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Paul Calvert on Paper Plane and Atlanta's Bar Culture

Paul Calvert, arguably one of the city's best bartenders, recently left his position at Pura Vida to join the team at Victory Sandwich Bar and to open Paper Plane, a new bar that'll be housed in the same building as the second Victory. Both are set to open at the end of December, and here, Calvert talks about what to expect at the restaurants as well as what things are truly important in Atlanta's bar culture.

On Victory Sandwich Bar
I love it. Here's why I love it: I'm really excited and really proud to be with a group of folks who are moving forward and have a ton of energy. They're all super smart and excited about growing the business and growing the brand but not becoming corporate. We're excited to be in this neighborhood [Inman Park] and that neighborhood [Decatur]; we love our staff. It's a really fun place to work, where, if you have energy and a love for this business, you can grow and thrive.

On what he'll be doing at Victory Sandwich Bar.
I'm in charge of the bar— all of the bars. When we open in Decatur, we'll have three: Victory Inman Park, Victory Decatur, and Paper Plane. So I'll do the ordering, training, and hiring. The bar that I'll run on a nightly basis, that I'll be behind four or five nights a week, is Paper Plane.

On Paper Plane.
Paper Plane will have full dinner in addition to a full bar. One of the things I'm really excited about with both the food menu and the bar menu is that they're sort of lean, they're agile. They're going to change a lot. I've never felt comfortable with the concept of a seasonal menu, like— oh, shit, it's pumpkin time. I've never really felt like that was natural, so I wanted to make sure that we developed a program that could change as often or as rarely as we wanted it to. The agility and the flexibility are something I'm super excited about.

On not being a speakeasy.
Both bars will be at 340 Church Street, but they'll have independent entrances. Inside the restaurants in the back, there will be a door to connect them. I want to make it really clear, though: there's nothing, absolutely nothing, that's speakeasy-esque about it. We want it to be a different bar, different menu, different food, different staff, different hours, all of that, but we don't want to fall into any of the pretension or the trappings of a speakeasy. I don't want to sound like I'm throwing people who do that under the bus— some of my favorite bars in the world employ that style. It's just not what we want to do.

On how his time at Sound Table and Pura Vida shaped what he's doing now.
Sound Table was really amazing, because I got to start a program from scratch and open in a place where there was not a lot going on and in a neighborhood that has since grown and changed, and that was really important to me. [Old Fourth Ward] has changed, and I think Sound Table was a big part of that, and I'm really proud of that. There was a time when I was Sound Table when I really believe that we had one of the greatest bar staffs in the city. It was myself, Navarro Carr, Aaron Drobek, Jenny Phillipoff, and Katie McDonald and when we were all together there, locked in, it was this incredible staff, and it really made me value the idea of the staff. The bar, for me anyway, shouldn't be about one person, it should be about a team.

Pura Vida, obviously, was a very different thing, because we didn't have a very large staff, and we weren't open as many hours, so we never really, in my mind, got to develop the same idea of a team, because it was just the two or three of us. It felt to me much more like it was about me, which is really humbling and really gratifying, but I'm not terribly comfortable with it, because I don't think that it's sustainable for a business. It should be about everything, the experience. I learned a lot at Pura Vida and I have a ton of respect for Hector and Leslie [Santiago], I think they're amazing, and I really believe that Hector at his best is one of the best chefs in the Southeast, hands down. He's so inventive and such an incredibly hard worker. I had a great time there, but I'm really excited to own a piece of something.

On what's going to change at Victory.
Nothing. We'll always do canned beer, we'll always do slushies, we'll always do the spiked sodas. We will always try to have a small but quality selection of whiskeys and amaros just like we have now. I'm sure we'll start to see a few new spirits on the back bar, but not much. I have a few cocktails on the Victory menu now that have been on there for a while, so I'll probably always add and take away a few little things from the vVctory menu, but not much. Maybe two or three drinks a season.

On the bartender vs mixologist debate.
Oh, I don't really care. I used to feel really strongly about not using the m-word, because to me it just sounded goofy and pretentious and when the cocktail culture in Atlanta was still sort of nascent and unsure of itself, I was afraid that it would put people off if they felt that they had to address you as some kind of scientist or something. But then, you know, I've had many conversations with my friends in the business, and it's like, call me whatever you want, just come and sit at my bar. I'm happy to have you there in the house.

