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Belly Up: Greg Brooks of Cafe Mozart
Belly Up is a regular series of interviews with favorite bartenders around town. Got a suggestion for a bartender we should interview? E-mail it to email@example.com.
The Skins aren’t the only team Brooks supports. For 12 years, the DC native has worked closely with the group at Cafe Mozart (1331 H St., NW; 202-347-5732; cafemozartonline.com), a German restaurant, bar, and deli where he’s an invaluable member of the staff and a friend to many regular customers.
Brooks’s taproom is tucked into the center of Cafe Mozart, between the deli and the restaurant. To reach the bar, you pass by a case of gourmet meats and an aisle stocked floor to ceiling with chocolate truffles, mustards, sausages, and other German goods. What you find at the other end is cold German beer and good conversation. “I joke with my customers all the time,” Brooks says. “I have a terrible sense of humor, but I try and make people feel like they’re at home and having a good time.”
With 26 years of bartending under his belt, here’s what Brooks has to say about his job.
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How did you end up at Cafe Mozart?
I worked at a hotel that closed. I knew a person who recommended I come here. The rest is history—I’ve been here for 12 years.
So the German theme didn’t have anything to do with it?
Not specifically, although I do enjoy German beer!
Have you ever been to Germany?
I have not.
What’s unusual about Cafe Mozart from a bartender’s point of view?
Aside from the food, which is very good, it’s a family restaurant—it’s informally run. I have latitude to do a lot of things because I do a lot of purchasing and selections of wines. I don’t have to go through a lot of levels in order to get something done.
What’s unique about Cafe Mozart from a customer’s point of view?
We have a variety of very nice entertainment. We have an opera night once a month, called Opera Light. Two singers come in with a pianist. They perform songs from operas and some show tunes. We have a very good guitarist from the [former] Soviet Union, who does a lot of folk sounds. We recently had Heimatabend, dual accordionists who performed Alpine music.
We also have a special Oktoberfest menu—we always have traditional German food, but we’ll have things like liver dumplings and pig knuckles. We get a lot of people coming into the bar and the restaurant for the Oktoberfest food. This starts in the second week of September, when the real Oktoberfest starts in Germany, and we run it for about a month.
What’s the clientele like?
We actually have different clienteles. Lunch and happy hour are mostly local businesspeople. Lunch is a lot of regular customers, people working in the area. I’ve made quite a few friends. The dinner business is a combination of business travelers, tourists, and some locals.
What’s your busiest time of day? Day of the week?
Lunch is usually very busy. A lot of people like sitting at the bar because it’s a little less formal. We’re usually very busy at happy hour on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays. Tuesdays we have a special on all of our beers that goes on all night, so we get a lot of people who come in for that. A 12-ounce beer is $2.25, a half liter is $3.95 and a liter is only $7.95.
What are popular drinks?
The beers. Unfortunately, we only have three, but the best-selling is the Pilsner, though the Hefeweizen is very good because it’s a dark Hefe, which you can’t get in too many places, and that’s the reason we carry it—it’s a little unique. And this month, of course, we’re going to be having Hofbräu Oktoberfest, and that will be a big seller. People come just for Oktoberfest.
Do you have a favorite drink to make?
I have several that are no longer my specialties. My Ruby Red Madras got co-opted by a bartender down at the Old Ebbitt Grill. You add Absolut Ruby Red vodka to orange and cranberry juice. A regular Madras is vodka, orange, and cranberry but the Ruby Red gives it a really distinctive flavor. I actually went down to the Old Ebbitt and asked my friend to make me one, because I had started selling it here, and he tasted it and liked it. The next time I was down there a few weeks later, I heard a customer say to my friend, “Let me have one of your special drinks”—meaning a Ruby Red Madras. So it’s not mine anymore! I also had a version of cosmopolitan that was very, very popular. A cosmopolitan is citrus vodka, cranberry juice, and triple sec. Well, instead of the triple sec I put in passionfruit liqueur and called it a Passionate Cosmo. That was really popular for a while.
What do you enjoy most about bartending?
Probably the same thing I enjoy the least—dealing with people. I like to be with people. Cafe Mozart is really not a formal place at all, and people feel very comfortable here. Ninety-five percent of the time I really love our customers, but five percent of the time I wish I had an office and could close the door. The people are the best part, but you have to be prepared to deal with a multitude of personalities.
What’s your least favorite aspect?
Cleaning up at the end of the night—that’s definitely not one of my favorites! Well, I enjoy most aspects, but one of the most frustrating parts of the job involves buying alcohol. I do all the purchasing of beer, wine, and liquor. Sometimes when I order something unique, people have it, we run out, and I can’t get more. Everybody wants it, and that’s very frustrating. A lot of times distributors change, especially with imports nowadays. It takes a long time to get things through customs, and sometimes distributors are out and I have a real problem getting products. Meanwhile, everyone is asking for them!
Where do you buy most of your alcohol?
We have about ten distributors. Washington has two main liquor distributors, Washington Wholesalers and another. We get the beers from Hop & Wine Beverage, a distributor in Virginia. They specialize in a lot of very good beers and unique wines. We have about four wine distributors we purchase wine from.
Favorite hangout besides Cafe Mozart?
I’ve lived here all my life. Where I go depends upon what I’m doing. I like the Old Ebbitt quite a bit. On Sundays during football season, you can find me over at the Front Page off Dupont Circle watching the Redskins lose, which is what they’ve done for a while, unfortunately.