Whether she’s making Manhattans at Big Fish or just pulling beers, to bartender Michele Smith, everyone is a regular.
A small group of bartenders and servers were waiting around the bar at Big Fish in Rehoboth. Not really hanging out, more like checking in. The beach restaurant usually has a line outside prior to opening and, for as much anticipation as people have to come in there was a proportionate amount on the inside among the staff. The bartenders and servers were checking in with Michele Smith, who had the evening off but still carries the kind of quiet authority that comes with 17 years behind the bar.
Colleagues peppered her with “hellos” and “what are you going heres” but mostly they wanted to know whether she thought Gary was bringing macadamia nut cookies. Some regulars bring her the occasional gift, but on Thursdays Gary could be counted upon to bring cookies to share. The staff at a restaurant like Big Fish doesn’t really lack for much in the good food department, but gifts from customers taste a little sweeter.
For Smith, it is a reminder about why she stayed so long on the job and how she has built it into a natural extension of her life.
Smith grew up in Lincoln and has worked at the beach for each of the last 23 summers. She tried her hand at several jobs but once she was old enough to bartend, she found her calling even though, she said, she didn’t know it at the time.
From Beach Kid to slinging Manhattans at Big Fish
“I can’t say if you asked me 20 years ago if this is what I would be doing I would have said yes,” she said. “But it’s like anything else, whether you’re making Manhattans or doing fundraisers for school, there’s a pride in it.”
In between working at the beach, Smith took her English degree at James Madison with the intention of teaching, but there wasn’t much of a rush. She was young and part of the beach server scene, which is a club all to itself.
Bartenders from different restaurants tend to run in packs, especially when they’re young and especially when it is summertime. Smith said that her then-boyfriend now-husband Larry worried at the time that if he didn’t treat her well, he wouldn’t be able to get served at any bar in the region.
She spent her first few years as a bartender popping beer caps and whizzing frozen drinks at beach bars up and down the strip. One night, Eric Segrue, who with his brother Norman owns Big Fish, invited her to come work behind the tiki bar, which just had finished being built.
Smith could handle crowds, but also was personable and engaging, she still is.
“I never could wait tables,” she said. “I like to talk too much.”
Standing behind the bar Smith is able to keep the conversations going while she does her job, but that’s just the first part of being good bartender. At a place like Big Fish, making good drinks is paramount. The clientele order proper cocktails and have expectations about them. Learning to be good at that took a little longer. Most of what Smith knows about being a great bartender, she said she learned from the woman who trained her at Big Fish, Denise Cain.
“I remember watching Denise and thinking, ‘I will never be able to open a bottle of wine as fast as she does, I will never be able to make five martinis at a time,’” she said. “It’s not opening a bazillion bottles. It’s not pouring shots. You’ll have someone come in and say, ‘Can I have a stinger?’ ‘Make me a Rob Roy,’ I’m a perfectionist, I have to be good.”
Connecting with the Regulars
Smith’s greatest advantage was her ability to establish relationships almost immediately. She makes connections with people and they get the impression right off the bat that she is sincere, because she is. Making a good drink is both execution and ambiance. The confidence with which she serves her guests lets them know she is committed.
Although she has worked at Big Fish varying nights and times over the last 17 years, Monday night always has been locals night. It’s like a small club, she said, that counts on being able to see one another.
“They’ve watched me get married, they’ve watched me have all four of my kids,” she said. “There was a period when I was kind of done, but I kept the two nights per week so I could see them.”
When it’s busy, Smith jokes that her favorite drink to make is a Miller Lite draft. And while her specialty is a Manhattan, her favorite is the martini and all its variations. Longer ago than she can remember, she initiated the martini of the week. Sometimes it is something of her own creation, sometimes it is a little more classic but it always is up on the board by the time the doors open and all of the bartenders know how to make it.
For Smith, this is the next level of being good at what she does, coming up with drink menus and instructions that keep things fresh, even for people who have been sitting in the same seats for more than a decade, especially for them.
“After I had my daughter (she has three boys and a girl, in that order), people were amazed that I came back within four weeks,” she said. “I told them, ‘I have four kids, this is the easiest thing I do all week.’”
Gary came in, gave and received hellos and slid up to the bar. He pulled a plastic shopping bag out of his lap and laid it on the bar. Today it was rocky road cookies from Harrington instead of macadamia nut. But there would always be next week and the week after that.