Santa Barbara’s Beloved Bartenders

Santa Barbara’s
Beloved Bartenders

Meet the Friendly Folks Who’ve Been
Pouring Your Cocktails for Decades

By Matt Kettmann & Roger Durling | Photos by Ingrid Bostrom
July 3, 2024

CHEERS! From left, Harmony Wilson, Ezra Atwill, Shaun Belway, Nicole Miller, Mike McHugh, Susie Reyes, Willy Gilbert, and Marcos Altamirano grab a booth at Harry’s. | Credit: Ingrid Bostrom

Bartending properly is far more about being a good spirit than merely pouring them. 

Those who elevate their skills into rewarding, meaningful careers exhibit the balanced artistry of chefs, the heartfelt compassion of good friends, the comic wit of playwrights, and the wise counsel of therapists. Long, late hours of standing, shaking, and standing watch over customers of all stripes are not for the faint of soul, but those who endure the test of time are beloved like family by their regulars.

In Santa Barbara, the connections between these professional bartenders mirror our small community’s tight-knit feel. Many have known and supported each other for years, and their lives are often quite intertwined. While I met Marcos Altamirano at Uptown Lounge, for instance, Shaun Belway of the Bobcat suddenly walked in for a beer. When Nicole Miller of the Press Room and Old Kings Road wandered into the Dutch Garden the next day, there was Willy Gilbert, the legend of yesterday’s Jimmy’s and today’s Pickle Room. Stories like these could fill pages. 

As a toast to their dedication in keeping so many of us refreshed and ready to tackle another day, we’re profiling eight of Santa Barbara’s best known and respected bartenders. By no means is this supposed to be a thorough list of these artisans, and it may even be just the start of a sporadic series to come. 

As we enter a hopefully relaxing summer season, please enjoy their stories, and take to heart the messages of goodwill and good times that ring true in each. 

— Matt Kettmann

The Old Fashioned: Willy Gilbert

Now serving: The Pickle Room

Anybody who loves cocktails knows the Old Fashioned. When made well, it’s one of the most delightful drinks, with so much beauty in its simplicity. And anybody in Santa Barbara who is serious about cocktails knows Willy Gilbert, the bartender’s bartender. Since 1984, he began serving regulars and first-timers alike at Jimmy’s Oriental Gardens, which is still referred to by many as Jimmy’s even though its name changed to The Pickle Room years ago.

Gilbert makes the best Old Fashioneds in town, relying on Buffalo Trace Bourbon and three kinds of bitters. Sitting at the red bar in the dimly lit atmosphere with Chinese décor all around immediately makes you feel as if you’re part of a Mad Men episode.   

“I’m not fond of the term mixologists,” Gilbert bluntly declared. “I really don’t like it. I’m not fond of the term ‘hand-crafted cocktails’ either. I’m old-school.”

Willy has the driest sense of humor, often of the self-deprecating sort. When confronted with his stature as a Santa Barbara icon, he shakes his head. “There are a lot of better bartenders in town,” he said. 

He learned to bartend at a Red Lobster in Columbus, Ohio. He came to Santa Barbara in 1977, working as a prep cook at the Big Yellow House in Summerland, where he eventually became bartender and manager. He also worked at a disco on 217 State Street called Flapper Alley. 

When he got the gig at Jimmy’s 40 years ago, he patiently watched owner Tommy Chung make his famous Mai Tai, for which Gilbert was never given a recipe. It’s not a true Trader Vic’s Mai Tai because it has pineapple juice, explained Gilbert, who still makes it today as Jimmy’s Mai Tai.  

When asked for the secret of his longevity in the business, Gilbert responded, “To be able to listen to people, and to have a good rapport with customers.” Then he reverted to his dry wit, quipping. “I’ve coined a phrase: ‘We have had so many complaints about the service here that we don’t offer it anymore.’ ” —RD 

The Bee’s Knees: Nicole Miller

Now serving: Old Kings Road, The Press Room, Wildcat Lounge

“My actual 21st birthday was my first night behind the bar,” said Nicole Miller of when she started pouring drinks at Club H2O while studying at UCSB more than two decades ago. “I’ve literally been bartending since it’s been legal to do so.”

Listening to her rattle off her résumé is a sprint down memory lane for anyone who partied on State Street in the 2000s: Indochine, Mel’s, Tonic/634, The Wildcat Lounge, The Press Room, Old Kings Road, Tiburon Tavern, and Duffy’s. “Bartenders were blowing fire, and people were standing on the bar,” recalled Miller of the latter spot, which was located where the Red Piano is now. “It was a heyday of good times.”

She benefited from prior experience working at Chuck E. Cheese during her high school days in Ventura. “That trained me to be a bartender,” she laughed. “Dealing with little kids on sugar is like dealing with adults on alcohol.”

