Welcome to Eating...Our Words' Bartender Chat, in which we sit down with local bartenders and get to know their style. Whether they're slinging beers or mixing complex cocktails, bartenders are our buddies and confidants, but now we're turning the tables and the camera on them to find out what they're passionate about and what makes them some of Houston's best.
This time last year, Gratifi Kitchen + Bar wasn't doing too well, and owner Kevin Strickland will be the first to tell you.
"A year ago, I changed the name," Strickland explains. "I was done with Ziggy's Healthy Grill. We changed the name and the menu, and it just wasn't happening. Making change here was so difficult."
Trying to keep the flailing restaurant running put Strickland in debt -- majorly, as he admits on the latest episode of the Food Network's Restaurant Impossible, which aired this past Wednesday. If you missed it, it's airing again Monday at 1 p.m. and the following Wednesday at 6 p.m.
Sad, tired and frustrated, Strickland applied to be on the restaurant makeover show, which ended up coming to Houston to give Gratifi a hand back in January.
"It was more than I expected," Strickland admits. "I expected it to be intense, and it was more so. The part I didn't take into account was that they literally threw me out. I couldn't come into the restaurant. It was very disorienting. So I hovered."
Strickland says even his hovering was an issue, as he was constantly being yelled at by producers for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. He expected the show's zero-tolerance host, Robert Irvine, to be difficult, but he hadn't anticipated so much yelling from the producers.
"You do feel exploited," Strickland says. "Here's the kicker, though: When you watch TV shows like the Real Housewives, you always think, why do those people do it? Why would you always want to be caught saying such stupid things? And now I understand it. You get used to the attention. For three days, I was the center of the universe. After they left, I was like, what about me? Now I understand. You get sucked into that."
At this point, Gratifi's bartender, Craig Mickle, chimed in: "If I have one word for reality TV, it's 'dark.'"
Which brings us to the bar. Having survived Restaurant Impossible, Mickle is now in charge of a fully functioning bar with some pretty awesome drinks that he and Strickland have devised.
"When we renamed the restaurant a year ago, the choice was deliberately 'Kitchen and Bar,'" Strickland says, "so one of the things we wanted to work on over the last year was cocktails. So we're getting ready to debut a new cocktail menu."
Mickle and I sat down to try a few of the new cocktails and to discuss his history as a bartender. During the interview, a very drunk or very drugged woman came in and sat down next to me, frequently interjecting her opinion, which was generally very positive toward Mickle and Strickland. For some reason, she hated me. Ahhh, Montrose.
How long have you been bartending? I've been bartending here about a year and a couple of months.
Did you tend bar anywhere else before here? No, I barbacked.
That's a helpful job. So how did you get into bartending? Well, I was made a manager here, and the managers bartend, so I figured, why not start making better drinks for the restaurant? I've always been a fan of more classic cocktails, which I know are super-trendy right now. We had a lot of more-sweet drinks on the menu, so I figured we needed a way to balance that.
What would you be doing if you weren't bartending? I'd be on tour. I'd be playing music. Noisy, punk rock stuff. I play guitar. I've been playing about 14 years.
Just then, the random woman at the bar interrupted.
"Anyhow, I'm tired of these questions. Excuse me. Can I get, like, a real drink here? I'd like to get...let me see..."
She stopped speaking and started glaring at me.
"Mhmm. How does that feel?"
I didn't know how to answer, so I went back to the interview.
A person walks into a bar and orders __________. He/she has just earned your undying respect. I guess it depends. Like if some big, burly dude comes in here and orders one of our beachcombers -- which is just like a rum drink with a lot of pineapple -- then it's like all right, man. I see you. Or if a woman comes in and asks for a Lone Star, it's like she understands sometimes you can just come in and ask for a classic.
What's your least favorite thing to make? I hate making any kind of elaborate shot. People order those here very rarely.
What's one of your favorite ingredients to use? I really love using our hibiscus simple syrup because it's something you can't find at a lot of other places.
What's one thing you wish people understood about bartending that they might not? Just because a place has a full bar doesn't mean they'll have that one particular flavored vodka that you like. If I have to Google what you're ordering, you've been going to too many niche bars.
Where do you drink when you're not here? I go to Lola's a lot, and Grand Prize from time to time. Voodoo Queen. Lowbrow. Generally when I'm out, I try to drink whatever double IPA is on draft. And if not that, then a Lone Star and a shot of whiskey.
What's the weirdest thing that's happened since you've been working here? Aside from the reality TV show, of course. Being that this neighborhood is kind of a melting pot of all different sorts...
Before he could finish his thought, the woman sitting next to me got up and stumbled out, shaking the hands of various employees on the way, like a royal bidding adieu to her subjects.
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That. That is probably the weirdest thing that's happened here. But once, a guy came in wearing a suit and heels, and he hiked his pants up and asked one of our waitresses to take a photo of him in heels for his dominatrix.
If you could have a drink with anyone living, dead or fictional, who would it be, and why? Probably Henry Miller. Through his writing and what I've read from him, it seems like he had things figured out. He seems like kind of a lecherous, lawless man, but I think he figured out exactly what was right for him, and he did it. He just didn't care about any societal constraints. We'd drink whiskey.
Here's Mickle's recipe for The Hill Country, an ode to Texas peaches: