If you didn't know that Joe Shlichta was a born painter—someone who's had a brush in his hand since he was a kid, through art schools in LA and Seattle, and through a decades-long art career that has spanned from New York to Seattle—you might simply think he was a born bartender. As a younger man, he thought becoming a book illustrator would be practical, so he moved to New York and made it there. But after four books, he discovered that he couldn't pretend being an illustrator was the same as being an artist. He gave up commercial art, and to support his fine-art work, he took up bartending—starting at the Olive Garden in Times Square.
Bartending became his entirely unintentional second career. He even worked as a bartender at a chic restaurant in Buenos Aires when he was stranded there without money during one of his extended traveling interludes. In Seattle, he's been at various establishments, including Ileen's Sports Bar (now Julia's) when it was the only place on Capitol Hill serving hard liquor, and the swank Waterfront Seafood Grill (now AQUA by El Gaucho) on sparkling Pier 70. He's kept his two lives at a healthy remove from each other, showing his dreamy, atmospheric paintings at Seattle's Fetherston Gallery while, nowadays, manning the bar at Ristorante Machiavelli. (Another Seattle artist who is a prominent bartender: Sean M. Johnson, at Tommy Gun.)
Shlichta has a certain fundamental savoir faire: He is a calmly friendly person who was once very shy, so he knows how to be warm but let you keep as much distance as you want. His drinks are perfect, but it's his easy, winning manner that's gained him a quietly loyal following.
What in the hell was it like at the Olive Garden in Times Square?
Awful. Though I met some really good people there. The volume was incredible. I never knew so many people would line up for bad Italian food. I had to make these blended drinks you couldn't believe.
And Buenos Aires?
The place was called El Gran Bar Danzon, and it was the most beautiful physical bar I've ever worked in. At night, all the beautiful young people would come in, and never leave.
Has tending bar changed you?
Completely. It forced me to be more social and outgoing than I am by nature. And it became a habit.
Where do you eat and drink when you go out?
If I'm gonna go get a drink, I usually go to Zig Zag, or the 9 Lb Hammer. For food, I really do love El Puerco Lloron. Their tamales. As my wife and I go out so rarely, we try something new every time. The last big night out we went to Spinasse, and that was great.
What do you drink at home?
I'm just gonna confess to it: At home, I drink Bud Light. I mean, you know, you're thirsty, you want water, and you want beer, and it's kind of like having both at the same time. It's a beer for people who don't want to even commit to drinking a beer. And what I cook is whatever I can get my boy to eat. He's 6 years old.
Got a hangover cure?
Drink a lot of water and go for a run. It's the last thing you want to do, but if you can make yourself do it, you will feel a million times better. Two or three miles is all you need.
Any drink you won't serve?
I just never really liked that whole energy-drink-and-alcohol thing. It just doesn't sound right to me. Come on, kids, what are you doing to yourself? So we just don't carry it at Machiavelli.
Weirdest order you've ever gotten?
Back when I used to work at the old Bandoleone in Eastlake, there was a guy who used to come in and order Scotch and grapefruit juice, and it was a little hideous. I did try it. It wasn't quite as bad as you'd think it would be, but it was still revolting.
What's your worst bar disaster?
One of the most interesting nights I've ever had working in a restaurant was the night I was working at Machiavelli during the WTO, and the whole city got shut down. The police sent all the rioters up the street, and they stopped the line right in front of our window, and it was just like being in a war—you could look out the window, and it was just a battle. It actually wound up being kind of a fun night. We had to shut down the bar, and when we saw people that we knew in the crowd, we would open up the side door so they could come in out of the tear gas. We'd give them a beer, and next thing you know, we have this little WTO party. We brought the news crews inside the bar, too.
Ever had a recurring dream?
Not since I was 6 years old. I had one that was inspired by Where the Wild Things Are. I projected myself into the book every night for years in my childhood. I became so used to it, the dream became so normal, that I would know it when it was starting, and I wouldn't get scared anymore because I would make friends with the monsters.
Where would you hope to be in 20 years?
I would just hope to be established enough in the art world that I would be able to have a comfortable life completely off the sale of my paintings, and I wouldn't have to be behind the bar anymore. Not to trash the profession—it's been a great run. But in 20 years, I'll be in my 60s. I think Murray [Stenson, most recently at Canon] is the only man who's been able to pull that one off.
And what would you drink on your deathbed?
Shoot, I'd probably just go with a really nice Scotch, you know? Because my grandpa drank a lot of Scotch in his day, and I love Scotch, but I can't drink it anymore because it gives me such splitting headaches in the morning. If I'm on my deathbed, there'll be no morning, so I can just have a nice big Scotch on the rocks.