Today, she works shifts at The Wildcat, Old Kings Road, and The Press Room, where she brings her dog Cindy Loo on Mondays. Known as one of the hardest workers in the business, always ready to pick up shifts, Miller has never once interviewed for a bartending job, nor has she ever really quit. “I’ve just flowed into other jobs,” she said. “It’s more who you know than what you know. If you keep a good reputation in this town, it’s not too hard to find what fits for you.”

She appreciates not having to work during the daylight hours — more beach time — and having some weekdays off, and she also pet- and house-sits on the side. Miller no longer drinks herself, which makes the late-night shifts a little easier to handle. And she’s seen generations grow up, explaining, “I watched a lot of people have babies and now I’m serving their kids.”

Miller, who was raised in the foster care system, really appreciates the camaraderie and community that’s part of being a bartender. “I love that you form a family with your regulars, and you can be a tour guide to tourists,” she said. “People come to you when they’re happy, and you can celebrate with them. They come to you when they’re sad and you can turn their day around.” —MK 

The Cosmopolitan: Ezra Atwill

Now serving: Lucky’s Steakhouse

The legendary actor and comedian Carol Burnett is very particular about her cosmopolitan, even handing a card to bartenders that explains how she prefers her drink. She’s a longtime regular at Lucky’s because she knows it will be done right, thanks to Ezra Atwill. He’s been a bartender at the swanky and popular Montecito steakhouse since its inception in 2000 and is one of the reasons the place is so successful.   

“Lucky’s has quite a range of personalities,” he explained. “The pressure is on because of the celebrities and the higher-end clientele. The expectations are high.”  

Atwill is emblematic of the place, providing exemplary service but never coming across as stuffy. He treats everyone as if they were royalty — yes, Prince Harry and the Duchess have stopped by — and makes you feel that you’ve been best friends for a long time, always remembering your name and your drink of choice.

Atwill was born in Humboldt County and moved with his family to Santa Barbara in 1984. He attended SBCC for three years and transferred to Sonoma State to study energy management and design. When he returned to Santa Barbara in the 1990s, he experienced a traumatic robbery while working at Cantwell’s, where the culprits carried a shotgun and hit him across the face. As he lay on the ground, his life flashed in front of him.    

In 1999, he got an offer that changed his career: Gene Montesano and his partners, Herb Simon and Jimmy Argyropoulos, had bought the Coast Village Grill on 1279 Coast Village Road and were planning to turn it into Lucky’s, Montecito’s second living room.  

Atwil is responsible for one of the bar’s most popular drinks, the Blueberry Patch. It started as a shooter that Karen, one of the hostesses, would get after her shift had ended. It is made with Stoli Blueberry, sweet and sour, and a secret splash, served chilled and with a sugar rim. Also popular is the Cosmic Carol — yes, named after Ms. Burnett. —RD 

The Jungle Bird: Susie Reyes

Now serving: Test Pilot and other Good Lion Hospitality establishments 

Susie Reyes was 22 years old, working for a department store in her hometown of Plainview, Texas. Not much was happening in that flat, desolate, Panhandle cowtown, where her parents — dad from Mexico, mom from El Salvador — had toiled for years in a beef processing plant. 

“This is not for me; I’m not a farm girl,” she thought. “What’s the farthest away I can get from here?”

She packed her car with a hamper and her wallet with $160 — half of which went to gas — and drove straight to Los Angeles, where she found work on her first day. She jumped around a few jobs, eventually becoming a property manager in Koreatown, next door to a divey joint called R Bar. Reyes picked up shifts there, and a mentor told her that she was great at making people feel welcome. “I guess it’s just a Texas thing,” she said.

Right around the time she realized that there must be more to California than the chaos of L.A., friends told her about Test Pilot opening in Santa Barbara. “What’s Santa Barbara?” she wondered, then took the train and met Brandon Ristaino, who was opening Test Pilot after successfully launching The Good Lion with his wife, Misty Orman, a few years earlier. 

That was eight years ago. Reyes is now the director of operations for Good Lion Hospitality, which includes three bars in Santa Barbara, two in Ventura, a hotel in San Luis Obispo, and one more coming soon in Montecito. 

“I’ve been able to grow with the company,” said Reyes, who compared her job to the Kingsguard in Game of Thrones. “I make sure that all the supervisors are doing their jobs and that everything is good before we go to war every weekend.” 

She still works shifts across the Good Lion portfolio, including at Test Pilot, where she indulges her love for rum in a cocktail called the Jungle Bird. “It’s so stinking delicious,” she said, even though it includes Campari, a beverage she dislikes by itself. 

