This is The Gatekeepers, in which Eater roams the city meeting the fine ladies and gentlemen that stand between you and some of Atlanta's hottest tables.
Tres Bullard at Top Flr. [Photo: Nathan Honnold]
Top Flr's bar manager Tres Bullard worked in corporate American for about ten years before realizing that he wasn't happy and deciding instead to pursue what he'd always wanted: a job in the restaurant industry. He worked in the kitchen at French American Brasserie, which he claims made him a better bartender than any other experience. "When you bring the kitchen mentality to a bar," he says, "The level of the bar is raised to a place higher than most." Before coming to Top Flr, where he's been for eighteen months, Bullard also bartended at Original El Taco and Local Three. Here, he talks about favorite customers, the best table in the house, and how to jump to the front of the line on a busy night.
What all do you do at Top Flr?
My primary focus at Top Flr is the spirits. I pretty much control what we have and what we don't have, spirit-wise. I also am responsible for the cocktail list, any syrups, I make all our bitters— essentially I'm a jack of all trades for this bar. We also have a sommelier, John Dirga, who handles all of the wine program.
It's Friday evening around 9 p.m. How long is the wait for a drink?
I think one of the most important things is doing cocktails that you can produce at a reasonable speed. Pretty much all the cocktails on my list are designed with time in mind. There are a couple on there that are pretty intricate, stirred cocktails, but those are the ones that also kind of scare people away, and they're ordered by the kind of people who understand that it takes more than 15 seconds to stir a cocktail properly. Hopefully, the service ticket comes in and the drink is to the table in less than three minutes. That's my goal.
Is there anything that people can do speed that up? Has anybody ever offered you anything?
Last Friday night at 11 o'clock, someone gave one of our servers $50 for two drinks. So she came up to me and said, 'Here's $20, I need two old fashioneds.' I was like, 'Done! That goes to the front of the line.'
So you let those slide?
On occasion, yeah.
How often do you kick people out?
It's been a minute since we've had to kick anybody out. The last person was this very drunk, ornery French man. It was daylight— we had just opened— and he was loud and harassing guests, so our chef and I politely walked him out. It's very rare here. Occasionally we have to chase off some people who are out front harassing our guests, but we rarely have to kick anybody out.
Do you have favorite customers?
My favorite customers are the ones that will try different wines, that will give you some control and say 'Hey, is there anything you're working on?' That's always fun, and it means that there's a little trust you've established with that customer.
You make your bitters, you make your syrups, you have hand-selected spirits. Why is that important?
We have the spirits we have because it showcases some brands that are a little smaller, that are maybe not as commercially well known or well-financed as some of the big ones. We allow people to experience different spirits that they might not have otherwise.
As far as making everything from scratch, I think if you can't produce it, you probably shouldn't have it. If you want to go somewhere where there's a bunch of flavored spirits and weird liqueurs, that's fine, but the reality is, if it's not fresh and you can't make it, you have to ask yourself why it's behind the bar. It's just like with food. If food is frozen, and you have to pull it out and watch the sauce thaw, that's not appetizing.
Do people shy away from that? What do you do if someone comes up and asks for something you don't have?
If someone orders, for example, a Long Island, I always make an effort to change their order. You say, 'I know that's what you want, but can I make you something that I think you'll enjoy?' And you go to a Strange Horse or a Tom Collins. The reality is that you try to be as friendly as you can be and as hospitable as you can be without sounding like a jerk, and you try to educate your guests and give them an experience that they wouldn't have had if they had just gotten what they always get. What you think you want isn't necessarily what you really want, and maybe I can communicate that to you in a way that you'll connect with.
Have you had any VIPs or celebrities come in?
We have some really good regulars. The Vampire Diaries crew is in here all the time, Kevin Bacon has been in here a few times, Thievery Corporation. Especially the Vampire Diaries folks, they're food people. They're just people, and I think the important thing is to not treat them any differently. They just want to come in here and hang out and drink.
Tell me about the bartender series.
That's something I'm pretty excited about. I've kind of kicked around ideas for a long time; I wanted to do some events that would put people who wouldn't get to work together ever otherwise in the same place, and I finally came to this. People who work in certain places [like restaurants or big clubs] don't get to just cut up and make drinks and hang out, so this creates an environment that is fun and creatively charged, and hopefully we can do some good along way. It's every other Tuesday, and it's basically three things: It gets people together that don't normally work together, it pushes us creatively, and it drives business for them and for us. It gives both of us some exposure. It's a nice little environment that hopefully keeps getting better.
This is how we do it. The guest bartender will do a drink that can be as wacky and weird as they want. I'm going to do a punch, served from a bowl, that'll be pretty much approachable for everybody— next week I'm going to do a from-scratch eggnog. Our chef, Travis Carroll, will do a nice little pairing dish for each.
What's your favorite table?
My favorite place to sit is at the corner seats of the black bar. It's a nice corner, it's a little dark, and you get the bar vibe, but you're kind of separated. It's intimate.
What's the one Gatekeeper tool you need to do your job?
I would say that the most important thing for me is me. What I mean by that is, you know, there are so many parts to this equation and you have to be able to juggle all of them. The business, the hospitality, and the hours— you have to be a workhorse. When you're back behind the bar, you have to forget about the business and the hours and just be hospitable. The bar is your space, when people sit down at the bar, it's different than when they sit down at the table. They expect more. They expect the show. I don't mean throwing bottles around or anything, but they expect to interact with someone who is confident, cares about what he does, and is knowledgeable. Whatever else is going on in your life or with work, all of that has to go away when you're interacting with a guest. So for me, the most important tool is me, how I handle all of the different stresses and pressures and make sure my guests are given the experience they came in here for every time.