It's rare these days to hear anyone say that Sky City at the Space Needle helped convince them to move to Seattle. But as Rob Roy owner Anu Apte tells us in part two of this week's Grillaxin, it's one of the reasons she decided to move here in 2005 from Salt Lake. Within four years of moving to the city, Apte scored the keys to Rob Roy from another bar maven, Linda Derschang; left a cushy bartending gig at BOKA for Vessel, "BOKA taught me to believe in myself as a bartender and do things the right way"; and played sexy cop when a cow hoof lamp mysteriously walked out of the bar.
Never one to run away from any situation (including a hoof heist), Apte has a few words for the state Liquor Control Board, bartenders who hate on vodka, and anyone who'd like to further their cocktail education at her new drinking academy...after the jump!SW: What brought you to Seattle?
Apte: I finished school and didn't really know what I wanted to do. I decided I didn't want to go to medical school. The UW has three really great corporate health programs that I wanted to look into. I really thought I was going to go to grad school. I had two friends living in Seattle that were both in grad school. In February, 2005 - my life moves quickly when it wants to - my then boyfriend flew us out here for a little getaway. We had dinner on top of the Space Needle for Valentine's Day. I had never been to Seattle before and fell in love with it! It was all rainy, gray and dreary but I loved it. There was something very romantic about the city. I remember the service [at Sky City] being good and the food looking back it wasn't so great, but it was good. It was something I had never experienced before. Growing up in Utah it was all chain restaurants. I didn't know people could be so serious about food! I remember thinking, "These people make careers out of this and they get to talk to people and meet new people every day!" So, that was February. I moved out here April 1st. I enrolled at the Art Institute for fashion design because I figured the best way to move anywhere is to go to school and get some financial aid, so that's what I did! My first apartment was in Belltown which is crazy because I live in Belltown now and also own a business here.
Yes and no. It's good in the sense that there are a lot of very educated people here who want to learn something new and try new things and have the money to spend on nicer things. Also good in that there are several different neighborhoods for different concepts. It's bad in the sense that our taxes are so high and minimum wage is so high and it's really rough on business owners to have a small business. Most bars don't fall into the small business category because revenue is so high, but cocktail bars are right on the edge. So that's frustrating. And you know, unemployment rates. My taxes on unemployment are higher [at Rob Roy]. It's hard for me to be able to afford health insurance for my employees. I don't even qualify for it because I'm an LLC partner! Washington's Liquor Control Board is getting better, but they're still holding back products. I don't know why. They're constantly checking on us to see if we've brought in banned products from other places, because the state's not getting revenue for those items. They're not getting the taxes from it which is silly because if they just brought in the products, they would! I really don't understand why they're holding products back.
Everything. Certain Mezcals and absinthes, for instance. I guess what really bothers me is that they don't listen to what we want as bar owners. They just take it upon themselves to order what's popular.
There's nothing wrong with using vodka in cocktails. It truly doesn't add a lot of flavor and doesn't add any texture which is why bartenders don't typically get excited about it, but sometimes people just want a light, refreshing drink that is not overly boozy. In a lot of drinks gin will actually work better. A lot of vodkas don't taste that good. If you swap out vodka with gin, a lot of times people will be amazed. If you do a cosmo with good gin, it tastes really good. I would never do that without telling a customer, though!
What's your philosophy at Rob Roy?
I honestly think what people chose to drink is secondary to their bar experience. They're always going to order something that makes them comfortable and, yeah, it has to taste good. But your first experience when you're in a bar is the ambience, the way you feel, and the bartender is part of that. That's always what people are going to remember. They're going to remember the drink second. Maybe third. When we switched up our menu, I made sure everyone knew they could never say "no" to any cocktail within reason. Like, we don't have Apple Pucker here, but we can make something that tastes like Apple Pucker that's not artificial. We make cosmos, we make lemon drops.
Do you have a standard Anu drink that you order when you go out?
