Where are all the movies about bartenders?

Yeah, I know, this isn’t a movie column, but I feel a lot more like a streaming-content reviewer than a bartender as of late. A misstep on an electric scooter took me out of commission for two months and counting … so much for going carless.

In related news: If anyone wants a commuting scooter for half-price, let me know.

So … I’ve had a lot of time to find movies and TV shows featuring bartenders or bartending. There is Road House, of course, and it’s a guilty pleasure of mine. That movie is about bars, however, like Snowpeircer is about trains, in that they’re mere settings for violence. Patrick Swayze plays a famous bouncer who has a degree in philosophy and does splits in a farmhouse window in between stitching his knife wounds. It’s ridiculous, but I did start my career in a place like that.

Cocktail was a big one, and although it’s rather silly, it does sort of capture the lifestyle as it existed in the ’80s (or so my Dad tells me). It certainly popularized some drinks; the red eye and the Long Island iced tea come to mind. The Big Lebowski did the same for the white Russian, and every bearded dude-bro I waited on lost his mind when he saw it on the menu at my last job. That’s certainly not a bartending movie, but a boozy one. James Bond popularized the vodka martini (and the Vesper, before Smirnoff got hold of the studio’s marketing), changing the industry forever. Mad Men is the only reason so many young men drink old fashioneds these days. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas had me drinking Singapore slings (with mezcal on the side) for most of my early 20s. I’m still waiting to see if Once Upon a Time in Hollywood re-popularizes the whiskey sour.

If you want something more about the actual craft, Hey Bartender had some good moments, covering the scene at one of the most famous cocktail bars in the country and the work it takes to get to the top. Overall, it’s just OK, but it has some serious bar heavyweights in it; I found it a little pretentious. I generally find most documentaries on spirits and wine to be a snooze, unfortunately.

On second thought, maybe you’re better off sticking to books when it comes to bartending—but I have covered those enough over the years.

Broadening the focus to depictions of the service industry, there are plenty of movies and shows about food and chefs to remind me of the good elements of the biz. These days, with irate customers hitting peak levels, good elements are something we all could use.

There have always been food shows in the modern era. I grew up watching The Galloping Gourmet, Yan Can Cook, Louisiana Cookin’ and others on PBS. Since then, the number of shows has risen as all the streaming services desperately try to deliver content.

The idea of the food-travel show as something more than “star goes to place and shoves local delicacies into face on camera” started, perhaps, with Anthony Bourdain. I realized watching his new biopic, Roadrunner, that I had some more things to unpack regarding his stardom. (The death of Joe, my former chef in Boston, at 40 after a long struggle with opioids, made things a little more poignant.)

Anthony Bourdain became a hero to a lot of industry lifers when he published Kitchen Confidential and hung up his chef’s whites for stardom. He was self-aware the entire time—perhaps to a fault. He knew the guys he sweated with in the trenches were still sweating there, and he often celebrated them while putting down his own abilities, at least as much as he could. He did his best to show the sacrifices that go into feeding people really good food.

He got out of this industry of substances, stress and ungodly hours … then he got out of life. We could have used him this last year and a half, while our industry was crumbling around us. Now a million lesser lights are trying to fill his role, including other chefs pretending to be journalists. (In a small way, that includes even me, I guess.) Bourdain never intended to become a surrogate father to a million-plus mutant orphans of the service industry. He took the corporate cheese and led us all along with him, while being critical of the machine of which he was very much a part. I would’ve never had the confidence to write about our world if he hadn’t led the way, because I never would’ve thought anyone would give a damn about what I do for a living. I owe him a debt.

Roadrunner does a really good job of celebrating his life. It does leave the kid gloves on when it comes to the end, merely hinting at some of the root causes behind his early demise. All in all, it’s worth watching as a fan, even as a fan who still has some stuck feelings about the end of Bourdain’s life.

On a brighter (?) note, my most surprising movie of the year—and one that really made me think about the industry and the importance of food to memory—is Pig, starring Nicolas Cage. It’s absolutely not what you would think; it zigs where you expect it to zag. As our reviewer, Bob Grimm, hints at, Pig starts looking like a revenge film … before it becomes a tour of the dark side of Portland’s food scene. While it goes to some Chuck Palahniuk extremes sometimes—maybe it’s a Portland thing—Pig ends with a lot of heart. If you have ever loved food and what it can mean to someone’s life, or believe in the power of forgiveness and compassion, the film will likely give you an emotional kick.

That’s enough for now. I should be back behind the stick with some fresh inspiration by next month. In the meantime, a little escape can be good sometimes—and I will take it while I can get it.

Kevin Carlow

Kevin Carlow has been a bartender and writer for most of his adult life. Having worked in nearly every position in the service industry at some point, he is currently a bartender at Seymour's. His non-cocktail...