Being a popular bartender takes a combination of skills: Efficiency, a friendly attitude and a lot of hard work. Fortunately, readers voted in a rare three-way tie in our Besties this year. This trio of affable bartenders shared a little about their lives behind the bar, and away from it.
Many bartenders do more than pour drinks, and 440’s Nick Mills is no exception.
With two degrees in graphic design and animation, he still does freelance work for many local nonprofits in the Bay Area. But although he started bartending to pay for school, he now makes more by working in the popular Castro bar.
Along with owner David Barker, Mills co-manages the 440 with Randy Axon. "The three of us see to the day-to-day operations," he said in our interview at the bar’s office.
Fourteen years is a good run for any career, but Mills said it’s more than that at 400.
"We have the friendliest staff," said Mills. "We really engage our customers and make them feel welcome. I think that translates to the patrons feeling comfortable enough to engage with each other."
An admitted mixed bar where older and younger men and women are welcome, Mills cites the "no attitude" atmosphere.
Gracious in his co-win for Best Bartender (and a runner-up last year), Mills credits his many local friends and patrons, but owned up to his swift bartending skills after fourteen years in the business.
"I think I’m kind of a fixture at this point," Mills said. "I can pump out drinks like nobody’s business. The customer service part comes from my work in the corporate world," he added, of his former retail job in phone store management. "Making people happy came from that."
Mills’ prior bar experience at several San Diego bars over four years, and a few years in Los Angeles, led to his broad experience before moving west from Logan, West Virginia.
"I was born a poor coal miner’s daughter," he joked, with a hint of an accent. "But I moved west as soon as possible."
The Academy of Art was more of a draw for Mills’ move to San Francisco, although he admitted that the gay scene was part of his decision.
"I could be gay, and work in a gay bar, and put myself through school, and not have to worry about being part of the corporate world, or wearing khakis and a polo shirt to work every day," said Mills. "Now I can wear what I want, say what I want, and talk about what I want. It’s very freeing, to be able to work in a gay bar in a gay neighborhood."
But Mills noted how the neighborhood is changing. "With all the construction, the tech industry bringing in people and bombarding the city with new and different people," he said. "I think a lot of the guys who live here are worried how they’re going to make a living and pay their rent. Maybe people are clinging to the idea that the Castro is the last gay spot in San Francisco. But it’s not as desperate as the news might make it seem. We’re lucky, and we want to keep going, and make 440 the place people want to come to."
Asked to name his favorite other bar in the world, Mills mentioned the Bear’s Den in Paris. "It’s a tiny little hole in the wall, until you find a staircase, which leads down and opens up into a giant cavern of bears and bodies and dancing and music and booze, and it’s great."
Until he gets back to Paris, you can find Nick at the 440, serving your drink almost as fast as you order it.
Born in Oklahoma and raised in Southern California, Lookout bartender Michael Breshears has lived in San Francisco since 1995. His first local job serving drinks was at Moby Dick on 18th Street. He’s been working at The Lookout since 2008.
"My degree in International Relations from San Francisco State has been very helpful in my line of work," said Breshears, who’s met customers from around the world.
Other reasons why he likes the bar include the view.
"It’s obviously well-known for having the balcony overlooking the streets below," he said. "It’s also a pretty flexible space, so it can accommodate all kinds of parties," including its pizza and other menu items. "Different events are always happening there, and it brings in different parts of the community. Everyone’s coming through; all kinds of DJs, different fundraisers, drag shows, pop-up kitchens, even the occasional porn party. I like the variety."
Breshears added, "I love day parties, especially when it’s really warm out. Everyone’s out, a little looser, maybe wearing a little less clothing."
Asked which drink is his favorite to make, Breshears joked, "My first thought was ’a beer and a shot.’ But I’m just happy making a good drink. A lot of people really like my margaritas, so I make a lot of those."
His own preferences vary. "I switch my drinks around a lot," he said. "I’m going through a big rum and cachaca phase right now, but will get a drink for whatever fits a particular bar or setting."