Not really. And I wish everyone was this way when they go to a bar, it's like going to a restaurant. Every bar is different. If I go to McDonald's I'm not going to order a filet mignon. So, when I go to Zig Zag I'm going to order a cocktail and I know the bartenders are really capable. If they're not super busy I'll ask them to make something up for me. I always give them a base spirit and kind of guide them, but if I'm going to Shorty's, I'm not going to order a cocktail. I love having people come in here and order vodka sodas, that's fine because I know for the most part they're coming in her for the ambiance which is great. But it does get frustrating when people order things like Shit on the Grass which is a shot.
I think it's Jagermeister and Midori. And cream. Layered.
That's the one thing I do miss about working at BOKA is that I was able to utilize the kitchen. Any ingredients they had in the walk-in I could use in my cocktails. They had an amazing walk-in. [Chef] Angie Roberts tries to keep everything as seasonal as possible and the walk-in was really well organized and fresh - the pastry chef was really good, also - so they always had these fresh fruit purees and fun stuff to play with. I miss that, so whenever I go out to eat at restaurants, I pay special attention to the ingredients they're using.
What cocktails do you like to make?
Here, I tend to make really boozy drinks. When I first started working here, I made very spirit-forward cocktails, like Manhattan, Negroni-style drinks, because I felt like this place seduced it out of me. That's a hard question to answer because it's a challenge every time someone asks me to make something. When I'm working behind the bar I try to bring something with me, like a saffron syrup in case someone's like, "Make me something fun and different!" Or I try to come in and look at an ingredient I haven't used in a long time.
How seasonal are your cocktails at Rob Roy?
Our menu is very seasonal in the sense that when we're creating it, we take into account what's going to be in season. We create drinks in a way that we can turn the seasonal fruit into syrups and things that will sustain longer so nothing goes to waste. We try to do that with everything here. After we peel citrus we juice it or slice it and put in the men's urinals. Right now we have a drink on our menu that uses egg yolk because we make a lot of egg white drinks. If we had a kitchen here, we'd reserve the yolks for a custard or whatever, but we don't and it's always bothered me. So, we use them to make a classic cocktail called Golden Thistle. The yolk gives it a really light custardy consistency. It's good.
Besides being seasonal, describe your menu.
We always try to have a page of originals. Every bartender who works here has a drink on the menu that they created. I want them to take pride in everything they do here and if they can't have a piece of the menu, that's a piece of them. Then we have the same amount of classics. Good old standbys and also ones we found in books that aren't really being put on cocktail menus. They might be a little different, like the Golden Thistle. There are not very many ingredients now that are hard to get.
I've started a drinking academy called Swig Well. It's cocktail classes, but not the typical classes that are being taught in Seattle. My goal in everything that I do, even with this bar which I think has made it successful, is making it fun for people. I want to have different teachers. I'm hoping Andrew Bohrer will teach some classes. He'll probably do a scotch and cigars class. I also want to do Bartending 101. I'm getting certificates made. It's not serious. It's not like you're graduating from anything. But maybe someday you'll be able to say, "I did the 101 through 301 bartending courses at Rob Roy." Hopefully, the classes will be twice a week depending on how many teachers I get. Steven Stone from Sound Spirits distillery already wants to teach a class. Ted Munat wants to teach a class on blogging. So, it's everything that has to do with drinking or the culture or the industry. I want to get a chef one day to talk about syrups and tinctures. Right now, the classes are going to be Thursdays and Saturdays at noon. They'll be one to two hours, because if anyone' s like me, I can't pay attention for longer than that. Starting off, the classes will be taught here [at Rob Roy] and that's why they have to be taught so early, because we can't have them during business hours. But for instance, if Keith (Waldbauer) from Liberty wanted to teach a class and have it in their back room, then through Swig Well we'd do all of the marketing. People would pay to take the class. Most of the money that people pay to take the class will go to pay the teachers, so it's a good way for them to get a little extra income plus teach. One of the goals of Swig Well is to make the classes really interactive and fun.