Here was Shawn talking about bartender Doug Garey and the Center Cafe at Union Station: “Ten years ago, I sat down for the first time. The second time, Doug already had my drink ready.”
It was a Beefeater gin and tonic, to this day Shawn’s preference.
“The first time I came, I ordered a Grand Marnier,” said Beatrice (like Shawn, no last name, please). “Six months later, I came back and Doug remembered my drink. That’s no lie. He said, ‘Grand Marnier?’”
Let the record show that Beatrice drinks Cointreau, now.
Doug ticked off some of the regulars he’s encountered in the nearly 25 years he spent tending bar at the Center Cafe: “My friend Juanita is a vodka martini. Bob drinks Knob Creek Manhattans. He always says he can’t get another one in the city as good. Larry is a Johnny Walker Red on the rocks fan. I have a friend, Steve, who likes Miller Lite and a shot of Jameson’s.”
Where we drink and who we drink with are as important as what we drink. They won’t be drinking at the Center Cafe anymore.
Monday was its last night. Historic preservationists never cared for the two-tiered restaurant in the middle of Union Station. It opened after a renovation in 1988, and purists thought it detracted from the grandeur of the main hall.
And so it will be removed. A few other places in the train station serve beer and wine — even Shake Shack, which is where America restaurant used to be — but regulars say there’s no bar like the Center Cafe. And no one like Doug. He’s worked at the Center Cafe for 24 years, 11 months and two weeks. Fellow bartender Mahmoud Faizy has worked there nearly as long.
“Between him and Mahmoud, they’re the best bartenders I’ve ever met,” said Melissa O’Brien, who for 24 years has been taking the MARC train between BWI and Union Station and had brought a cake to mark the occasion.
At the Center Cafe, strangers would take a seat — MARC next to VRE, VRE next to Metro — and bond over an intoxicating beverage that served as a liquid portal between office and home.
“If you’re having a bad day, you can usually count on someone to listen to you,” said Melissa. “It’s more a friend thing than a drink thing. I’m really sad it’s closing.”
Doug is 70 and lives in Crofton, Md. He’s worked in restaurants nearly all his adult life, at R.J. Bentley’s and the Santa Fe Cafe in College Park, Md., and Sequoia in Georgetown. He started as a waiter and turned himself into a mixologist after close study of the Bible of the cocktail: “Mr. Boston Official Bartender’s Guide.”
“Mahmoud and I, we call ourselves speed bartenders,” Doug said. “We’re very fast. A lot of people have a limited amount of time.”
The secret to speed bartending is organization, Doug said. It’s knowing where your tools and ingredients are. It’s performing your tasks economically, with nary a wasted movement.
But how was Doug able to remember someone’s “usual” after serving them once and not seeing them again for months? Does he have a photographic memory?
No, Doug said. At a party, he’s like most of us, forgetting the name of a person he’s just been introduced to.
“But behind the bar, there’s an association: who you are, what you drink,” Doug said. “It’s a talent. I can’t explain it.”
Soon, workers will remove the bar, the stools, the restaurant tables and tear down the curving stairway. Mahmoud said he’s exploring a few job possibilities. Doug was semi-retired already, down to two nights a week. He’ll probably hang up his jiggers for good. He joked that maybe he’d try to find a job in the field he studied in college: journalism.
It’s hard to say who’s more important to society: a good bartender or a good journalist.
On Monday night at the Center Cafe, Doug was still speaking in the present tense: “I sometimes think some people miss their trains on purpose just so they can stay a while.”
Charlotte Gottlieb of Chevy Chase, Md., remembers when milk not only came in bottles but also was delivered by a milkman driving a horse and wagon.
“When my sisters and I heard that he would no longer use the horse and wagon, but instead would come in a truck, we couldn’t figure out how the truck would know which house to stop at with the milk delivery,” she wrote. “The horse always knew when to stop at our house. It took us a long time to figure that one out.”
Have you ever had one of those “Aha! It was so obvious” moments? Share it with me.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.