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The Windmill's Charlie Papaceno on Life in the Bar World

Welcome to Lifers, a feature in which Eater interviews the men and women who have worked in the restaurant and bar industry for the better part of their lives, sharing their stories and more.
Charlie Pap slinging drinks at the Windmill. [Photo: Windmill Lounge]

If you've been to the Windmill Lounge, chances are you recognize co-owner and bartender extraordinaire Charlie Papaceno. He's approachable and likeable at an instant; he wears extremely hip glasses, gives no-bull advice and mixes up some damn fine cocktails. Industry types have been flocking here for the great drinks and easy-going atmosphere for years, but 2013 has been a big year for the New York native's eight-year-old bar: The Windmill Lounge was named one of the best bars in America by Esquire mag, and Papaceno was named Dallas' best bartender by the Dallas Observer.

It's about time the 58-year-old surfaced to the limelight: Papaceno has dedicated roughly 30 years to working behind a bar, even though he once had a successful career working in the TV industry. Eater caught up with Papaceno to talk about his love for the bar industry, the accolades he's received lately and his hopes for the future.

When did you get into the bar scene?
My godfather and his brother owned some bars in a little town [in New York]. It's outside the city limits, a very small town. So, I kinda learned from my godfather, just really by watching him, how he treated people and how to be. 'Cause I mean, making drinks is fine, but it's really, it's still a service industry. It's how you treat people. I watched what he did with people, and he was just a great, gracious guy who took care of everybody. As soon as I was old enough to drink, I was working at a bar.

Then, I went to the State University of New York at New Paltz and then I dropped out halfway through the first year. I did what every American boy does in 1974 and got a Volkswagen van and we drove to California. Well, halfway to California, then it blew up. So we had to split up and hitchhike the rest of the way in twos, but when we got to L.A., we got terrible jobs. We had no cars and my roommate and I ended up working at a discotheque. It was called the Hot Potato. It was in Pico Rivera, which is in East L.A., so it was like an all-Mexican discotheque. We used to have to wear these shirts that had a big potato with a mustache and it said, "I'm a super spud." We were like the only gringos who worked at the whole place. It was great. Then I worked different jobs, bars, and then I went into the army because I wanted to go to college.

You and your ex-wife, Louise, opened The Windmill Lounge in 2005. How did this venture come about?
I was working for Comcast. I was making commercials for the cable company. Well, I was the head of the department, and I got let go. They were nice enough to get me a really good package when I walked out the door, including healthcare, for, like, a year and a half. So, I wasn't working and I was driving around and I saw this rundown diner. It was empty, and I said, "You know what? We always talked about opening a place. I have a year and half of health insurance paid for, maybe now's the time."

I spent probably four months every day inside rehabbing the building myself and working on it. So, we just decided with no business plan, no locations guide, no looking at the populace in the area, we just liked the building and we did it. It was idiocy. Well... it was a career I knew, and it was close to our house. [laughs]

It was a terrible way to go into business, you know, and we paid for it. We paid for it for years. There were nights I was sitting there with just me in the bar. So I came in with that old-school bar thing. I was like, we're open seven days a week and we don't close 'til 2 a.m. every night. 'Cause to me, that's a bar. A bar's available when you need it. What happened was slowly over time we built up because people knew we were always open 'til 2, even on a Monday. I don't know how we even got to where we are today. It probably took five or six years [to take off].

You worked in television for a long time. Did you think you would be working at a bar right now and dedicate a huge chunk of your life to this industry?
No. I thought I would be Francis Ford Coppola by now. [laughs] I'd be in Hollywood making movies. Yeah, it didn't work out so well. I'm the biggest slacker in life. But when I do something, I work really hard at what I do, but as far as goals and ambitions and stuff, I just kind of roll with it. Everybody will tell you that that's terrible. You should have a plan in life and you should have this career. I just thought, I don't know — this looks like fun, and now I've been doing this my whole life.

What do you like about this profession?
I like it because I'm good at it. That sounds egotistical, but when you have a job that you feel good at and people tell you you're good at it, it helps you like what you're doing.

People think all bartenders are huge extroverts. I find that a lot of them are actually very big introverts. So, as long as they're in their job, behind that bar, that bar is in front of them, they can talk to people all night. As soon as they're, like, in a social situation, I know a lot of bartenders who just get very quiet. I wouldn't say I'm a big introvert but I'm not really [extroverted]. When I was younger I was rowdy and stuff, but now I'm just, like, I just want to go somewhere and sit and watch everybody else.

