Uber successful bicoastal bartender Claudia Marcela shares a behind-the-scenes look at bar culture — and tips for how to not be ‘that guy’ during this season’s holiday festivities.
Claudia Marcela is a bicoastal artist, pianist, writer, veteran bartender and expert in the nightlife industry. She bartends at night so she can spend her days working on her 2020 debut album. Marcela came to L.A. on an art residency at the popular bi-coastal Superchief Gallery where she worked with chandelier makers and street artists.
“Superchief changed my life and we created a bunch of weird bar experiences together but I am an independent contractor,” she says. “I would make immersive food and beverage experiences, and non-conventional bar work thru a ‘lab’ I had at Westin Mitchell design group. That art bar work is also how I ended up working for Think Tank Gallery, Playboy and Showtime.”
Her gigs have included The Gorbals on 5th Street in downtown L.A. before it shut down in 2015 — the space is now The Little Easy. Other spots she tended bar included General Lees, El Carmen and Las Perlas. New Yorkers can now find her at now I’m at a place called 12 Chairs in Williamsburg.
Los Angeleno sat down with Marcela to find out who the best patrons are, why great bars close and whether or not a 4 a.m. closing time would be a good move for our city.
What has been one of your most surprising experiences behind the bar?
One Friday, it was literally like an episode of ‘Law & Order,’ I’m shining glasses and putting them up and two agents come in asking “have you seen this man?” I had not remembered serving him.
The detectives said, “well, he died last night after leaving this bar. He crashed his car into a pole. And we were like, ‘woah!’ And they came in and looked at all of the surveillance footage, checked every receipt, and it was shown that we never served the guy. He didn’t have a single drink at our place, thank God.
A big part of a bartender’s job depends on staying within the limits of the law. This might mean making sure that everyone they serve is of age. It also means cutting off people who are intoxicated. But how does a bartender know if someone has had too much?
We don’t. And that’s actually an amazing question because you can never really know what medication someone is on, you don’t know how much they’ve eaten that day, you don’t know if they just pounded a couple of shots next door and then you served them another and all of a sudden you’re like “what happened? I gave you one drink and you’re falling down.”
While it might be fun and games for barhoppers, it’s serious business for the pros on the other side of the bar. It must be scary sometimes.
There are laws where if I am found to be over-serving somebody to the point where they caused bodily harm to themselves or others, I could be held liable and I will face jail time.
It turned out he fell asleep at the wheel, he wasn’t even intoxicated. But had it been that I had served that guy and given him 5 or 6 drinks, I could have been put in cuffs. So when a bartender cuts you off, that’s the fear.
Other than that scare, are frat boys the worst customers?
I can’t say they are. The profession that scares me the absolute worse when they come in are lawyers. And sometimes lawyers are frat boys but sometimes they don’t look like they’re frat boys — but they are, they’re just wearing a nicer suit. I find them to have the most substance abuse problems. It’s not just the alcohol. I see a lot of cocaine tied up in that profession. Finance guys too. That gets fratty, for sure, but more so I think the pressure of those professions and the social culture of everyone meeting up for drinks after work and blowing off steam. And also the capital of handing you a heavy-ass card and not thinking twice about putting all the drinks on there.
Who are your favorite customers?
My favorite customers are people who come through with bright energy, light up a room, know their limits and make smooth exits.
In your 14 years working both coasts in nightlife you’ve seen all sorts of establishments come and go. What’s the main reason a bar closes?
One word: mismanagement. In my experience, most of the time it’s an internal issue with either the investor structure or the management structure and the people you hire. I refuse to work at bars that have a lot of investors. You have to be independently wealthy to open a bar in L.A. or New York with your own money. So most of the time you have to go in on it with several different people — and that sucks because rarely does anyone want to be a silent investor. Everyone wants to have a say in the DJ, the lighting, the bartenders, who should be there, who shouldn’t be there. It gets really crazy when there’s too many cooks in the kitchen, creatively, and a lot of times that leads to in-fighting and people just want to take their share of the money and run.
The other thing I see a lot is managers who are either stealing from the bar, improperly storing things or not ringing things in. Mismanagement of the product. We call it Spill. If you have a lot of unexplained spillage and there’s no kind of accountability for that then I’ve seen people not realize for three years that they were missing $60,000 worth of liquor.
Are you finding that you have to wrestle keys away from drunk customers less these days because of Lyft and Uber?
Absolutely. Even in the five years I was in L.A. I saw that shit change really fast. I also saw that it helped people stay out later in L.A. because people didn’t have to worry about being sober enough to drive home safely.
Part of being a bi-coastal bartender you have seen bars that don’t close until 4 a.m. in NYC and you see how bars will have last call here in L.A. at 1:30 am. Do people just naturally slow down their drinking in New York as the night goes on or do they binge drink right before last call like they do here in L.A.?
I’ve talked about this a lot with bartenders in L.A. and you’d be surprised at how many of them don’t want the 4 a.m. thing to pass. Some are like, “whatever, give me two extra hours to make my money.” It depends on what style of bar you’re at.
There was an after-hours bar. Not sure if it’s still open, but they didn’t operate until 3 a.m. That’s really super not-legal, but everyone knows about it. And it gets sketchy in there after certain hours. You get a little bit more of a cocaine vibe more than alcohol and you realize that people who are able to drink until 6 or 7 in the morning are not there on just alcohol. They’re on coke, speed, meth — which is a huge problem in California that I don’t see in New York. So you get more of a tweaker vibe at places that are like that.
How are you able to remember 3-4 drink orders from a large group?
That’s why it’s important not to drink when you’re working. It never makes you better at remembering drink orders. But it’s the same as anything in the rest of the world from karate to painting to the guitar to being a surgeon, is practice.
What has been your best bar experience?
I was working a Hollywood Reporter party and it’s the only time I’ve been starstruck. Justin Timberlake and Jonah Hill sat down in front of me and started doing impressions and didn’t stop all night. It was a place called The Ponty. Everyone made fun of me for weeks saying, “you blushed the entire night.”
I was watching Justin do impressions of Jonah — to his face — while they were sighing and laughing and asking me what tequilas they should drink. It didn’t even feel real. And that was the time my childhood poster came to the bar and took a shot with me.
I’m still blushing. I introduced them to Ocho Tequila and Justin Timberlake telling me I found him his new favorite tequila was a career highlight.