsner with funky rum, tequila or mezcal. In the cooler months, dry cider or darker beers with whiskey works wonders.”
What is the one tool that you always make sure to pack when you’re traveling for business? “I have a well-used, large notebook with tons of tips and information that I learned through the years. It’s always around when starting a new project or training staff (although its index can only be found in my mind). I should definitely digitize it soon.”
Interview has been condensed and edited.