Get to know a bartender: Ryan McVittie, Motel
You may not have noticed that Motel, the cute speakeasy-looking spot opposite Grand Electric in Parkdale, changed hands a year back, but step inside and order an old fashioned and you'll instantly know. Instead of being met with a blank stare, you'll be treated to one of Ryan McVittie's grapefruit old fashioneds, or one of his custom drinks with fresh basil and star-anise or lemongrass-infused simple syrups.
I popped in to meet Ryan one day before service to chat about his bartending history, his clientele, and his plan to open up a second Motel at Dufferin and Dundas this spring.
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Guelph. When I was growing up there it was a much smaller town than it is now. I go back to visit my parents and it's much more of a sprawling suburbia than it was. Where I grew up it was big trees, out in the country, but now it's been annexed to the highway so there's not much countryside left. I moved to Toronto in '89. It was this huge epiphany that the world was much larger and more cosmopolitan that Guelph, Ontario.
Did you start bartending in Guelph?
I'd worked in a country club and that sort of thing, but I moved out of Guelph when I was 18, so I didn't bartend there. I think I was in my second year of university when I took a year off and decided I needed to put some money together. It was hard to do that doing construction work, so I was really keen to get into the bar business. It was something I was very drawn to but it's particularly difficult in smaller towns to find work in the service industry; especially a bar job, which is highly coveted because there can be a lot of money in it.
My first job bartending, I had to drive from Guelph to out in the countryside near Hamilton to Flamborough Downs horse race track; back in '91, I think. That was my baptism by fire - there was high volume, it was all cash, and there were no cash tills, so you were doing the math in your head and carrying trays. It was kind of a stressful job, but it was fun. It was a rough joint, too. This is the other thing with being in the country - there were some knock-down, drag-out fights there.
Did it ever get out of hand in there?
I remember during the L.A. Riots, you'd be watching the violence on TV and at times you could turn around and tables were getting flipped; it was the wild west out there! They had a security force at Flamborough Downs that was rumoured to consist of a bunch of retired police officers. The average age must have been about 75 years old, so they just sat in their office drinking out of their filing cabinet and ignored any cries for help from the rest of us when things were going terribly awry.
You're pretty much on your own and if you had to call the police, heaven forbid, it was the O.P.P., so they may or may not show up as they're within 50 kilometres of where you are. It was a white-knuckle experience. I lasted about a year before I was able to secure a job at Pauper's Pub here in Toronto.
That must have been quite a change of scene.
Yeah, that was '92-'93 and I was coming from a very small market where my customer base was a very particular type of person; in that way a lot of my regulars were sort of closed off from me. Pauper's was the polar opposite, especially in those early years back when people could smoke. I don't smoke, nor am I championing the return of smoking in bars or restaurants, but it certainly had a real feel to it when you walked in off the street.
Back then Bloor Street was completely different. There wasn't a lot of competition. You walked into work as the sun's going down, and already it would be 3 or 4 people deep. People from all walks of life - contractors, a lot of lawyers, a lot of professor types from the university, and a lot of artists. It really was an awesome mishmash of people standing around smoking and drinking right after work. I just don't think you see that much anymore.
It's a generational thing, I guess. The energy was palpable. I walked into it and I was like "This is the place where I wanna be," and I thrived there. I got very good at what little there was to do in terms of customer service.
What kind of drinks were you serving there back then?
There wasn't a whole lot of cocktailing in the '90s; you were dealing with martinis and the sweet syrupy cocktails like Long Island Ice Teas and Killer Kool-Aids, and using powdered bar mix for Tom Collins and Margaritas. Sickeningly syrupy sweet stuff. My focus at the time was fresh beers, particularly microbrews. I was very interested in that and just trying to set the mood. There are a lot of places that you can go to, and not just in Toronto, where you can go and get a really great cocktail, and they'll walk away from you, stand in a corner, and leave you to drink that $15 by yourself.
Not that I feel like you need to do a song and dance but you do need to engage, and that's part of the job. I wouldn't wanna be here if all I did was shake drinks and pass them across the bar. I guess what I mean to say is that what I learned from Pauper's in my formative years was how to really make customers feel at home. You never want to be at the front door having a discussion as to whether you want to stay there or not. You don't ever want anyone doing that when they come into your bar, especially if you own it or if you're running the bar; this is your livelihood.
You are sort of throwing a party every night and part of that is just creating the whole environment and paying attention to the people that are here, through the drinks, the food, and the music.
How long did you work at Pauper's?
I left there at the end of the summer in 2000. I worked there on and off during that time, taking the odd summer off to work at Le Meridien hotel in Vancouver for a year, and stuff like that. I was trying to make a living as an actor and a writer for a long time, and it came to a point where I realised I'm no longer in love with this and I'm bartending more than I'm acting. I was reading a lot about cocktails and got very interested in the history and origins of cocktails. I had an opportunity to go in with some partners and we opened The Comrade. The intention was to open a classy cocktail lounge and that's what we did.
It really became my opportunity to have a laboratory and try out new things, and really craft the cocktails that I had really only been making for myself up until that point. The Manhattans I made in 10 years in a pub were few and far between, and the people that appreciated them were a handful a year. I wanted to work with fresh ingredients, have some creative license, and make my own cocktail list. That's what I did there and that lasted a couple of years before I left. It's a beautiful space.
So you came from there to Motel?
