When Roger Nelson got started bartending, he was an 18-year-old kid with hair down to his belly, bluffing his way into the only job he could find that wouldn't make him chop his beloved blonde locks. Twenty years later Nelson is still at it — minus several pounds of hair — and after a journey through Dallas' peak club days and then back to neighborhood bars, he just snagged the title of "Best Bartender" for 2014 from the Dallas Observer. These days Nelson co-manages beloved dive Lakewood Landing. Eater recently caught up with the award-winning drink slinger to talk about his lifetime of bartending.
How do you feel about winning Best Bartender from the Observer this year?
It's interesting that I got it this year. Something like this, we're a local neighborhood bar, friendly, talk to everybody, get drinks out as quick as you can. But I've done so many things over the past 20-some-odd years, I've been a high-volume, ring-higher-than-anybody-else bartender at the clubs and stuff — so it was unexpected. I don't even know how my name got put in there, except that the Landing's kind of an iconic type bar here in Dallas.
How would you say this style of bartending differs from working in a fast-paced club?
Oh, it's a lot different. This is on a more personable level. You'll know at least 30 percent of the people that come in the door, what they want to drink. It's more interactive with the customers. You get to know them. You talk. You're friendly. You make them feel at home, as opposed to Trees or something like that where you're just throwing drinks out at them as quick as you can. They're here to see a show. They want a Jack and Coke. Send them on their way.
Where did you get your start in bartending?
Well I'm 45, so I can't remember if I was 18 or 19 — I think I was 18 — but I started in a place called Boss Cafe on lower Greenville Avenue. It's right by where J. Pepe's used to be. This would have been 1988-ish, and the reason I got into it is I had a friend of mine who got a job there as a waiter, and I had long hair down to about here [motions to just below his chest]. It's what was cool back then. And I lied my way into it. I just picked it up really quickly. From there, a lady by the name of Cindy Peterman came in there for lunch all the time and thought I had talent and put me in the club business.
What do you mean you lied your way in there?
I had no experience whatsoever. I just said I did. It was a total bluff.
I had no experience whatsoever. I just said I did. It was a total bluff. Like I said, I was a teenager. I wanted to figure out something I could do without cutting my hair off, in all honesty. I know it sounds stupid, but back then it was a big deal.
So Peterman got you into the club business.
Yeah. Took me down to Coyote Bar in the West End. At that time, West End was really huge. Deep Ellum was fine, but it was really big money down there. We had Top 40 in dance bands. We had chicks in cages in all the windows dancing. We had a big bar —the guy I got hooked up with, Tony Martin, who is still, in my eyes, the best bartender that's ever been in Dallas, I got paired with him. He had really long dark hair, I had really long white hair, and that guy could do all the flow and shit, flipping stuff around, and I, well I had no idea how to do that stuff, so he would take me home and practice. And we got so good that we kind of became a team over the next five or more years.
How did you end up at Lakewood Landing?
The owner and I are good friends. He's been trying to get me to come here for years and years, and he finally caught me at a weak point and I was like, "All right, I'll come in." This place is real difficult to start. There's such a regular clientele, and nobody likes change.
For about three years, [co-manager Brandy] Buther and I worked every shift together. Then, one of the old icons decided he wanted to do something different and moved, so she and I took over as co-general managers.
How do you think the bartending world has changed since you got your start?
A lot of things have changed. Number one, laws have changed quite a bit, where you can't do two-for-ones, and you can't do coin nights where you can get everything you want for a nickel, as well as technology has changed a ton. Now you have touch screen registers, which, you can't go very fast on them. You can go pretty quick, but that would have never worked at the time I'm talking about.
Gypsy Tea Room, I suppose this was 2007 when I was a GM there as well as a bar manager. We had seven registers around the main bar, two in the other room and then two door registers, and man, it was fast. You didn't have time to play with a little video screen. You wrote your stuff down and slammed it out on, we called it a banger, basically a calculator with a drawer, and it was quick.
Nowadays, you go to House of Blues or any of these clubs, you're not going to get in and out as quickly by any means. It's all about keeping track of your liquor and stuff now.
What do you like about the bartending life?
Bartending for a living is just like skipping school, you know?
There's a lot of things I like about it. Most people complain about the hours in this business. I love it. I like being off work Mondays and Tuesdays when there's nobody else out on the streets. I have a boat. I fish a lot. There'll be five miles of traffic on 635, backed up and stopped, and I'm going 70 MPH the other way with a boat. It's fun. It's just like skipping school, you know?
I like being able to go to work and not knowing what the hell's going to happen that night. This is never boring. It's something different every day. You think on your feet. You've got to be able to deal with or eliminate problems. Whatever comes at you, you've got to be able to take care of it.
It's almost like going out and partying but getting paid for it, for the most part. It's different every day. I guess I was probably 30ish, or a little over 30, when I realized, "I love this. This is what I do, and I like it."
In a bar like this, one of my favorite things is you get a shy guy — because this isn't a pick-up bar, it's a hangout bar — and he's socially inept, and he's kind of scared of everybody, breaking him in and kind of giving him a little confidence. In a couple of months, he's hanging out with everybody and he's a whole different person. I know that means something to those people.
What's your weirdest story bartending?
I've seen people ODing in the bathrooms. I've been high with Willie.
I've seen everything from people ODing in bathrooms to meeting celebrities all the time. I've been high with Willie. I partied with all these bands I grew up with. Most of the time, I always seem to be the guy throwing people out.
Here's a story. Back in the old days, Dallas Alley had Monday night concerts for free, and I was working at Warrants, which was an old '80s place, and they rioted. I was beside the stage with just a little mini-bar outside, and all of a sudden, people are rushing the stage and stuff — it just goes berserk. So, I've got a cash register, a thing of beer and a thing of liquor, and all I have time to do is grab my drawer and flee. The rest of it got sucked up into the crowd. It was all over the news. That was the last concert they every had.
What do you like to do in your free time?
I'm a wannabe artist, not as good as I'd like to be. I've got a boat on Lake Ray Hubbard. That keeps me off of drugs, and that's my therapy.
What's the future look like for you?
I wish I knew. In all honesty, I know that I'll be here for a little while. Obviously, I'd like to have my own place. Whether that'd be in Dallas, I don't know. Dallas is a rough market. I think it'd be cool to take what I know about Dallas and take it outside of the realm. If I had my choice, I'd have a fishing guide service with my marina with a bar and restaurant on it. I think that would be the coolest thing ever.