Get to know a bartender: Neil Rankin, Handlebar
Neil Rankin has a lot on his plate. In addition to his usual repertoire of bands (GAY, Foxfire, White Suede), he's now also got a new (so new there's not yet a website) self side-project New Positions. As the co-creator (alongside Tad Michalak) of the concert series Feast in the East, you'd also be hard-pressed in finding a better advocate for the up-and-comers of Toronto's east end.
Music enthusiast aside, he can also be found behind the bar at The Avro or its Kensington sibling Handlebar. "It pays the bills," he says sheepishly, and shrugs. I sit down with him on the first hour of his first west-end shift to talk about Toronto, bartending fashion, and slinging drinks.
Did you grow up in Toronto?
Yeah. I'd say I know the city pretty well; I've been here my whole life.
How long have you been bartending for?
Just two years, actually. Right when the Avro opened.
How'd you get into it?
I just kind of fell into it. I was working at Mercury, and Rachael was one of my customers. I served her every morning. Then one day she tells me she's opening a bar, and we got to chatting about what she wanted out of it. It sounded like an awesome place to drink at. Then she offered me a job--a couple shifts. And of course, I said yes.
Had you ever done it before that?
Oh, no. I'd only ever served coffee. I've learned everything I now know at the Avro, which basically consists of talking to people. How to be direct, because you have to be when people are out of line. How to politely tell someone they're being an asshole.
What about in terms of mixing drinks?
I'm just a bartender. I make the odd cocktail here and there, but mainly it's just beers. I'm getting better at it. Everyone who works with me is a pro, so I've been learning from them. There's also a little book behind the bar, so when people ask me for things I'm unfamiliar with, I'm like oh, yes, let me get that for you. And I'll secretly reach for it and teach myself. I'm basically just learning as I go along.
Starting off at The Avro seems really lucky. Most people start off at fairly grueling places.
Yeah, definitely. It's really relaxed and comfortable, and you can just go in whenever you want, and then just get a drink--with people, or on your own, or read a book. That sounds kind of like a weird thing to do at a bar, but I like doing that sometimes.
I find that's the vibe the Avro gives off: whatever the person who's coming in wants to do, they can do it--within reason.
Having fallen into bartending, has it ever gotten to a point where you're unsure of what you're doing?
No. I've always been sure. I've only ever worked at the Avro, but I've always liked it a lot. It's the best job I've ever had. Having worked at Mercury, I know what it's like to work mornings, and as I got older it really wasn't what I wanted to be doing anymore. It wasn't my passion. When Rachael's opportunity came up, I decided to take it.
Would you consider yourself passionate about bartending, then?
Well, I'm passionate about the social environment we've created. I'm passionate about the music we play and the vibe we've curated. I don't know if I'm passionate about the "mixology" side of things--it's pretty silly--but I do think it's impressive when somebody can whip up an amazing drink.
So what is your passion?
My passion is music. Bartending isn't my only job; I'm a musician as well. I play in bands. It doesn't make money, but it's my career.
Does bartending ever help with that?
Oh, yeah. They go hand in hand. It's the nightlife, right? You're meeting the kinds of people who would want to go out to shows, who like being in bars. You can talk about it; you can self-promote; you can even play at your workplace.
Did you always work on the east end?
Yes. I grew up in the east end--Main and Danforth--and was there for about twenty two years. Then I moved to the west side--right around here, actually--for about two years. I'd never worked around this neighbourhood before, though. That's going to be something new.
How do you feel about Toronto as a city?
I like it. I think there's space for everybody; it just takes time for people to find it. From experience, having gone through so many social groups in the time I've lived here, you can find almost anything you want. It's kind of amazing. I can understand it being really daunting for someone who's new, or not into socialising and finding new things. Toronto doesn't really come to you necessarily; you have to figure it out for yourself. Access isn't always easy--if you're living in the wrong part of town, or if you don't have the personality for it.
Having grown up in the east end, how do you feel about the west?
They're so different. Main and Danforth--in my memory, anyway--is a bit of a hub for people who are just traveling to and from work. There's the GO station. There are a lot of lower-income families, or families who have just recently immigrated from other countries. They're just finding their place. I find that there's just a lot of people always coming and going, period. There's not a lot of culture there; nothing that's tangible. Nothing destination-worthy.
But I loved it, growing up there. The street I lived on was quiet and residential. All the kids knew each other. From what I understand, a lot of neighbourhoods in Toronto are like that--just off the main drag, there are these little pockets where everybody hangs out. Blocks away it'd just be a totally different vibe.
In terms of the places I'm at when I'm on the west end, there's Kensington, of course. There's Queen West, and also Ossington. I do like those neighbourhoods, but I need balance. Right now I'm living in Leslieville, which is a nice mix. The street I'm on is really quiet, and I know a lot of the neighbours, so it's a great place to escape to when I just need to hang out on my own. But it's also close enough to go out to a bar, or coffee, or ice cream. We've definitely found a happy medium here, where we don't need to hang out with others and party all the time.
Is having an escape from all the socialising an important thing for you?
