A self-proclaimed "Lifer," Peter Manvelichvili has been slinging booze behind Denver's bars for more than three decades. After committing his fair share of time to Mile High nightclubs and Glendale's old-time neighborhood favorites, Manvelichvili entered the world of fine steaks and dining with Morton's Steakhouse in DTC. Twelve years later, he found himself the oldest guy behind the bar at John Elway's famous steakhouse in Cherry Creek. Eater asked Manvelichvili to divulge his thoughts on service, regulars and most importantly, outstanding cocktails.
How did you get your start in the industry? When I was in college back in the late 70s, I needed some extra money so one summer I took a job at a country club in that area as a busboy to make some money. But, let me preface that: I grew up in the restaurant business. My family had a restaurant in San Francisco in the 60s, so I was familiar with it. And then while I was going to school I was still kind of seeing what I was going to be doing, I was a business major and within a year and a half, I ended up becoming Maître d' at the country club. I found a little niche that I liked, I enjoyed the restaurant business, I enjoyed the people. And then I took an assistant manager job at a French restaurant, when I was about 20.
I ended up getting an Associate’s Degree in Computer Science. But after my second job as a manager, I kind of got a little burnt out with the hours, the low pay. A friend of mine was opening a restaurant and he asked me if I’d like to come over and I said, ‘Yeah, I’d like to try bartending.’ It was 1980. Jimmy Carter was still President. So that was my first bartending job and I was head bartender there and then I became assistant manager there. This was here in Denver in the Southeast area. And then I moved to San Francisco for a few years, and when I came back, I couldn’t find a job in computer science. I was a computer operator. There was a downturn in 1983. So I went looking around for a bartending job. Started working in night clubs. I stayed in nightclubs until I was 35.
So I worked some of the busiest clubs in Denver in the 80s, down in Glendale. They were owned by a company out of Texas, The Confetti Chain, and they had quite a few big bars. So after that, I went off with other businesses. I went to work for a friend who had a mining company, and then after about seven years I really missed the restaurant business. And I ended up working for Morton’s Steakhouse chain for 12 years. I ran their bar down in DTC. And after that, Landry’s bought the corporation two years ago, closed my restaurant. So I ended up getting hired by Elway’s. I love Elway’s.
When did you decide that bartending would be something you would do as your career? It really was in 1983 during that computer science downturn. At the time, I was making more money than in the computer industry. And it was kind of boring. Very boring. After about a year and a half of doing that, I was so bored to tears, I thought ‘Oh, I need to get back in the restaurant.’ Every day, it’s always something different. You get to meet people and in this day and age, electronically, I have one of the few businesses where I have more contact with people than most people do. And I enjoy that.
Somebody in 1980 came up to me in a bar and said to me, ‘I have a new invention. It’s going to be the hit. It’s a machine where you put the glass in, you push the vodka, you push the tonic, and it makes the drink. You won’t need bartenders anymore.’ And I said, ‘You really have missed the point of why people go out, haven’t you?’ And he looked at me and I said, ‘It’s never gonna work.’ I said, ‘People go out to be social. They can buy alcohol and go home and drink.’ And he said ‘Ok’ and never did succeed. But it’s a very social business, I’ve always loved that.
And even though I am social, at my age, it is hard. That was a problem after I left Morton’s because I’ll be 55 next week. It’s an industry that doesn’t really… Most industries, if you’re in your mid-50s and you get laid off, chances are good you’re not going to be finding the work you want. But I lucked out here because these guys, I had known who they were and they knew who I was and it worked out really well. But the age thing kind of concerned me. And I’m still the oldest guy in this restaurant. I’ve been the oldest guy at my last two restaurants.
Sometimes that might give you an advantage though, right? I don’t know. We’ll see. But my experience in clubs, I was always a really fast bartender. In the old days, we used to call them ‘slingers,’ ‘gunsliners.’ So that’s what I was, I was speedy fast, that’s what I did. And luckily here, this is kind of a local neighborhood night club. It’s a beautiful steak house on one side and a club on the other. And I know you’ve heard about the ‘cougar’ reference, but you know what it really is? This the place that’s kind of the joint in the area and people who live in the area come here and our demographics are a little older crowds. So you know, it’s a great bar for that. So I can relate to them. In fact, that’s always helped me in the past. Morton’s clientele was an older clientele, they were my age, they could relate to me, they liked me because they were comfortable with my age instead of somebody who’s 22 years old, you know, there’s a certain place and time for that.
So would you say that your bartending style does change from location to location? And if so, how is it different at Elway’s? This restaurant is more club-like in its atmosphere, especially at the bar. Even though the restaurant is a beautiful steakhouse- we’re the best steakhouse in Colorado- it’s almost like two separate restaurants. This place gets pretty lively and loud. And my club experience has helped me work here, because we are really busy. This is a busy, busy bar. Whereas at Morton’s, I had a 10-seat bar, 26 seats at tables; I took care of the whole bar, I waited on everybody. And it was 36 seats, but it was a very intimate room.
So do you find people are looking for a more personal experience when they sit at your bar than in the dining room? You have to kind of read, each person’s a little different. We get a lot of people after work, the businessmen type and businesswomen. And sometimes they’re just on their phone, and you learn not to bother certain people. But other people are looking for contact, to talk to people. And it’s a good social bar. Because the design of this bar is a horse-shoe shape, so you have lots of corners. Corners help people talk. Whereas a straight bar, people have to constantly turn, so it’s a good social bar. It does work really well.
