Jim Meehan on His Back-to-Back Bar and Book Launches

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When Jim Meehan opened PDT (Please Don’t Tell) in New York in 2007, the bar quickly became a fixture and helped elevate the cocktail conversation. Meehan’s résumé now spans 20 years in the service industry, including stints at Gramercy Tavern and Pegu Club. His award-winning The PDT Cocktail Book debuted in 2011, and his ambitious new release, the 488-page Meehan’s Bartender Manual, could serve as a how-to for anyone looking to open a bar, encompassing everything from philosophies on hospitality to tips on physical construction. Currently living in Portland, Oregon, but with a new bar—Prairie School—opening in Chicago this month in collaboration with Heisler Hospitality, Meehan took some time to chat with us about his latest projects, the idea of excellence versus perfectionism and how his drinking habits have changed as he’s matured.

Now that you’ve worked in hospitality for two decades, how would you describe your role in the industry today?
Having just come from a sonogram with my wife, I really feel like I’m moving toward the role of an industry father figure. It’s an exciting time in my career because I feel like my “kids” are now leaders, whether that’s Jeff Bell or John deBary or Anne Robinson or Karen Fu. All these people that I worked with, whether they’re actually younger than me or just colleagues, like Kevin Diedrich in San Francisco or Sean Hoard here in Portland, they’ve become industry captains. I feel like I’ve gone from the guy on the front lines to more of a cheerleader. The industry has different expectations of me. My experience in Portland over the last few years has not gone to script, so I’m excited to have some new things to share. Because I haven’t been sitting on the patio drinking rosé for three years.

This book has been quite a project in the making. What was your goal for the manual when you set out?
I joke around and call it my midlife crisis. Some people get a red convertible; I wrote an almost 500-page bartender’s manual. The two books that I always wanted to write were a house cocktail book, like the Savoy [Cocktail Book], and a very in-depth bartender’s manual like Hoffman House Bartender’s Guide or Harry Johnson’s Bartender’s Manual. I’ve never written an employee manual for any of the bars where I worked, and this book isn’t an employee manual, but it has so many of the things that I’ve always wanted to give my colleagues.

When you opened PDT, what were some things you wish you’d known?
One of the most important things that I think I’ve learned in 10 years is that mistakes create opportunities. I’ve made a lot of mistakes to get where I am today, and there are plenty of former colleagues that can attest to that, but I think I am more conscious today because of these mistakes. I remember at Gramercy I was talking with Danny Meyer about perfectionism, and he corrected me and said that perfection isn’t the goal; it’s excellence. When you’re trying to be perfect, you do everything you can to not make a mistake. I’ve put this into practice at PDT, developing an environment that encourages my team to take chances, make mistakes and learn from them.

What do you see when you walk into a bar?
I’m looking to see what someone is trying to communicate. I really enjoy going to a different bar or restaurant or coffee shop or even clothing shop because I think the best operators are communicating a point of view, and that’s what’s interesting. I think the measure of a great operator is understanding, over the lifespan of the business, that the needs of the community are changing. I’ve always looked at my businesses like, do I want to be the Black Crowes or do I want to be Radiohead? Great operators and restaurants and bars evolve with their community.

You worked with so many people from the bar industry, and beyond, for this book. Did you gain perspectives that were unexpected to you?
Tons! At face value, this book could be an incredibly douchey project. But one of the things that is central to this book, as well as how I run my bars, is that a bar is a stage for all of these creative people to show off their talents. I think I failed as a younger bartender who loves attention to recognize that the attention on me wasn’t inspiring to my colleagues. When you’re lucky enough that people care about what you do, the goal isn’t to hoard all of that; the goal is to share it as much as you possibly can to get other stakeholders. My success is a byproduct of the mentorship and training and goodwill of others.

You’re also working with Matt Eisler and Kevin Heisner of Heisler Hospitality to open Prairie School in Chicago. What’s the concept?
We don’t want to say that we’re going to be the Frank Lloyd Wright of cocktails, but we want to let it grow organically into this school of thought, to this place of thinking about what it means to be a bar in the Midwest—how the landscape and architecture and the sensibilities of Chicago and the Midwest can speak distinctly in the national and even global landscape. I feel like because of the internet and social media, cocktails have sort of become a little homogenous—you have the same style of cocktail bar in Lisbon as you do in Copenhagen as you do in Chicago. For Prairie School, we’re going to look at Frank Lloyd Wright as an inspiration, as someone who looked at architecture around the turn of the century and wanted to create something uniquely American and Midwestern.

What is your favorite drink to mix for yourself?
I don’t make myself drinks anymore. I remember joking around that my memoir was going to be called Drunk Again. That joke doesn’t seem so funny anymore. My career, after PDT took off, became a moveable feast. And I didn’t mean to get drunk, but man, there were so many great cocktails! I feel like as I’ve gotten older that just isn’t working for me anymore. But on the flip side, I’ve learned that as much as I love the drinks, I got into this business because I love serving people drinks. My purpose is to serve and share my enthusiasm.


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