Absolutely. That's partly why I couldn't do it at Mercury anymore. I was there five, six days a week sometimes, and it'd be so taxing socially. People expect a lot from you--well, understandably, as it's your job to be engaging and friendly. You make friendships out of these situations. But sometimes it comes down to you having a bad day, and in the morning it's especially hard to not only talk to those who you're serving coffee to, but also to those who you work with.
People you're serving can be really short and grumpy. It's not as social as a bar, where when people don't get their drinks right away, it's not like oh, I have to get to work. People freak out when they don't get their coffee. That's the kind of socialising I couldn't take anymore. I found that it was really draining my creative energy.
Do you find yourself falling into the cliché or stereotype of being a bartender?
Sometimes I'd fall into the habit of listening to people's stories. But most of the time I feel pretty genuinely into what people are saying, and I've gotten some great friendships out of them. There's this guy, Chris, who used to come into the Avro a lot. One day I was worried about finding a venue for my band, and he's like "oh, I've started doing shows in my apartment." And that evolved into Feast in the East.
Sometimes I like to play up the stereotypical bartender, too. Like polishing glasses, throwing things over my shoulder, wiping down the bar, then swooping in and asking people "what're you havin'?" It's fun to play that role sometimes and act it out. It's meant to be comical, of course.
Well, you kind of look the part: the slicked hair, the sharp outfit.
Oh, thanks! My girlfriend doesn't think these pants are fashionable, but I like them and am determined to wear them.
I know a bartender who wears suspenders and justifies it to his job.
Yeah, you gotta look the part.
So, you're 27 now. Is this a career choice?
Well, no. I don't know. I haven't really thought that far ahead with it. It's very flexible for doing other things--playing music, running shows, things like that. Shifts are easily swapped. I've always seen it as something that I could do congruently with other things. I'm not opposed to seeing it through, since I enjoy it. If it ever gets to the point where I'm like, I hate my life, then I'll rethink it. Right now, I appreciate it.
What do you like to drink?
It's usually just a beer. At the end of the day. At the Avro I'll usually have the Duggan's No. 9 IPA.
Is there a particular story you'd like to share?
One of the funniest things happened when I was working alone--which, at the Avro, happens fairly regularly. We have this cheetah statue in the bathroom, and there was this woman. She went from zero to sixty in seconds. She must've been drinking elsewhere; I'd only served her one drink.
So she goes into the bathroom, and she's carrying the cheetah. I'm like, "uh, madam, please put it back." And she's like, [in a high-pitched, British impression] "He's lonely! He wants to go for a walk!" I was begging her, and physically had to take the cheetah from her and put it behind the bar. I hadn't realized how light it actually was.
Has it ever come to a point where you had to kick somebody out of a bar physically?
Just a guy who came in one night. He'd probably been somewhere else before that and was falling asleep at the bar, which is unfortunately not legal. He was a regular. I literally had to get him up and walk him to the door.
Well, that's polite. I was expecting something brawl-y.
No, the Avro's pretty laid back. Nothing's ever happened in there.
Would you consider working anywhere else?
I haven't really thought about it. I know these kinds of bars work really well for me because I'm not really passionate about food. I can't get into it. I don't even make food for myself! Why would I want to do it for others?
So you don't consider yourself a part of the service industry?
Well, no. I'm happy to be working in the field--serving drinks, meeting people--but when it comes to making cocktails I'm just not very good at it yet.
Well, this bourbon sour's great.
No, Rachel made that one. But I could've made you a great one, I swear!
What's your least favourite drink to make?
Anything I don't know how to make. 'Cause then I gotta look it up. I don't hate making anything, but I do get confused easily and forget things. I am impressed by those who can do it--doing whatever it is they do, shaking things.
Do you have a favourite bar in the city?
I do enjoy drinking at the Avro when I'm not working. Like I said, it is a bar I'd go to. I don't go out a lot, actually. I try to. I really like that socializing, but I always just end up going home or having band practice. I get tired. I feel so lame when that happens--when I was younger, I'd be like, let's go drinking every night! But now I just whine.
Have you seen anybody who reminded you of your old self at the Avro?
We don't get too many young folks. I was like that when I was 19 to 22ish. I haven't really seen my younger self coming through those doors yet. I'm sure it'll happen soon, though, and I'd be like, ah, to be young again.
What has bartending taught you about people?
It's made me more comfortable with large groups of people. I've also become better at reading people; telling what they're thinking just by looking at them. I've always been quite good at empathy. I've absolutely seen first dates happening, and when I see things getting awkward I've tried to play up the whole funny bartender routine to break the ice. I'd try to make a timely, appropriate joke.
RAPID FIRE QUESTIONS
Straight up or on the rocks? Straight up.
Gin or vodka? Vodka. I'm probably the first bartender to say this, but I had a bad experience with gin. Even if I smell it--well, no, I smell it all the time at work. I still can't drink it, though.
Light or dark? Dark.
Sweet or dry? Sweet.
Olives or with a twist? This is going to sound contradictory to what I just said, but olives.
Tonic or soda? Soda.
Lemon or lime? Lime.
Beards or moustaches? Well, I have a beard, so I guess I'm going to have to go with that.
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Photos by Jesse Milns