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Q&A: Joe Gomes, Toronto’s longest-serving bartender, on 57 years of mixing drinks at the Park Hyatt

Q&A: Joe Gomes, Toronto's longest-serving bartender, on 57 years of mixing drinks at the Park Hyatt
Gomes, in his natural habitat at the Park Hyatt. Photo courtesy of Park Hyatt Toronto

It’s been 57 years since a 17-year-old Joe Gomes took his first job—and the only job he would ever know—at the Park Plaza (now Hyatt), just 11 days after he arrived from his homeland of Portugal. Since then, he has seen both trends and customers come and go from his perch behind the Roof Lounge bar. Regulars adore him, celebrities know him by name and when he retires on October 28, Toronto’s cocktail scene will have lost one of its founding fathers. We spoke with Gomes about the good old days, his favourite star sighting and what makes a real martini.

You started your job in the ’50s. What was the bar scene like back then? Well, there weren’t too many bars around. There were a few places—taverns and places with entertainment—but if you wanted a nice drink, you came to the Park Plaza [now the Hyatt], the best hotel in the city. The first cocktail lounge in Toronto was the Silver Rail, which opened in 1947, and I do believe this was the second. We started developing our martinis, and we became very well known as a martini bar.

This was during the Mad Men three-martini-lunch era. Did people drink more then than they do now? I think people drank more after work because there weren’t the same restrictions on drinking and driving—there was no such thing as a breathalyzer, so the cops had to use their own judgment. Even the cops would come here to drink! Back in those days, I used to see the same people for lunch and dinner.

And was it always the classic gin martini? Vodka martinis became popular in the ’60s—because people didn’t want to smell like gin when they went back to work. When I first started, if someone ordered a martini, that meant gin.

And today it can mean chocolate, sour apple, pumpkin spice… I’m from the old school—those are cocktails, not martinis. But I go along with it. If customers want to call it a martini, sure, it’s a martini.

What’s the best drink you’ve ever invented? I’m not much into inventing my own drinks. What I enjoy most is when a customer comes to the bar and they ask me to make them something. I talk to them for a few minutes, I get some hints and then I can make them something they’ll like. For me that’s the fun part.

So you’re part mix master, part head shrinker. Absolutely. But I’m mostly a listener. I don’t talk very much.

People tell things to their bartender that they wouldn’t even tell their best friend. What’s the strangest thing someone’s ever told you? After all these years, nothing is strange to me. I listen, I watch everything that’s going on in the room. I’ve seen and heard things that I would never repeat to a lady.

Do people ask you for relationship advice? People will ask me if I have someone for them. Or they’ll bring a date to the bar and then later they’ll ask me, “What did you think, Joe?" If I know the person well, and I think the couple is a good match, I’ll say, “I think it’s going to be all right.” If I’m not sure, I’ll say, “When you leave here, you’re on your own,” and hope they get the message. I have to be very careful with what I say—there are people who really listen to me. I take that seriously.

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You’re starting a bar on a desert island and you have the basic booze and mixers—what’s the next thing that you need? Well, tools are important, but it’s not all about the drinks—it’s about the connection you make with guests, the eye contact. That’s the secret.

What’s the best tip you’ve ever gotten? I never expect anything from anybody. I do my job and let them be the judge. I did have one customer who came in with a group of guys from the States. When he heard how long I had been here, he wanted to shake my hand. He didn’t even buy a drink because his friend bought him one, but he left me a $500 tip.

The Roof Lounge has always been a favourite with celebrities. I don’t know a lot of the celebrities today because I don’t go to the movies, but a lot of stars have come here. Paul Anka came in a few years ago to meet me—that was a highlight. Since TIFF has moved everything downtown, things have changed. It used to be crazy here—a mad house until six o’clock in the morning. I enjoyed it.

What advice do you give to young bartenders? If you want it to be a career, you have to behave yourself as far as drinking, going out, partying. Most people today, they don’t stay very long—there’s no loyalty, they don’t listen. I just mind my own business. When I’m here to work, I work. I never leave the bar except to go to the washroom.

I’m sure people are always asking to buy you a drink or buy you a shot. Yes. I say thank you very much, but I never accept. If I did, I wouldn’t be here today.

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What’s next for you? I’m starting a bed and breakfast in Portugal. I was born in Madeira and I’ve always wanted to go home. I came here when I was 17 and I brought my wife over three years later. She never really liked it here because of the cold, and she misses her family. I saved my money as I went along and I bought property in Madeira. I built a house, and then a backyard and now the B&B.

Sounds like some of your regulars are going to have to book a trip. People are already trying to book, but I don’t want to take any reservations until everything is ready. They say, “Joe, if you look after us there like you look after us here, we’re going!" We’re opening in January and I’ll continue the same kind of service that I have been offering for 57 years: I’m going to pick up my guests from the airport, socialize with them, take them around the island, whatever they like. I won’t be working until 2:30 a.m. as much, though. I used to go to bed with the birds. Now I’ll get up with them.

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