After partnering with a few friends to open Grain last December, Kevin Bragg has left Seven Lamps and is putting all of his efforts into the Midtown bar. Aiming to be a neighborhood watering hole, Grain has been described as Cheers, but maybe a little more upscale. Here, Bragg dishes on how he got his start in the restaurant business, pushing the envelope with his cocktails, and some of the more disturbing drink orders he's received.
Grain is your first time being a partner in a venture. How did you get involved?
I was literally sitting around one day and got a phone call from Drew [Van Leuvan, partner and executive chef at Seven Lamps], and he said, "I want to open a cocktail bar; do you want in?"
We sat down with Billy [Streck] from Cypress Street and talked about his vision, and we all had the same goal. We wanted a little neighborhood cocktail bar that really focused on hospitality. The way things have gone the past few years, it's become so much about the cocktail. Yes, cocktails are important, and they're a big part of what we do, but we wanted to make hospitality and the neighborhood our main focus.
What neighborhood do you live in?
Midtown, actually. About a block and a half from [Grain]. I'm still amazed I got to open up a neighborhood bar I would want to go to in my own neighborhood.
Do you aspire to be people's Cheers?
Funny, someone actually referenced that in a Yelp review of this place, but what they said, which I absolutely loved, is that Dr. Frasier Crane from Frasier, as opposed to Cheers, would come here. We have a little more of an upscale vibe than Cheers. But I love the reference.
What kind of things are you doing with the menu that you're excited about?
We're playing with a lot of fun stuff. Beverage wise, we're using liquid nitrogen, which never gets old. I've been working with it for eight years now, and every time is just as fun as the first time. We do a nitrogen frozen caramel popcorn that's like Cracker Jack, but taken to the next level. We've definitely streamlined a lot of the things with cocktails. We pre-batch all of our sours every day, so that the citrus and syrup get pre-mixed, and it's just one less step in building a cocktail. It really expedites the speed of getting drinks to customers, which is one of my pet peeves — going into a cocktail bar and knowing you're going to wait 15 minutes, if it's busy, for a drink.
What are your favorite ingredients to work with?
Whiskey [laughs]. I love whiskey, but I also really like using all kinds of produce. Lemongrass is always something that's a favorite of mine. You can mix it with pretty much every spirit imaginable. I also like using random things people don't necessarily think of being used in cocktails, stuff like asparagus and mushrooms. I actually have a drink going on in the spring with mushrooms. Look for it in a couple of weeks.
What's the craziest thing somebody's ever ordered?
We still get the random requests for Appletinis, stuff like that. Actually, the funniest thing I had was some guy asking me if I had Mountain Dew. In Atlanta. When I said "no," he asked if we had Diet Mountain Dew. He wanted to mix it with whiskey. That was a little bit jarring. Definitely a first.
What do you like about being behind the bar?
The people. The constant change. You never know what any day is going to bring you. The stories you hear from people. The variety of it. It's amazing. You just don't get to do that in every profession.
Speaking of people, do you have any celebrity clientele?
There have been a couple. Nice people. I think the only time I've ever been really star struck was at 4th & Swift, when Anthony Hopkins walked in and said, "Hello, I'm Tony" [imitates British accent]. He was super awesome, as nice as he could be. Introduced himself to the whole staff.
What's your favorite thing to drink?
Honestly, when it comes down to it, when I get off work, I like to have a beer, maybe a little whiskey or a little fernet. I don't often do cocktails. It's funny. Everyone says, "Oh, you must drink lots of cocktails at home," but honestly, I make them all day, so I like it simple and easy when I get home. That being said, I do enjoy some of the classics, like an Old Fashioned, Negroni, Manhattans, and such.
What is your favorite bar you've ever been to?
Employees Only in New York City. It's just the energy there, the level of service. It's just absolutely phenomenal.
How did you get started in bartending?
I actually got into the restaurant industry on a dare. I was running my own photography company at the time and managing a photo lab, and my roommate at the time was in the restaurant business. He was working for a very fancy chain restaurant that required him to wear a wine key to work. He basically told me over a few beers one day, "There's no way you can do what I do for a living. You don't have the personality or the temperament — you wouldn't last a week in the restaurant business." So the next week, I got a part time job waiting tables and found myself behind the bar after a couple of months, and it became what I wanted to do. And here I am today. Clearly, I wasn't cut out for the restaurant industry.