Meet Your Mixologist: Robvell Smith, Rose Pistola

In a saloon town such as San Francisco, the bartender plays a crucial role. Confessor, friend, sounding board — the man or woman behind the plank sees to it that our needs are met with elegance, grace and often wit. They see humanity at its best and most convivial, but also offer a nod and a welcome to the lonely. But what do they see when they look at us? What are the tricks of their trade? And what lessons have they learned along the way? In this Examiner weekly feature, we talkto some of our local bartenders to find out.

Rose Pistola

532 Columbus Ave., S.F.; (415) 399-0499; www.rosepistola.com

Bartender Robvell Smith, master mixologist at the famous Rose Pistola, is a former and current serviceman. How, you ask? Well, after a stint in the U.S. Navy, he immediately became a bartender, and he says service is still his number one priority. We know that sounds like a marketing scheme, but we sat down with him, and the man likes to talk about service. Camaraderie is his other topic du jour; he made us promise we’d give shout outs to the rest of the staff at Rose Pistola. Smith took a break from his favorite topics to show us his mixing skills. He shared one that happened by sheer luck, but a second, more seductive cocktail called the Chocolate Love — well, mum was the word on that one. He only makes that gem every six months, he says, because of the effort it involves. We can only hope he pencils us in the next time Chocolate Love is on the menu.

Where are you from originally? San Francisco, and so is Chris [his 8-year-old son]. We live right around the corner.

How did you get into bartending? I was in the Navy, and I used to be really shy. I came back from overseas with a whole lot of money, and I saw an advertisement for the San Francisco School of Bartending. Aced the program, and, 21 years later, here I am at Rose Pistola.

How long were you overseas? Nine years in the Navy and three tours. Each tour is six months. So I did my time, from 1981 to 1990. We don’t have to put the years.

Too late. So, did you bartend in the Navy? Not on the ship, but the Canadian navy has bars. When I was in the Navy, I bartended at a Holiday Inn on Waikiki [Hawaii] and on the base.

What was the first cocktail you ever made? I was in Hawaii, so it was more than likely a Pina Colada, and not knowing how to work a blender back in the day, if you put in too much ice and not enough liquid, it’s not pretty.

So tell us the story behind this drink you’ve made us. The El Niño. It was actually a mistake. I was making a Cosmo, and I grabbed tequila instead of vodka, and it is smooth. Just like a Cosmopolitan with Don Julio Silver.

When you sit at the bar, what do you order for yourself? I like my vodka and cranberry.

What is the Rose Pistola? There was this lady [Rose Evangelista] who was a maverick in the restaurant/tourism industry. That’s her picture up there. I did her wake, in fact. … [Restaurateur] Reed Hearon was so intrigued by her work, he named the restaurant after her. The theory is that it washer husband who [was rumored to have brandished the pistol at a cook one day], and that’s where she got the Pistola from.

If you could serve a drink to anyone, who would it be? Michael Jordan. I’ve served lots of celebrities, and it’s just, like, the excellence part. I admire anyone who can handle that much pressure. To me, that is the coolest thing.

What’s the best tip you’ve ever gotten? I was closing the bar, and a gentleman came in and asked for a bottle of [Remy Martin] Louis XIII. We had a ¼ of a bottle. He asked how much. I said $700. He said, it’s for my dad, I’ll negotiate, $699. He gave me $250 on top of that and paid for my cab home.

Featured drink: El Niño

» 1 oz. tequila

» ½ oz. triple sec

» ½ oz. cranberry juice

» Freshly squeezed lime

Shake with ice, strain into a martini glass and garnish with a lime wedge.

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