As of this Sunday, I'll be a Montrosian (?) again. For the past year, I've been living Downtown and have really loved every minute of it. I learned so much about my city, rode my bike and walked everywhere, admired our beautiful skyline nightly, experienced great new watering holes and cafés, and met some fantastic people. When I'd pass a place I had never patronized, I put it on my little Downtown "to-do" list. I tried to visit as many new places as I could, but not being made of money, there are several spots that aren't crossed off. Bistro Lancaster was on that list until last night.
My favorite places in town are the ones steeped in history -- establishments with character and a maybe a little mystique. Originally The Auditorium Hotel (Jones Hall was the City Auditorium), it was built in 1926 by Houston investor Michele DeGeorge. In 1983, it was given a makeover and renamed Lancaster, and it became the city's first boutique hotel.
We stopped in for a cocktail and met cordial and enthusiastic bartender Dino (dee-no, not dino like dinosaur), who offered anecdotes about the hotel's morally questionable past, telling us it used to be a "gentleman's hotel" and that we could interpret that any way we chose. Dino's got a great attitude and genuinely cares about making guests feel welcome. It's pretty damn refreshing.
So where are you from? Former Yugoslavia. I've been in Houston for about 12 years.
How long have you been bartending? About 11 years. I started working at the St. Regis, where Harry Spitzer was my mentor for many years. I moved over to this corner around 2003.
How would you describe the bar's aesthetic? It's really one-of-a-kind. It's traditional.
How would you describe the crowd? On weekends we get lots of suits and ties going to a show or the symphony, and during the week, it's the business crowd. It's very different from the other bars around town. We get lots of people in oil and gas, attorneys. With the regulars, it takes years to build the relationships. Sometimes it's a challenge. I read four or five different newspapers just to keep up with them. They'll throw you questions, quiz you on what is going on in every country and you have to be on top of it.
Is the Lancaster haunted? Some folks say it's haunted. Sometimes the glasses will shake. I was in the basement at three in the morning, and I've heard things. I've heard stories. They say there's a lady on the 12th floor. There has been some scary stuff happen at this hotel over the years. This used to be Houston's red light district. But it's like, if you believe in it, you'll see it, and if you don't, you won't.
Do you have a specialty or a drink you pride yourself on? I pride myself on my traditional martini. In my earlier years as a bartender, an older gentleman came in and ordered a gin martini, so I made it for him, and he was like "I'll teach you how to make a gin martini." You don't shake it, you bruise it. I have a version of a cosmopolitan, it's a kiwi-infused vodka with Cointreau, cranberry and topped with champagne. I call it Dino's Martini. I made it for a Pink Martini show across the street at Jones Hall. Also, I smile while I'm making my drinks. You have to be happy while you're doing it; people can taste the difference.
I love my job. That's the only reason I do it. Anyone can be a bartender, but if you don't have love and passion, the drink is going to taste awful. I mean, everyone's got problems. There's a trash can outside that door. When I come in here, that's where I leave my trash.
Being in the heart of the Theater District, do you make drinks for many celebrities? I had a famous gentleman come in here. He asked my name, I told him, Dino. He said "No, tonight your name is Vino." I said, "No, it's Dino." He throws a $100 bill on the bar. "Say your name is Vino." I said no. Throws $200 down. "Your name is Vino." I said no. He throws $300, $400, $500... I said "You can drop $1000, you can't buy me." Guy couldn't believe it. It's principle. I have pride. Who are you, thinking you can come in here, and make me dance? It's the principle. When he was leaving, he said "Look at all my buddies around me. I can buy them for $100, but I couldn't buy you for $500 for just changing your name. I respect you." I said "I respect you too, have a good night"... Celebrity, lawyer or construction worker, when they get drunk, it's the same thing.
On your off hours, where do you like to go to get a drink or dinner? Well, I don't drink alcohol, but I go to coffee shops -- Agora, Onion Creek, places that serve good espresso. Restaurant-wise, I like Oishii and Phoenicia. I lived in the Middle East for two-and-a-half years, in Amman, Jordan. It was a good experience.
Because I spend 40 hours a week in a restaurant, when I go out to eat, I go because I'm hungry, not to socialize. I eat quickly and leave. I can sit at a coffee shop for five hours, but when I comes to food, 10 minutes, in and out.
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**Wildcard Question** What one talent of yours do you wish people would recognize? Love and passion for my work.
Next time you're in the neighborhood, stop by the bar at Bistro Lancaster, located inside the Lancaster Hotel at 701 Texas, and say hi to Dino. He'll make you one hell of a good martini, complete with hand-stuffed blue cheese olives. Just don't call him Vino.