Not even telling him that he’s “Bartender of the Month” will make Charlie Papaceno of Windmill Lounge smile for a photo. No matter. He’s the kind of guy who saves the charm for when it actually counts; like during our interview, where he speaks in a thoughtful, almost humble manner, or as he greets his afternoon customers, and there are many of them, who file in only minutes after the door opens. Maybe the camera makes him edgy. Odd, you’d think he’d be used to the spotlight by now. After all, the Dallas Observer recently named him as one of their "30 Most Interesting Characters". Plus, he frequently gets asked to speak at bartending events nationwide, like his recent stint a Portland Cocktail Week.
We’ll forgive him his eccentricities. After all, Papaceno is part of the lifeblood behind Windmill Lounge, which in just a few years has grown to be a kind of legendary neighborhood establishment; he co-owns it with his business partner Louise Owens.
It ain’t a fancy joint, mind you, just a dive bar really. It’s the kind of place where you’ll blend in perfectly if you’re wearing yesterday’s dirty sweatpants, but you’ll stand out if you walk in with a big city attitude. Though the ambience is . . . shall we say, minimal, the staff of the Windmill makes sure their customers are treated like kings. Don’t believe me? Check out their menu of fine vintage cocktails, a passion of Papaceno’s that goes way back his beginnings, working in his grandfather’s bar as a teenager and making his first old style cocktails like Manhattans and Old Fashioneds. Ask anyone in the biz; Papaceno is a wizard at the craft. So, do any of his cocktails stand out more than others? “I get this question all the time,” Papeceno’s head says, poking out from a green vintage work shirt emblazoned with a nametag that reads Elvis. “I don’t like to be married to just one cocktail, but if you had to pin me down I’d have to say I do a mean Sazerac.” The head is talking about cocktails, and therefore grinning; Papaceno's in his happy place. I reach for my camera, but by the time I lift into position, the smile is gone. Sigh. Oh, well.
What has bartending taught you about life?
To learn how to have patience. You have to have lots of it. You get to see people at their best and worst. If you own a bar like this with lots of regular customers, it’s almost like being married to them. You have to tolerate their little foibles, deal with their mood swings. Sometimes it might be that they even want you to call them out on a particular issue. You’re dealing with people in their altered states so you have to learn your share of tolerance.
Give me a secret “fun fact” about you; tell me something that most people don’t know.
I have a butterfly tattoo hidden on my body. I got it when I was 18. The story is, my neighbor was learning how to do tattoos so I let him practice on me. I didn’t want my mom to see it so I got it on my hip. I chose a butterfly because I was a swimmer and the butterfly stroke was my specialty.
What’s your biggest bartending pet peeve?
People shoving cellphones in my face with recipes they find off the internet. It’s rude. I always look at them like, ‘where did you find this?’ Just because it’s on the web doesn’t make it a real drink. Do these people believe everything they read, too? Like what’s the history of this drink you’re asking me to make? Where did it come from?
What’s the quickest way to get thrown out of Windmill Lounge?
Touch my fruit tray. Do not touch my fruit tray. I’m not being mean; there are health issues. I don’t know where your hands have been. I had been a girl who came in recently and she just reached in there and dug out what she wanted. I told her not to do that again, got the bar back to throw out all the fruit and start completely over.
How have you changed since your beginning days as a bartender?
I’ve learned to be a lot less arrogant behind the bar. You know how it is when you’re young. For example, when a guest would leave change on the bar as a tip, I’d just flick it back towards them and onto the floor. I try to be less of a dick these days. I guess there are a few customers out there who will still tell you I’m a dick, though. (Laughs.)
For more info: Windmill Lounge is located at 5320 Maple Avenue, Dallas, TX 75235; (214) 443-7818.
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