Old-timey cocktails are just the thing at a(Muse) in Rehoboth
David Engel moves behind the bar at a(Muse) in Rehoboth talking about his career and completely at ease as he prepares for his shift. He’s been at this long enough that he notices and performs things almost absentmindedly that many people wouldn’t notice.
For instance, the ginger-infused vodka that’s the centerpiece of one of the many specialty drinks is ready. Engel lugs the glass vessel filled with the vodka, now a deep yellow-orange from the ginger and sieves out the ginger root. All the while he’s talking about Rehoboth Beach as he found it, almost accidentally, in the summer of 1991.
“It really was a different place back then,” he said. “When people wanted a drink, they wanted a drink. They didn’t care if it was whiskey or rye.”
A Brief History of Beach Drinking
Engel had moved from his native Pittsburgh to Washington, D.C. where he waited at the Old Ebbitt Grill and retired to an apartment with a balcony overlooking the Potomac. It was a good couple of years, but he needed a change and found it in Rehoboth, where he went to work at the Renegade Dance Lounge. It’s since been replaced by condos on Route 1, but at the time it was one of the hottest bars in town.
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“It’s like with so many other people,” he said. “I didn’t plan on living here, I just came for the summer, but that was more than 25 years ago.”
Engel spent a couple starving winters in town, back then the work was from May through September, before he became a commuter bartender.
There have been, for decades, bartenders who spend half their time on the beaches of the northeast and half in the islands. Resorts from Hawaii to Key West employ top-notch bartenders throughout the winter. Engel found himself at the latter, working winters in Key West and summers in Rehoboth for more than a decade. He bounced around a bit when the Renegade closed, but soon found his home in another of Rehoboth’s storied bars, La La Land on the ocean clock of Wilmington Ave.
“There were a lot more locals than anything else at the bar, it was about like a private speakeasy, for the people who were in the business, he said. “It was almost like you had to know where it was, Cosmos were the hot drink then, Sex in the City although it is a much older drink than that.”
Engel speaks like he works, flowingly and with purpose. He links each of the ideas together slowly and deliberately and comes around from people drinking to get loaded to people drinking for pleasure. From shaking off the 1990s and taking on a new century.
The restaurant business is notoriously hard, with a kind of unspoken standard for being able to work all night, drink til morning and reboot quickly. It’s part of Engel’s past, but also makes for a lot of the pleasant memories he has of working through the 1990s and early aughts in Rehoboth Beach and Key West.
Revival at a(Muse) in Rehoboth
When he landed at a(Muse) in Rehoboth he was happy for the change in culture and attitude. Drinks there are serious business, but serious for the flavor and the experience as much, if not more than, for the booze.
Hari Cameron, the owner and chef, prides himself on the extensive and intriguing drink menu. He brought Engel a new heavy-duty lemon squeezer and presented it to him with some good-natured fanfare.
“Here you go, Star-tender,” he said.
The bartender is a friendly person, in life as much as because of his trade, but isn’t comfortable having his photo taken.
Cameron was meeting with some wine salesman for a tasting. They had asked for water and when Engle brought it over he asked his boss if he’d prefer a seltzer and lime. Of course he would and of course Engel knew it. He knows the regulars from his boss all the way down to the people he sees annually during their vacations at the beach. He has a sense of what they need, or what they’re likely to want that comes, like everything else he does, from habitual excellence.
Although most of the specialty drinks on the menu were invented for a(Muse) in Rehoboth by Cameron, there’s an traditional drink, the Corpse Reviver, that’s among Engel’s favorites to make.
It originated as a hair of the dog hangover cure in the mid-1800s, made with gin, Lillet, fresh lemon juice and absinthe. Hangovers were different back then.
He poured the absinthe into the cocktail glass and left it there.
“It will take over the whole drink,” he said, “and you don’t want that.”
He mixed the rest of the drink, poured the absinthe in a shot glass and set it aside. The licorice-flavored liqueur took the bite out of the lemon which took the bite out of the gin, making it into one of those potent drinks that tastes almost alcohol free.
Happy Hour was just underway and Engel entered a kind of zone, chatting freely, keeping an eye on things, greeting people by name and asking after their adventures since last he had seen them. He knows a good bartender always can find work, especially at the beach, but he also knows that a good place to work is rare. After almost 40 years in the business, he is happy where he is and happier still that so many of the old crew from La La Land still find him at a(Muse.)
This story originally appeared in The Wave