Reliable Libation

Long-time Dawson's bartenders recall 25 years on the job

Back Article Dec 1, 2013 By Douglas Curley

It’s unusual for Augie Moran and Rob Lopez to have the time to sit for a casual conversation. Each day for the past 25 years, one or the other has been busy prepping the bar for Dawson’s 4 p.m. opening.

But today, the two original, downtown Hyatt employees are taking the time to reminisce about the past quarter century, their relationship with regular patrons and the evolving drinking habits of their eclectic clientele (all the while keeping an eye on a young bartender-in-training).

“We need some backup. We both have a lot of vacation time to take,” says Lopez.

“We’re also old timers,” Moran adds with a laugh. “We need our time off, and the patrons don’t mind seeing a young lady behind the bar at times.”

These two senior bartenders have become a Dawson’s institution that regulars from as far away as San Diego seek out when doing business in the capital city.

“Even though many of our regulars may actually fly into town to do business, we still may see them as much as three or four times a month,” says Lopez. “That’s the benefit of being a downtown restaurant and bar located next to both the Capitol and the convention center.”

“We have one lady from out of town that’s been coming here from day one,” Moran chimes in. “She likes us so much that each Christmas she brings us socks.”

The bar, located just steps from the Capitol, is today a favorite watering hole for lobbyists and elected officials of all political stripes. It’s become the home-away-from-home for business, government and convention travelers. But it hasn’t always been that way.

When the Hyatt opened to fanfare in 1988, “We were just about the only thing happening downtown,” says Moran, 62. “For several years, we had the club Busby Berkeley’s upstairs. That really attracted the young crowd.”

Low-priced mixed drinks ruled the late ’80s, and patrons cared little about the quality of their gin and tonics. Any ol’ bourbon or vodka would do. But the trendiest concoction was the Long Island iced tea.

“It was an after-work favorite of the younger crowd at the time,” recalls Moran. “But this is a drink that carries a punch, with four-shots of liquor. We’d have to keep close tabs on how many a person ordered.”

Moran says the clientele in those early years was mixed, from “the barely-old-enough” to the very old. We had a lot of people from the Capitol, but we also had a lot of local people who just wanted to see what was going on here.”

But soon after the Hyatt opened, organized labor representatives made a couple very public attempts to convert hotel employee groups into unions. In both cases, the employee groups resisted.

“We just never thought it was necessary,” Moran says. “The Hyatt treated us so well.”

But union resistance didn’t bode well with labor supporters across the street and at City Hall. Assembly Speaker Willie Brown and Mayor Anne Rudin, both Democrats, vowed publically to “never step foot” in the non-union establishment. It forced a shift among the bar stools, too, and made event planning awkward, since many of the community’s biggest gatherings were being staged in the Hyatt’s main ballroom.

As the patrons were changing, so too was the drink menu. In the early ’90s, one of Dawson’s managers went to New York and visited a martini bar. “When he gets back he says, ‘That’s what I want in Sacramento.’ I thought he was crazy,” says Moran. “But it caught on. Pretty soon we were selling martinis like they were going out of style. They took off because of all the vodka flavors that were beginning to come out at that time.”

Close on the heels of the martini craze was a sudden fascination with the Cosmopolitan. “Sex and the City” made the Cosmo famous again. “All of a sudden, that’s what all the women were sipping at the bar well into the evening,” Moran says. “It was actually kind of funny.”

And then Arnold Schwarzenegger was elected, setting off another shift. “Once Arnold moved [into the penthouse suite], that issue (with the unions) just seemed to fade away,” Moran says. “We welcome everybody. Democrats, Republicans. We even let the Tea Party in. We have quite a mix.”

Today, he says, patrons are more discriminate. They know what they want, and price is no deterrent. The general attitude and social standing of the clientele is a favorite aspect of the job for the two veteran tenders.

“They know specifically what wine, vodka, gin, tequila, single malt scotch or beer they prefer. It’s all top-shelf stuff,” Lopez says. “Look at our back bar. We now have at least a dozen types of vodkas. In the old days, Smirnoff was about it.”

So while guests tend to have fewer drinks per sitting these days, they’re spending a lot more money. But downtown and midtown have changed since Dawson’s and the Hyatt first opened. There are other upscale hotels now and a plethora of restaurants and bars.

“One of our biggest challenges is keeping our guests in the hotel,” Moran admits. “With so many new places nearby, our guests want to go out and explore the many options, especially when the weather is nice. That hurts us a little, but we still have our regulars. They’ll go out to try a new place. But they’ll come back. At least for a night cap.”

 

 

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