On why it doesn't matter what you call him.
To me, honestly, it's about much more than cocktails. It's about much more than beer, much more than wine, much more than spirits and bitters and homemade syrups and glassware. All that stuff is important, but to me, I'm much more interested now in the experience. For everyone. For the staff, for the guests, and really how that experience fits into the community as a whole and how it contributes to making the business sustainable so the business can grow. Nobody wants to go into work every night and just grind it out. It's also about thinking, how is my bar functioning in a community? How can we better at being a standard in the community, and by the community, I mean the culinary community, the restaurant community, and then, hopefully, a larger community. Maybe, down the road, you're able to do things like give money to charities through your successful restaurant and bar. You can be something bigger than just taking someone's money and paying bills. That, to me, is the ideal goal. I really value what Greg [Best] and Linton and Gina [Hopkins]have done over at Holeman & Finch. They've created a brand that is also a way of life, a culture. You know, when you walk into one of their restaurants, what you're going to get. You're going to get quality, compassion, friendliness, and a willingness to teach but not in a pretentious or patronizing way. I really admire what they've done, and because they're financially successful, they're also able to give back. To me, that's a life. If you're going to be in this business as a career, you have to think of these things.

On bar culture in Atlanta.
I love the restaurant culture in Atlanta. Being at Victory now and having been at Sound Table, I love that I feel that I'm contributing to the formation and the growth and development of an entire culture here in Atlanta. Greg Best is one of my closest friends in the city, and sometimes we sit back and look at the city. I'll say to Greg, man, you were really grinding it out here in the beginning when there was nobody. It was Greg, and Eric Simpkins, and Lara Creasy, and maybe a few other people in town six or seven years ago. I look at it after having only been back in Atlanta for a couple of years, and it's changed so much in the past two years. We kind of sit back and can't believe how fortunate we are to be a part of this cultural shift at this zeitgeist, this amazing moment.

On how the cocktail scene has changed.
Honestly, I think that it's exploded, and in a way that's really cool to me. I look at how the scene has changed kind of through the way I look at how I've changed as a person and as a bartender. In the beginning, I used to get really frustrated because I'd look at places that had great wine, beer, and food menus, and I would go, why can't they even make an old fashioned. I would say this all the time: you don't have to innovate. Just learn the classics. I even thought for a second— this is so not my personality, but I really thought it for a second— that I would come in and start a consulting company to teach people how to make drinks. Now I feel differently about it. I feel like it's awesome if people are trying. People will figure it out or they won't.

On the importance of trying.
A couple years ago, I went to a bar and they had a Sazerac on their menu. And they made a terrible Sazerac. It wasn't even a good drink that was something different; it was just a bad drink. So we decided to do what bartenders do often, which is order a safety drink. We ordered a Negroni, which is equal parts Campari, sweet vermouth, and gin. It's pretty hard to mess that up. So here's what happened, it was really interesting. The bartender sets down the glass and counted out Campari, counted out sweet vermouth, then counted out gin, and we were like, okay, we're home free. We did it. And then the bartender, bless her heart, looks at the glass. I think it looked cheap to her, it looked stingy, so she took the gin and added another full pour. It was really generous, but she screwed up a really simple drink. At the time, of course, I was disappointed, but I look back on it now and I think that was a really beautiful moment of someone struggling with a cocktail as it exists in a way that I think its best and her understanding of how to serve and how to be generous and how to be fair. The thing that motivated her was a combination of a lack of knowledge, which is arguably not her fault, and that she felt like she was screwing her over. When that happened, I thought, okay, just let people figure it out, so now, I look at the city, and there are as many bad cocktail menus as there are good ones. The city's in this amazing growth period, and if Miles Macquarrie or Lara Creasy or whomever went around with that hypothetical consulting company and taught everyone how to make the drink, then it would be Miles's Negroni or his old fashioned everywhere. And it would be delicious, but it wouldn't be someone else growing and deciding.

On the drink vs the experience.
I am kind of over "bests." Favorite is awesome, that's great. But "bests," to me, can really damage the unifying thing in a cocktail culture or a culinary culture. Then everything becomes a contest. To me, it's much more interesting if there's just thought, intention, craft, and care behind what you're doing. It's all abut the experience. Anything that contributes to unnecessary competition sucks, and anything that contributes to us all growing and learning together is awesome. Take Miles from Leon's. He's a great guy and one of my great friends. I've had amazing cocktails at his bar, but some of my most memorable experiences with him have been while we're drinking crappy beer or shots of Fernet, because it's about so much more than the drink. It's about the experience.

On why it's still important to have well-crafted cocktails.
I think it's really important to serve people high-quality stuff. High quality cocktails, high quality spirits, high quality wine and beer. When I go into a place, I expect them to show intention. Intention is showing that you've thought about what you have behind you on that bar and how it goes together, if we're talking about cocktails. To me, that's really exciting. Intention, that people are thinking about what they're doing, trying to use interesting, cool ingredients that maybe I've never seen before, trying to make interesting, cool ingredients that maybe I've never thought about before, trying to use old standbys in new ways.

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Victory Sandwich Bar

340 Church Street, , GA 30030 (404) 377-9300 Visit Website

Paper Plane

340 Church St, Decatur, GA 30030