No, after that I had to have heart surgery - which was a life-changing experience I can tell you, as it came out of nowhere - and then I took a job as manager at the Lakeview Diner. It's definitely not a place where you do a lot of cocktailing, but I got to a lot of stuff I never did anywhere else - with ice cream, put it that way. Then I was the general manager at the Great Hall; 6 or 7 months into that I realized it wasn't the right fit for a 41-year-old man - to be doing a job that would run a 20-year-old ragged - so I left and Danny who owns Motel wanted me to come here.
When I first came here there was hardly any liqueurs and there wasn't much in the way of fruit or anything, so I started bringing in my own stuff. I eventually narrowed it down to a few tried and true cocktails that worked with the stuff we have here and also worked well with the customers that came in here. It's a big whiskey bar, so we stick to whiskey-based things a lot of the time. Gin cocktails are easy - there's great classic ones for that - but bourbon and scotch are fun to work with and they're certainly in vogue. I've been here about a year.
What attracted you to Motel?
When I went travelling, the experiences I kept with me were walking into small village pubs in England where you walk in and part of it's the building - they've had to excavate the floor because people were about 4 feet tall when the place was built - but you can get a pint of XXX Bitter or whatever that was brewed down the road. I don't like the whole streamlined corporate approach to bars where everywhere you go it's gonna be the same.
Motel is where I found myself after 20 years in the business. These are the places I like. The 30-40 seat venues where you can control it with two people and over-deliver on everything, as opposed to looking half-empty or elitist. It doesn't take much to bring some warmth to it.
How does Toronto measure up to other places you've been?
Well, I was just in New York recently and it's amazing. You can have a place that can fit maybe 10 people, and all they do is specialize in bitters, so there's no juice at all. Everything's just made with bitters. I don't know if that could survive at this point in Toronto, but I love the attention to detail and the passion that people have for that sort of thing. Now that cocktail culture has come back with such a violent return, my complaint is that that we're not keeping up.
Even though we now have a number of new bourbons in the LCBO, whereas before we had maybe five, you still can't get American rye whiskey or a number of the different types of gins, like sloe gin or genever, and I have to drive all around Toronto trying to find a bottle of Maraschino liqueur which is something that should be available anywhere as it's prevalent in so many classic cocktails. We don't get a lot of vermouth either - we're married to Martini & Rossi which serves a purpose, but it would nice to have a selection. I hate the term 'dive bar,' but it I guess it really fits the types places that I like.
I don't want to walk into a place and look at what I'm wearing and go "Oh," but I also don't wanna walk into a place and look at what I'm wearing and look at the couch and think "I don't wanna sit on that couch." The place should be super-clean and super-comfortable, but you should be as comfortable in a suit as in a pair of track pants.
How have cocktail tastes changed in the two decades you've been bartending?
Well, nowadays it's abundantly clear that the martini has gone the way of the dodo and has been replaced by Manhattans, sours and old fashioneds. It's strange to me that it's limited at those two, as there are so many other similar but just as good cocktails. Brown liquor seems to be the cool thing right now, and I get girls as much as guys asking for these drinks. Actually, I get more women than men asking me for bourbon and scotch cocktails.
I vary things to keep my own interest and I find a little twist on things that make things better. It's important to pay attention to the flavour profile - whether it has a lot of vanilla or apple, or it's very woody - of the various bourbons so you can accent that and riff off it.
And it doesn't have to be with brown liquor at all. There are a lot of great gin cocktails.
Vodka surpassed gin in terms of clear liquor sales as of the '60s - when the martini started to become associated with vodka. Gin is a much more flavourful drink. I've worked in vodka bars and I have respect for certain ones, but if someone comes up and asks me for a vodka cocktail, my heart sinks a little bit, I have to say. There's not a lot you can do to enhance the flavours, or non-flavours, of a vodka without covering it up. With vodka you're trying to distill all the congeners and impurities out of it, but a lot of those impurities are what adds to the flavour of it so, apart from Żubrówka which is lovely, it doesn't have a whole lot of flavour.
How do you feel about the explosion in the bar scene in Toronto in recent years?
With the hip new places to go to, I fear that the idea behind them is to get as much money in your pocket as quickly possible before people grow tired of the place; that's a poor business philosophy in my opinion. I'm in it for the long haul. I don't want to be associated with the most expensive pint on the strip. I want it to be fresh, of good quality, and at a reasonable price. I'd rather sell 10 than sell 1, and never see that person again. It's a fashion cycle, you know: "We're doing fish tacos, computer games, and pork jowl - only the dirty parts of the pig." What else is big now? "We only do bone marrow and everything infused with bacon."
You make a lot of your own syrups and ingredients.
Yeah, I haven't gotten into making my own bitters yet, but that's my intention, especially with the new place because we have a little kitchen in the back so I'll actually have a place to do this instead of carting it from home and bringing it in. My girlfriend gets a bit crazy when my tiny condo turns into a laboratory. Mason jars everywhere!
So you guys are opening up a second Motel?
Yeah. We're quite happy with what we're doing here so it'll be similar - very music focused - but because we're gutting it and renovating it, it will be a lot closer to what we want, with a better designed bar. We'll have a small kitchen there, so we'll have a small menu of delicious snacks. It's all very new so we won't be open until at least April, but it's exciting, and I love that neighbourhood.
For more bartender profiles, visit our Toronto Bartenders Pinterest board
Photos by Jesse Milns