Lili Montoya arrives only a minute or so late to our Belly Up interview but is profusely apologetic. “I got stuck in traffic driving into the city,” she says in a way that suggests she’s a focused, organized individual. These traits help her run a tight ship as bartender at the Black Cat (1811 14th Street, NW; 202-667-7960), where she’s worked for almost ten years. The charming and outspoken Montoya talks here about her job, her musical tastes, and why not even Eddie Vedder gets special treatment.
When did you start bartending?
My first bartending job was at a place that doesn’t exist anymore called the Mountain Lodge. It was a coffeehouse in Georgetown, near Key Bridge, that used to serve liquor. It’s unclear whether or not it was supposed to serve liquor, and I was way under the age that I probably should have been, but this was at a time when people didn’t check that much.
We had a lot of punk shows and poetry readings at the Mountain Lodge. People who are old DC punks might remember some of the shows we used to have, like the Econochrist show where a guy went out onto M Street and sang to it.
How did you end up at the Black Cat?
I was friends with some of the staff and was asked to work there, which is kind of rare. Normally, the bartending system at the Black Cat is based almost completely on seniority. Only two or three people have been hired from outside, and I was one of them.
At the time, the Black Cat was pretty guy-heavy and I think they were looking for someone who was a woman, someone who was a pro-style bartender—“pro-style” in the sense of an old punk-rock word for professional—and someone who had roots in and understood the community.
What’s your take on female bartenders?
I think female bartenders have to be tougher, in the sense that we have to be better at what we do. It’s unfortunate, but even today I think women still need to be better at what they do just to have someone think of us in the same way they would a male. I’ve actually had several occasions where someone came up and said, “Well, I want to get a drink from the guy.” So you need to be better and sometimes a little tougher because people try to get away with more if you’re a woman.
But in a sense I think this toughness has been helpful to me. I have more of a teacher persona behind the bar than other people, so it helps me in terms of keeping everyone happy and well behaved and preventing drama from breaking out. Being this female teacherlike persona helps me keep a nice order.
What do you enjoy about working at the Black Cat?
I get into our shows for free and see some good bands—a lot of young people on their way up to getting a little more famous. But I’m not necessarily interested in talking or hanging out with a band, you know? I’m not like a fan girl.
The reason I’m at the Black Cat is because I enjoy being around art that is made independently. The club is independently owned and operated: We don’t work with outside promoters. It’s this kind of ethic of living that I’m interested in being a part of and the type of life I want to create for myself.
I also enjoy working at the Black Cat because we don’t accept any kind of misbehavior or special privileges. One of the jokes here is that even Eddie Vedder or Kim Gordon gets carded at the door. It’s a very egalitarian ideal that we hold to.
Any funny anecdotes or stories you can think of?
One funny story is when the Killers played the Black Cat right as they were breaking. They were upstairs on the mainstage, and TV on the Radio was playing the backstage. The club was super-crowded, and everyone was trying to get in. Well, at the end of the night we all compared notes and it turned out that not that many people went to see the Killers, but most of the crowd was in the Red Room trying to see TV on the Radio.
What’s your least favorite part of the job?
Honestly, it’s dealing with people who don’t know how to act in public. The number of people who act entitled to behave however they want and infringe on everyone else’s good time—that really disappoints me.
What do you like most?
The fact that I don’t have to be cooped up with the same 10 or 20 people every day with no one else around. I like the wide diversity of people I get to work with and have around.
Also, depending on the place and time, I’ve enjoyed the different amounts of creativity I’ve been able to bring to bartending. While I worked at a martini bar, I made really beautiful, esoteric drinks. At the Black Cat, it’s more about speed, so it’s mostly beer and shots.
Your favorite drink to make?
Now that I’m working exclusively at the Black Cat, I don’t get to make a lot of fancy drinks because we’re not that kind of bar—so I’m not making anything that I necessarily love. But you know, I don’t have a problem with Guinness and Jameson’s.
Your favorite drink to have?
Right now I’m pretty much drinking a lot of Champagne—anything bubbly. I’m also drinking a lot of Armagnac and Cognac.
What’s playing on your iPod or stereo?
Brendan Butler’s new record. I just heard it for the first time a couple of days ago, and I love it. A lot of stuff that Amy Dominguez plays I’ll listen to. I’ve also been listening to Uz Jsme Doma, a Czech punk-rock band. They’re playing really soon, and I’m freaking out.
I grew up in a very musical and artistic household—my mom was in theater, and my dad was a jazz lover—and have this punk-rock background, so I’m kind of all over the map.
Your favorite local hangout?
Generally if I have a night off, I’m usually at home doing some work on my house, but I like to go see Kevin Soloninka at TenPenh—he’s one of my favorite bartenders in the city. I’m still not over the fact that David Batista at Jaleo doesn’t tend bar anymore now that he’s a manager. It’s broken my heart completely.
I name bartenders I like to visit as opposed to bars I like to go, and sometimes my favorite bartenders don’t work at my favorite bars. Pharmacy Bar is one of my favorites—I love everyone there—but I really miss the Kingpin a lot. It was one of my favorite bars.