The secret behind Liberty’s cocktail tranquility.
If you don’t notice the outstanding service at Liberty, then all is as it should be at Seattle’s most ambitious, most unpretentious cocktail bar. For a place that attracts the young, the famous and the beautiful—seriously—but shrugs at gauche over-branding and trend-humping, Liberty makes excellence look effortless.
“People say hospitality is one of those things that can’t be taught,” says co-owner Keith Waldbauer, “but I don’t buy that. You can learn how to be present and how to connect with people without having that be part of your DNA.”
Years ago, Waldbauer attended Naropa University, a Buddhist-inspired institution of higher learning in Boulder, Colo. then known as the Naropa Institute. There he learned the principles and practices of Shambhala meditation, which emphasizes mindfulness in everyday interactions. Once he graduated, he says, he mostly fell off the Shambhala wagon. When he came on board at Liberty in 2010 with partner Andrew Friedman, he soon noticed that during shifts servers often became detached or distant, resulting in less than positive interactions with customers.
“I wanted everyone to learn to slow down and breathe and refocus,” Waldbauer says. “That’s what got me thinking about structuring classes around how to be mindful at a restaurant and in the service of others.”
In May, Waldbauer put the Liberty staff—14 diverse people with varying degrees of professional experience—through mindfulness training at the Shambhala Meditation Center of Seattle in Madison Valley. The training was nothing more than a 50-minute introduction to the purpose and application of meditation, but it made an impression. In late June, Waldbauer organized a second introductory session. This time, the Liberty staff was joined by servers from Canlis, Ba Bar, Spur and Von Trapp’s. Liberty bar manager Alex Negranza was there.
“It sounds cliché to be happy and in tune with your body, but it helps so much to take a second and reflect,” Negranza says. “Where am I at today? What struggles am I gonna have? How do I prevent my problems from coming across to customers? On a busy Friday night, I have a million things to do as bar manager, but when I’m talking to a customer, they’re the only thing that matters. Like, let me give you all my attention and talk to you as a person.”
So here are five friends and I at Liberty on a busy Friday night. The mojo of the place is that of your cool cousin, a couple of years older, low-key but eloquent in her appreciation of Leonard Cohen, Galaga and Indian motorcycles. Behind the bar, Negranza swirls liquids and eyedroppers tinctures and dollops foams. Waldbauer saunters around the room, delivering drinks and clearing empty glasses. It’s a scene of synchronized chaos.
Our table is a flurry of food and drink orders. Rounds of summer standbys—mint juleps, Moscow mules and mojitos—are meticulously made and instantly refreshing. More friends arrive. A few plates of modest sushi prove that modest sushi is great bar food. We swap out our front room seating for a couple of couches in Liberty’s back lounge and our orders follow us promptly. For an order of Ilegal Mezcal, our server, unprompted, brings the bottle and leaves it at the table.
Not that these are extreme challenges, but among the three different servers helping us, none autopilots or furrows a brow. Our group lingers over many drinks because the atmosphere encourages we do. Hours pass and the night quietly becomes indelible.
“There’s always been that stereotype of the party lifestyle of the bartender—up until four in the morning drinking, lots of drugs and alcohol,” Negranza says later. “Liberty is not that kind of bar. We all go out and drink together, but there’s a higher level of bartender that’s starting to emerge.”
He’s referring to something more than a fondness for arm garters and mixological arcana. Every drinker on earth wishes his favorite bar to be a source of enlightenment. In a most unusual way, Liberty is a step toward the light.
517 15th Ave E.
Illustation by Randy Wood