Beyond Vassar

Bartender's Bartender

By Noah Rothbaum '00

The best bars in the world boast selections of fine spirits and delicious cocktails, but they also offer top-notch service to regular guests and first-timers alike. For bartender Doug Quinn ’89, this well-rounded approach is the ultimate goal.

Doug Quinn '89
Doug Quinn '89

The Rockland County, New York, native built a loyal following of barflies and celebrities during the almost 10 years he spent running the bar at the landmark tavern P.J. Clarke’s in midtown Manhattan. Quinn entertained patrons with stories and jokes and thrilled them with his uncanny ability to remember names and favorite drinks. That’s not to mention his dedication to wearing a bow tie every day and his talent for making sure that everyone had a beverage in hand, even when the place was packed four deep. As a result, he became synonymous with old-school bartending and developed a reputation for being the consummate Big Apple bartender. (A 2010 New York Times profile referred to him as the “bartender of your dreams.”)

So it was big news when, in 2012, Quinn was dismissed. Business Weekly, the Huffington Post, and the New York Times’s “Diner’s Journal” all reported on the story. “Matters came to a head, Mr. Quinn said, when he advised that a drunken customer, who had been harassing women, be ejected from the bar,” wrote Robert Simonson in the Times. Business Insider reported that some patrons walked out in solidarity when Quinn was fired.

While the situation was certainly tough, Quinn now insists, “It was the best thing that could have happened to me,” since it freed him up to explore other ventures.

Fortunately, his fans didn’t need to cry into their beers for long. In the fall of 2013, Quinn opened his own place, Hudson Malone (named for his two sons). It’s an homage to the city’s bygone saloons and drinking joints—and just a two-minute walk from P.J. Clarke’s. Droves of his former customers defected to the new spot, where they found juicy gourmet hamburgers, a menu of tasty cocktails, a range of beers, and of course, a bow-tied Quinn.

He is overseeing not only the bar program, but also the kitchen. “It’s hard not to be a control freak,” he admits.

His efforts have certainly been rewarded: Hudson Malone was named “best new old saloon” this year by New York Magazine and its 3rd Ave “El” Burger ($22), in honor of the elevated train that used to run along Third Avenue, was hailed as New York City’s best new burger by Town & Country. While Quinn is certainly proud of the good press, the best part is that the guests get a kick out of the articles, he says—“If I let it get to my head, smack me.”

Quinn now bartends there four nights a week, which usually includes carrying on at least five conversations at once, acknowledging everyone who walks through the door with a nod or a hello, and adjusting the music (think Sinatra). He’s even been known to roll up his French cuffs, throw on a chef’s jacket, and duck into the kitchen to fix a special dish for a customer if he has the ingredients. (A few days before my visit, a guest raved about the fried oysters she enjoyed in New Orleans, so Quinn whipped up his version of the dish for her.)

Hudson Malone is the perfect set for his theatrics. It looks much older than it actually is; the décor has a well-worn patina that a watering hole normally earns through decades of service. The atmosphere is no accident. “This has been cooking in my head for some time,” he says. “Restaurants are like children—they grow and evolve.” For years, Quinn meticulously thought about every detail and collected ephemera to hang on the walls.

He landed his first official bartending job between semesters one summer at, of all places, Chippendales on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. Before I could ask, he quickly assured me he had a shirt on the whole time. “It was wacky,” he remembers, but “the money was fine.” His stint there led to work at other area bars.

After graduating with a double major in economics and political science in 1989, Quinn headed back to New York City to try his hand as an actor and model. In between gigs he worked in the hospitality industry, where he collected plenty of stories. “I’ve seen all kinds of shenanigans and met all types of people from some of the most famous to the most notorious,” he says. “It’s the beauty of the bar business.” Along the way, he gathered ideas for opening his own establishments.

Quinn is happy to serve patrons a pint of beer or a glass of champagne, but he also delights in mixing up such classics as Old Fashioneds and Manhattans. In fact, he’s about to open a cocktail lounge, The Siren Room, on the second floor of Hudson Malone, where he can offer a more extensive drinks menu.

Though many of the city’s top cocktail dens are now located downtown or in Brooklyn, it’s not uncommon to find a group of industry folks relaxing at Hudson Malone on a night off or after a shift. That includes mixology legend Dale DeGroff, who wrote The Craft of the Cocktail and The Essential Cocktail.

DeGroff is particularly impressed by Quinn’s ability to take care of his patrons and still keep an eye on everything else in the room. “So many bartenders are blind behind their $40 stirring spoons,” he says.

Quinn, naturally, instructs his employees to work with their heads up, making eye contact with customers and greeting each one. “It’s about being a good bartender,” he says, “and using all your senses.”

—Noah Rothbaum ’00 is the author of The Business of Spirits: How Savvy Marketers, Innovative Distillers, and Entrepreneurs Changed How We Drink and the forthcoming The Art of American Whiskey: A Visual History of the Nation’s Most Storied Spirit, through 100 Iconic Labels, which will be published in April by Ten Speed Press.