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Dante’s Inferno

For this week’s Nightcap exclusive we’re hanging out with Stacey Swenson, the bartender at Dante in New York’s Greenwich Village, recently ranked #34 best bar in the world by Drinks International Magazine. The original Dante opened its doors on Macdougal Street in 1915. For over 100 years, neighbors and celebrities alike have frequented this cafe for a piece of Italy. The pictures that line the walls are not only of the original owners, but also highlight the wonderful cast of characters that have passed through these doors: from artists and writers, like Anais Nin and Ernest Hemingway of the Bohemian age, to Robert Mapplethorpe and Patti Smith, Bob Dylan, and Al Pacino, Dante is a place that people have always flocked to.

NightOwl: Can you tell us your path into the bar/restaurant business?

Stacey: I started waiting tables in college. The money was good and I loved being in bars. In Iowa you only had to be 18 to work in a bar and there was something exciting about that to me, and I eventually started tending bar. I moved to Chicago with the intention of taking a year off before applying to law school. I fell in love with the restaurant and bar scene in Chicago and kept putting off going back to school. Years later I’ve come to realize that I chose the right path and I’m doing what I truly love to do.

NightOwl: Congrats on being named one of the 50 best bars in the world by Drinks International Magazine. What are your plans to continue to impress next year?

Stacey: To my knowledge there isn’t another bar in the U.S. that is doing anything quite like what we do with our program. We are going to continue to be the go-to aperitivo bar in the country while still impressing with some ideas we’ve got in our back pockets.

NightOwl: Is there any pressure helming the bar at such an historic space? If so, how do you handle it?

Stacey: Absolutely. Guests come in on an almost daily basis expecting the Dante of yore. We have to show them that not only have we kept the spirit of Dante alive, but that we’ve improved on it. They might be coming in for gelato and have never heard of a Negroni. It’s our job to get them curious about the awesome things we are doing now.

NightOwl: You have an entire menu dedicated to Negronis, called “The Negroni Sessions.” Can you tell us a little about that?

Stacey: “The Negroni Sessions” is our alternative to happy hour. From 5-7, seven days a week we offer twelve negroni variations for $9 each, which is a steal in a Manhattan cocktail bar. The selections include the classic Negroni (ours is on tap!), classic variations like the Boulevardier and Sbagliato, and several house variations like our lovely Negroni Bianco and Negroni Coffee Swizzle with mezcal. Although all can be classified as negronis, they range fairly widely in bitterness, ABV, and flavor profile so that hopefully we can find a Negroni that fits (almost) everyone’s tastes.

NightOwl: Other than one of your own, what’s the best Negroni you’ve ever had?

Stacey: The one that made me realize that I liked Negronis. There aren’t many people who like a Negroni the first time they try one, either because it’s made poorly or they’re just not used to bitter flavors. It’s definitely an acquired taste. The first Negroni I had was shaken and made with some vermouth that had been sitting out for months, it was then served on some melty chip ice. I hated it. The first Negroni I had that I liked was at Sable in Chicago. That’s the best Negroni I’ve had because it was a game changer for me.

NightOwl: What are three of your most important tools behind the bar?

Stacey: At Dante, our high speed juicer is king. We use it to juice oranges, grapefruit, apples, and pineapples to order and give the juice a fluffy, silky texture that has been a game changer in cocktails. Also, my ice tongs are particularly important to me, I need to be able to pick and choose the particular ice cube I want to place in the cocktail, it can make all the difference. Thirdly, my bar spoon with the trident top from Cocktail Kingdom. I use it to arrange garnishes in cocktails without having to stick my fingers in the drink.

NightOwl: What’s the best way for a customer to get your attention?

Stacey: Just make eye contact. I can feel it.

NightOwl: What’s the worst thing a customer has done to get your attention?

Stacey: The worst thing someone can do is interrupt me while I’m talking to another guest. There’s nothing more rude and self-important. I will politely tell them that I’ll be with them in a moment and that I’m helping another guest, but there’s no better way to get on my bad side than that.

NightOwl: What is your number one tip to ensure having a fun night out?

Stacey: PACE YOURSELF! Be a smarter drinker. Drink light, refreshing aperitivo-style cocktails if you haven’t eaten. Don’t be the drunkest person in your group. Life’s too short to wait in lines. There are literally tens of thousands of bars in this city; find another. Plan your escape route: always have an idea of how you are going to get home; don’t rely on Uber or hailing a cab at 2am on a Friday night. Buy a round of drinks for your friends– this creates the comradery in drinking that I think is dying. (3 credit cards for 3 drinks isn’t cool). Hopefully it will come around to you.

NightOwl: We’re sure you see and hear a lot behind the bar. Can you share one of the funniest things you’ve seen/heard?

Stacey: I saw two people on a blind date (probably Tinder) meet, hug, sit down, have about a ten minute conversation (which seemed to be going well) until another woman came in and everyone realized they were on the wrong dates. The dude shrugged it off like it happens to him all of the time but the first girl was so embarrassed I thought she was going to have a panic attack right there until her actual date showed up and everyone just continued on with their dates as if nothing happened. It was bizarre. I had to run in the back because I was laughing so hard. What a time to be alive!

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