The Ritz's Norm Bukofzer Talks Big Tabs, What the Young Ladies Are Drinking These Days & Why He Doesn't Like Basil in His Drink
For the past 30-odd years, he's been the man behind the bar at the Ritz Carlton on Central Park. His Facebook fan club has 122 members. In this world of mustachioed mixologists and bar pyrotechnics, Norm Bukofzer reminds us all what a bar should be.
What is it like being one of the city's most famous bartenders?
I don't know. I don't take it that way. As long a my friends like me and customers like me. I never went out of the way to look for anything. I never promote myself.
Do people come to the Ritz and ask specifically for you?
Yes, oh definitely. I've been dealing with these people for nearly 30 years. And that's what makes it great. I may not be dealing with them -- I may be dealing with their children or their grandchildren now, if you do it so long. But that's what makes everything worthwhile is the people that you meet.
You have a Facebook Fan Page with, as of now, 122 fans. Have you seen it?
I don't know how to use a computer. Somebody must have did it. I bought my wife an iPad. I can't use a computer. I can't use a mouse, so sometimes she lets me bang it a little bit. It's addictive. I try to look up people from 50 years ago. That's the only purpose I look for, but once you get to a certain point they ask you for $9.99. I don't want to pay for anything. I don't want them to know I'm looking for them.
What do you think the best decade for drinking has been?
I gotta tell you being a Ritz Carlton person for so many years, we have and the consumer that we're use to and our clients they all run into each other. There was no downside to the Ritz. There was no bottled water downside, no white wine downside. They were always educated drinkers -- Old Fashioneds, Martinis. Never saw the downside of the drinking with the Ritz. This wasn't a neighborhood place and it had no effect on Wall Street. People had money. If Wall Street went bad, they drank more.
Have you seen a change in what people are asking for?
I see a change in the way the young ladies are drinking now. Years ago, a young lady would never come and ask for a Negroni, or a Macallan 18, or a Manhattan. Young ladies now are drinking a lot of spirits, a lot of brown as opposed to a lot of white wines and Perriers and bottled water. That's the biggest change I see. And they're young, very young. Under 30. Years ago they would have come in and ordered a white wine and maybe a mixed drink, but never the old standards.
Is that a good thing?
We can make the drinks with the basil and cucumbers, whatever it is, but at the Ritz we really don't get that much. I don't believe in lighting things on fire. If you want a fruit cocktail, go, we'll give you dessert. I'll marinate a lot of things in a Pimm's Cup. We never saw the basil, the this, the mash. I think it's wonderful, but thank goodness there's the Ritz on Central Park. If they do ask we're always prepared to make it. We have all the ingredients. I have my fruity martinis in the summer -- peach, plum, everything. What's the crazy request from a customer you've had?
Years ago they use to ask for "ladies of the evening." These are all nice people, but if they have a few drinks -- you're not serving ice cream, you're serving cocktails -- so people say a few things. As long as they're not disrespectful to the girls, bigoted or make those kinds of remarks, you can almost overlook anything. I've definitely asked people to leave for those manners. Doesn't matter how much money he has or what his bill is. We'll take care of the bill. Disrespect to the female or anyone, you've got to go.
Any memorable big spenders?
About eight years ago we had a group. They're playing cards and they bought Louis XIII. It's $4500 at that time. About 20 minutes later with room service out of the way they said they wanted another one. We don't keep that many in stock. It's too expensive. So to make a long story short, they had about four for the night. We called up the Four Seasons and they sent one bottle over. Nothing shocks me. A guy came in when the American Express Black cards first came out and says, "I just bought a $20 million plane with this card." I says, "Good. What do you want to drink?"
What is your favorite part of the job?
Talking to people. I'm not a very open person on the outside. If I were just to sit here like with you now and we tried to have a conversation, I wouldn't know what to say. I'm getting better after 40, 50-something years. I admire that the most about people. I admire that people can just get into a conversation right away with the person sitting next to them. I can't do that. Maybe after four vodkas I could try. I couldn't do it cold.
Can you see yourself being a bartender for the rest of your life?
As long as I can hold up. Maybe not five or six days a week, but definitely. I work five days and four if someone wants extra money. I go to work because my wife don't want me home. She don't want me in the house or in the vicinity.
What is your least favorite part of the job?
I still find it difficult to say, "Maybe you should go home. Maybe you should have a glass of water." Not from us serving here, but from them coming in from outside. Here we can monitor it, judge it, but when they come from outside and they sit there and take a sip of their drink and all the sudden it puts them over the top. That's the hard part. But let's face it, if there was responsible drinking none of these places would make a living.
What's your favorite local haunt?
Since I got married, I really don't go out much any more after work. I used to go to Mary Louís on West 9th Street in the Village. Now if I go for a drink I'll go to Ben & Jack's on 28th Street and Fifth Avenue. When you get to a certain age there aren't many people to go have a drink with except working people if they want. Most of my crew doesn't go for drinks anymore. I don't like to go for a drink with just Mindy, she's my wife.
How do you feel about the speakeasy trend?
You go to these places where there are 50, 60 drinks on the menu. Just give me a gin and tonic. Give them five or six drinks. That's what I say. You have that place at 17th Street that doesn't have a bar and you've got to sit at a table. What's it called? Raines Law Room? It's okay, it's all right. If you're young and you have patience, but if you have and older group that wants to be served, you can't do it. You want to sit down and have a conversation. I like these places. I'm an old timer. I like to stand at a bar.
More on that...
I like the way younger people are finding ways to make this industry exciting. When they're excited, the customers get excited. It's great what they do. I don't like rosebuds or basil in my drinks.
What's your favorite drink?
I had heart surgery so I try to limit myself now. What I really like to drink now is little shots. I can do that for a long time. At home I have a little shot of frappe, some cognac. I had some shots of Grand Marnier. But I really like little shots of vodka. Stoli Elite. I don't like the big drinks no more.
Times have changed, huh.
This is the Ritz. It's simple. You want something, we give it to you. It's not a bat mitzvah. It's not a buffet. You're paying for the service. This is a great social atmosphere. It's better than an all-men's club and an all-women's club. You talk, you meet people, and it's great.
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