Willy Gilbert: The Bartender’s Bartender
Pickle Room and Arnoldi’s Café
Willy Gilbert’s first job in town was as a prep cook at the Big Yellow House back in 1977, but he found his home at Jimmy’s Oriental Gardens in 1984, where he was the friendly face behind the bar until it closed in 2006. Amid post-Jimmy’s stints at Wildcat and Jill’s Place, Gilbert settled into the Monday and Tuesday shift at the Pickle Room (inside the old Jimmy’s) and Thursday-Saturday at Arnoldi’s down on Cota and Olive streets.
The Mai Tai master? Gilbert is the gatekeeper to the Mai Tai mix created for Jimmy’s by his good friend, the late owner Tommy Chung, who let him watch the process but never divulged an actual recipe. “I make it a little more sour, with more fresh lime juice,” admitted Gilbert. “People don’t like them too sweet anymore.”
Which cocktails are dying? Very few, but he only makes a Harvey Wallbanger once a year and hardly ever makes a Tequila Sunrise. As for the Alabama Slammer, he said, “I haven’t made one of those in years.”
Ever stumped? Rarely, thanks to experience and his smartphone. But he recently had to ask a patron for the preferred ingredients to a Blood and Sand, which is Scotch, orange juice, sweet vermouth, and a splash of Drambuie.
Favorite drink to make? “I have a standard answer,” said Gilbert. “I like to make a bottled beer. Nobody opens it better than I do.”
Where’s he drink? After golf on Wednesdays, he often winds up in either Harry’s Plaza Café of the Tee-Off, two classic joints on upper State Street, sipping Tito’s or Stolichnaya vodka on the rocks. “What I like about both places is not the cocktails; it’s the bartenders,” said Gilbert. “At Harry’s, I have to order with a side of ice because it’s a big ol’ bucketful. I have to keep watering it down.”
How ’bout at home? He prefers light, crisp lagers or pilsners, particularly Peroni. And then there’s the 4-2-1, or as he calls it, “the Miratti,” as it was taught to him by actor Tony Miratti. Four parts vodka (he likes Tito’s), two parts gin (Plymouth), and one part dry vermouth, served on the rocks, either with an olive or a twist or a spring onion. “It’s a nice little cocktail,” he said.