Would you say that that’s your favorite style of bar to work? Well, it’s better for social interaction, but as far as an efficient bar, a straight, long bar is more efficient because when you can’t see behind you, sometimes you worry about whether or not you’re getting to the guest properly, so it’s a hard bar to work, but it’s better for interaction, and that’s what counts more.
Have you found that at the higher end, more expensive outlets like Elway’s that it’s more difficult to develop a regular clientele? I think it’s actually easier. I’ve noticed it’s been easier. In clubs, where people are 20 and 30, you do get some regulars, but you see so many people coming in and out. In a place like this, like I said, it becomes a neighborhood restaurant, neighborhood bar. So you do get a lot of regulars. I would say that at least 60% of the people who sit at the bar have sat at this bar before. It’s a really high number. And you’ll see the same faces day after day. There’s a lot of regulars here. And a lot of them were here before I got here, so it’s my job to keep them coming back. My rule with management has always been ‘You get them in here, and my job is to make sure they come back.’ That’s the way it works.
So have you developed any great relationships with regulars over the years, have you maintained contact with any of them from past jobs? I do, in fact I run into them here. You know, it’s a business relationship for the most part. But I got to be good friends with quite a few of them. I went on vacation with one of them, I’ve been invited to parties and birthdays, but for the most part, it’s a business relationship. You know, they’re my client, I take care of them. It works out pretty well.
Have you ever carried over your regulars from one place to another? I’ve let them know, but this neighborhood is a bit further from my old place, so the distance is what keeps my old regulars from coming in. But when they’re in the area, they’ll always stop by. And actually, we share a lot of the same customers with my old place. Similar because it's a steakhouse, but this steakhouse is different than most. We have a great chef, Aniedra Nichols, and she just finished cooking for the James Beard dinner a few weeks ago. So it’s different.
Most steakhouses, you grill meat, you steam some vegetables, you send it out. But here, we have real food, real chefs. This is one of the best run kitchens I’ve ever seen in my life. I was blown away. They will crank out some serious volume here. It’s one small restaurant, but we’ll do 700 covers in a night. It’s a machine. It’s amazing. And to put out that quality of food, it is amazing. So I’m very impressed with Elway’s.
So speaking of the quality of the food, do you feel you’ve come to be a bit spoiled? Of course. Most restaurant employees are. We’re all liquor snobs, wine snobs, and food snobs. But it is what it is.
Do you think that’s more prominent at Elway’s? Everywhere I’ve worked, I’ve noticed that the people whose job and life the restaurant business is, they’re like that. They’re passionate about food, they’re passionate about drink, they’re passionate about service. And this is not something we’re doing while we’re looking for something else. There is a portion of people who do do that, but that’s not us. The people who are in it for the long haul, you know, they appreciate all those things. The ‘lifers’. That’s me, I’m a lifer. I have some friends who are my age, and they’re all lifers. We wouldn’t give it up.
So when you all get together, where do you go out? You know, the older I’ve gotten, I don’t go out as often as I used to. But the last place I went out for cocktails that I really enjoyed was Argyll. The cocktails were great. Our former manager here opened the place as a General Manager. His name is Steve, and he did a great job. They have great cocktails there. I love Colt & Gray too. For cocktails, those guys are unbelievably good. I have a list of places to go. My wife works a day job and I work nights, so we have a hard time. When you work nights, you don’t get to go out as often. And my wife doesn’t drink, she’s never been much of a drinker. So I’m kind of on my own, or with friends.
Do you prefer the night shifts? I prefer the night. You know, 30 years ago, people would go out and they would drink during the daytime. Nobody drinks during the daytime anymore. Most bartenders I know prefer nights. It’s more exciting here at night. At night time, this place is packed. It’s very exciting.
What’s your favorite cocktail right now – to drink and to make? My favorite cocktail to drink is called a Vieux Carré. It’s equal parts of brandy or cognac, sweet vermouth, bourbon whiskey or rye whiskey, a little bit of Benidictine and some Angostura bitters. It’s like a Manhattan on steroids. It’s a beautiful drink. I turned somebody onto it the other day, who was a Manhattan drinker and I said ‘Here, try this. If you don’t like it, you don’t have to pay for it.’ From now on, that’s his drink. But it’s a very intense cocktail.
And as far as drinks I like to make, I’m a Manhattan guy. I like to make any type of Manhattan. I love classic cocktails. People will ask me what I like to drink and I’ll tell them, I like scotch, love bourbon, love tequila. You know, I love whiskeys. The thing I love least is vodka. Bartenders and vodka, you know, vodka is bland, it’s a neutral spirit. So it doesn’t appeal to us. But luckily now, there’s a great trend in American whiskeys. And they’re all delicious. They’re great, and it’s nice that a lot of people have picked up on that. In the restaurant business, we tend to drink those kinds of things. And you know, another trend is fresh ingredients. The other day, I made a vodka gimlet for someone. And they were expecting you know, Rose’s lime juice with a ton of sugar. I used freshly squeezed lime juice, and they’ll never have a regular gimlet again. Definitely, one of the new trends in drinks with fresh ingredients, you know, it makes a big difference.