How has being in the bar industry affected your life?
I would never have met half the people I met if it wasn't for working at a bar. Some of the characters and people you meet, they're just incredible. And connections! I mean, if you're a bartender, you're the master facilitator. The bar is like a nexus web, you know. You can connect so many people and hope it doesn't go horribly wrong.

Up until we opened The Windmill, and part of this goes to Louise because she was a wine and spirits writer for the Morning News, I was a bartender, like an old-school bartender. That was before the whole cocktail reinvention, so you were just bartending. You know, you're at a bar and you could make some drinks. And then when I wasn't bartending, this whole [craft cocktail movement] started happening. Before I met Michael Martensen, Louise was doing wine and spirits writing so she'd come back from her trips to distilleries and she'd have all this information and I was kind of like, yeah, whatever. You know, it's drinks, throw them over the bar, I don't care. It just took me a while to come around to the fact that everything had changed and we needed to learn about this stuff. It was important. That's when I met Mike [Martensen] and he's like all up in it, he's incredible. So for me, that's when I started changing the kind of bartender I was. Now it's a whole different ball game.

Over the years, I've kind of lightened up. I was like, take no prisoners, sometimes. It was like, "You know what? Shut up. Get out. I'm tired of you." But you can't be that way. You can't build a real business [like that].

You brought quality cocktails to Dallas eight years ago. What's your take on the craft cocktail scene now?
What's great is the fedoras, the little vests — that was kind of annoying the whole time for me — it's fading away. Our bar has got a great reputation, we have great cocktails but it doesn't take us 20 minutes to make a drink, for God's sake. And that's beginning to die, that whole "bar star," like, "Come look at me as I make your drink."

For the restaurant bartender, [that showy scene] is great. People come in and there's no relationship, really. They just come in and hang out for a meal. But when you have a bar-bar, people come in a lot and it's how you get familiar with them, so they're not gonna want to sit there and watch you grate cinnamon, light it on fire and then put it out with a gelee foam, you know? They're gonna be like, "Can I have that fucking drink, for Christ's sake?"

The Windmill's had a big year. How has the recognition affected the bar?
It's changing [the bar] a little this year, because of all the press we got all of a sudden. These guys are showing up with their backwards baseball hats and all that.

Initially we had all neighborhood people, like, working-class people. So, we used to have a Jager machine at the back bar, because that's what people wanted. Now, we don't sell nearly as much bottled beer. We took the Jager machine out.

Now we have a lot more professional people from the hospital. We have some Park Cities people popping up every now and then. We're close to Highland Park, so we get a lot of the kind of people who come looking for cocktails. We get a lot of people from out of town since the Esquire article.

We didn't open up to be a craft cocktail bar. As a kid, I learned how to make Manhattans and Old Fashioneds. I mean, that's what people drank in the '70s. That's old school. So, a lot of it was that. We had been drinking so long and those were just drinks I assumed everybody wanted.

How has being named the "Best Bartender in Dallas" and all the other recognition the bar has received make you feel?
It's just allowed my customers to make fun of me a lot more and embarrass me. They'll be like, "Oh if I could get a drink but 'The Best Bartender in Dallas' seems to apparently be a little busy right now." I love my customers because they're such ball-busters, it's great.

What is the must-try drink at The Windmill?
Old Fashioneds. We sell more Old Fashioneds than any other drink. It comes in a wide variety of set ups. The original Old Fashioned was bitters, sugar whiskey. Actually, before bitters, it was sugar, water, whiskey. Then people started in the '50s jamming fruit in the bottom, and that's how I learned how to make them. I would put an orange and cherry and mashed it all up, but that's incredibly sweet. Then craft guys were like, "Well, we're not gonna do that. We're gonna go back to the original." So our customers come in and ask for an Old Fashioned and we ask: Would you like bourbon or rye? Would you like your fruit muddled? Would you like just a peel? Would you like no fruit? It's this whole thing.

What are your hopes for the future?
I'd like to keep it elevated and try to make it better. People say what you should do in life is try to be a better person every day, if you can. And so, I'd like The Windmill to be better and just to keep getting better all the time, somehow.

Looking back, how would you say the journey to this point has been overall?
It's tumultuous because, you know, my ex-wife is my business partner and that makes it automatically [tough] because we went through the divorce. I mean the first couple of years she had breast cancer, so it's been hard. It's been a real rough ride. But you know, it's like anything. You take the good out of life if you can.

—Caren Rodriguez

The Windmill Lounge

5320 Maple Ave. Dallas, TX 75235