Best Of The Gays
Trio of Tavern Talent
by Jim Provenzano
Being a popular bartender takes a combination of skills; efficiency, a friendly attitude and a lot of hard work. Fortunately, readers voted in a rare three-way tie in our Besties this year. This trio of affable bartenders shared a little about their lives behind the bar, and away from it.
Many bartenders do more than pour drinks, and 440's Nick Mills is no exception.
With two degrees in graphic design and animation, he still does freelance work for many local nonprofits in the Bay Area. But although he started bartending to pay for school, he now makes more by working in the popular Castro bar.
Along with owner David Barker, Mills co-manages the 440 with Randy Axon. "The three of us see to the day-to-day operations," he said in our interview at the bar's office.
Fourteen years is a good run for any career, but Mills said it's more than that at 400.
"We have the friendliest staff," said Mills. "We really engage our customers and make them feel welcome. I think that translates to the patrons feeling comfortable enough to engage with each other."
An admitted mixed bar where older and younger men and women are welcome, Mills cites the "no attitude" atmosphere.
Gracious in his co-win for Best Bartender (and a runner-up last year), Mills credits his many local friends and patrons, but owned up to his swift bartending skills after fourteen years in the business.
"I think I'm kind of a fixture at this point," Mills said. "I can pump out drinks like nobody's business. The customer service part comes from my work in the corporate world," he added, of his former retail job in phone store management. "Making people happy came from that."
Mills' prior bar experience at several San Diego bars over four years, and a few years in Los Angeles, led to his broad experience before moving west from Logan, West Virginia.
"I was born a poor coal miner's daughter," he joked, with a hint of an accent. "But I moved west as soon as possible."
The Academy of Art was more of a draw for Mills' move to San Francisco, although he admitted that the gay scene was part of his decision.
"I could be gay, and work in a gay bar, and put myself through school, and not have to worry about being part of the corporate world, or wearing khakis and a polo shirt to work every day," said Mills. "Now I can wear what I want, say what I want, and talk about what I want. It's very freeing, to be able to work in a gay bar in a gay neighborhood."
But Mills noted how the neighborhood is changing. "With all the construction, the tech industry bringing in people and bombarding the city with new and different people," he said. "I think a lot of the guys who live here are worried how they're going to make a living and pay their rent. Maybe people are clinging to the idea that the Castro is the last gay spot in San Francisco. But it's not as desperate as the news might make it seem. We're lucky, and we want to keep going, and make 440 the place people want to come to."
Asked to name his favorite other bar in the world, Mills mentioned the Bear's Den in Paris. "It's a tiny little hole in the wall, until you find a staircase, which leads down and opens up into a giant cavern of bears and bodies and dancing and music and booze, and it's great."
Until he gets back to Paris, you can find Nick at the 440, serving your drink almost as fast as you order it.
Born in Oklahoma and raised in Southern California, Lookout bartender Michael Breshears has lived in San Francisco since 1995. His first local job serving drinks was at Moby Dick on 18th Street. He's been working at The Lookout since 2008.
"My degree in International Relations from San Francisco State has been very helpful in my line of work," said Breshears, who's met customers from around the world.
Other reasons why he likes the bar include the view.
"It's obviously well-known for having the balcony overlooking the streets below," he said. "It's also a pretty flexible space, so it can accommodate all kinds of parties," including its pizza and other menu items. "Different events are always happening there, and it brings in different parts of the community. Everyone's coming through; all kinds of DJs, different fundraisers, drag shows, pop-up kitchens, even the occasional porn party. I like the variety."
Breshears added, "I love day parties, especially when it's really warm out. Everyone's out, a little looser, maybe wearing a little less clothing."
Asked which drink is his favorite to make, Breshears joked, "My first thought was 'a beer and a shot.' But I'm just happy making a good drink. A lot of people really like my margaritas, so I make a lot of those."
His own preferences vary. "I switch my drinks around a lot," he said. "I'm going through a big rum and cachaca phase right now, but will get a drink for whatever fits a particular bar or setting."
Asked which day is his most fun shift to work, Breshears said Jock Sundays are his favorite weekly party. Local sports teams fill the bar and raise funds for their games and tournament trips.
But Breshears added, "Probably my favorite event in the last few years has been the Santa Skivvies Run."
The annual SF AIDS Foundation event, a variation on east coast Speedo Run fundraisers, draws hundreds of participants, with The Lookout as the home base.
"It's gotten exponentially bigger in the last few years, and the last one was definitely crazy," said Breshears. "Something about red Speedos, Santa hats, and booze brings the boys to the yard."
And although such events like the Skivvies Run draw a diverse crowd, for Breshears, working in a gay bar is different than other places.
"Maybe it's cliché," he said, "but the sense of working in a community is probably the biggest difference."
With his enchanting Irish brogue and brassy-red hair, it's no secret that bartender Gavin Thompson hails from Ireland. But although he's only been in the U.S. less than four years, he's no stranger to tavern life.
"My mom owns a bar back in Ireland, and I pretty much grew up in it," said Thompson, who hails from the small Midlands town of Athlone.
But a county pub and a Castro gay bar are worlds apart.
"It's very different," said Thompson, who is straight. "To be honest, at the start, I didn't know how to act in a gay bar. I didn't know that you could just be yourself. But eventually I realized it's just the same, in a way. People are people, and they like to be treated well and get a good drink."
Defining 'good' is debatable in some cases, and Thompson attests that a comparison with some heartier Irish brews leaves U.S. beers "a bit watery."
Being a cute straight guy working in a gay bar, Thompson enjoys some attention from flirtatious patrons.
"I flirt back, definitely," he said. "If anybody ever asks, I'll tell them I'm not gay. But if you don't ask, I'm just doing my job."
Perhaps it's his fresh perspective that won him so many fans.
"I had no experience like this before," said Thompson, who regularly pours drinks, often with nearly naked gogo guys standing above him, and drag queens belting out or lip-synching show tunes. "I only knew, like, two gay people before moving to San Francisco. I'm glad I work here, because it's really opened up my eyes."
Thompson even checks out other gay bars locally and abroad, and counted Chicago's Boys' Town as a good scene.
"I live in the Castro as well," he said. "I like The Mix and 440. They've got the same kind of clientele and zero drama. It's not like your're getting 21-year-olds who are drunk after one cocktail."
Currently pursuing a Business degree at City College, Thompson said he'll be off to travel and return to Ireland in November. He'll certainly be missed by his customers.
"There's a real sense of loyalty at the bar," said Thompson. "After the remodel, we got most of the regulars back." He mentioned some patrons who have on occasion brought him dinner and show tickets.
"The Edge is definitely like a home away from home," he said. "It's really like a family, and they really look after you."
440 Castro, 440 Castro St. 621-8732. www.the440.com
The Lookout, 3600 16th St. at Market. 431-0306. www.lookoutsf.com
The Edge, 4149 18th St. 863-4027. www.qbarsf.com/EDGE