Reyes, who just married a man with a normal nine-to-five job, relishes that there is no routine to her routine, and still gets those vibes from working behind the bar. “You’re part of the party — everyone else is celebrating, and you’re weirdly there too,” she said. “There’s something about being able to make somebody’s day. That warms my heart up.” —MK 

The Classic Martini: Mike McHugh

Now serving: Harry’s Plaza Café 

Timeless, sophisticated, and versatile, the martini is not just about having a drink; it’s about having an experience. Aficionados like me tend to gravitate to Harry’s, the Santa Barbara institution that permeates tradition, nostalgia, and fun. Many bartenders and regulars, myself included, go to Harry’s because of bartender Mike McHugh, who’s been serving there for 21 years. He exudes a very strong presence, both friendly and confident. Everyone wants to know him, like the popular quarterback in high school.  

McHugh started at Harry’s waiting tables, but the manager thought he had what it took to be a good bartender. He learned on the job and by observing other bartenders in town. “When I train people, I tell them bartending is 10 percent making drinks and 90 percent taking care of the customers,” he explained. 

After working nights for years, McHugh shifted to the daytime after starting a family. The transition proved to be mutually beneficial for it has become an extremely popular time at Harry’s. He’s so beloved by other bartenders in town that he has been at the receiving end of multiple pranks, in which customers are encouraged to head to Harry’s and ask McHugh for the most difficult drinks.  

His favorite cocktail to make is the Cadillac Margarita made with top-shelf tequila (Hornitos will do) and a float of Grand Marnier. It aligns with Harry’s reputation for serving extremely strong drinks.  

“They’re a huge draw,” he admitted. “But because of that you have to be very attentive as a bartender. I take care of people. I want people to come back. I am here for people to have a great experience.” —RD 

The Frisky Sour: Shaun Belway

Now serving: Bobcat Room and Wildcat Lounge’s Farm-to-Bar 

Having never worked in a nightclub setting, Shaun Belway was hesitant when Wildcat Lounge owner Bob Stout asked him to open the Bobcat Room as an adjacent concept on West Ortega Street back in 2015. “The idea of having a quiet cocktail lounge right next door intrigued me,” said Belway. “I love having that balance between the two.”

He was already a regular behind the bar at Wildcat, though only for happy hour on Tuesdays as part of the Farm-to-Bar team. More than a dozen years since that concept was launched with Patrick Reynolds — who, with Belway, was making fresh-style drinks at the now-shuttered Hungry Cat — Belway still hits up the downtown farmers market every Tuesday and then makes bespoke drinks for each customer.  

“In 13 years, there’s never been a menu,” he said. “We have a quick little chat with each person about their spirit preferences and flavor profiles. We make stuff up.”

Though the Bobcat does feature a menu, the formula remains extremely seasonal. The Tangerine Falls cocktail, for instance, is just now going off the menu because tangerines are no longer prevalent. In its place will be the Make It Snappy, a similar Collins-like concoction that features sugar snap pea vodka, with that purple hue coming from butterfly pea blossoms. 

The Santa Barbara–born grandson of Dodger great Jim Gilliam, Belway moved to San Francisco when he was 19 and then to the Deep South. In Jackson, Mississippi, he worked briefly with his sister, who’s an attorney, for a legal nonprofit and then studied at Tougaloo College, the country’s first HBCU. For many years, Belway split his time between Santa Barbara and New Orleans, renovating an old home with his sister while working both in the kitchen and behind the bar of multiple restaurants. 

His chef dreams didn’t last long. “It was the least amount of money I’d made since I was a teenager,” he said. “It was cheaper than culinary school, but it got to a point where I got frustrated with being destitute.”

Things are different now. In addition to the Bobcat and Tuesdays at Wildcat, Belway owns his own private bartending company — “I turn down more events than I accept” — and has even traveled internationally to bartend celebrity affairs.  

Though about as kind as they come, Belway bristles a tiny bit when asked about his specialty. “I have to sincerely answer: New stuff all the time. That’s what I’m known for,” he said. “If it’s not grown locally at the time, I just don’t serve it.” —MK

The Margarita: Harmony Wilson

Now serving: The Brewhouse 

Harmony Wilson’s reputation precedes her, as she kept being mentioned by other bartenders as one of the best in town. It’s not surprising why. Even as she’s being interviewed on the patio of The Brewhouse, Wilson is constantly interrupted by customers who come to chat with her, just as they would with their siblings or best friends. 

“I wouldn’t do this if I didn’t enjoy it so much,” said Wilson, who also knew every one of those customers’ names. “It’s a local spot with a family feel. It’s not the fanciest spot, but it’s comfortable.”

The Brewhouse offers comfort food and 20 beers on tap that are brewed on-site, a formula coveted by a loyal clientele. “We have 40 to 50 regulars that come at least three times a week,” said Wilson. “I like to be personal with everyone. I usually start making the drink the moment I see them walking into the place.”    

The restaurant’s centerpiece is a long bar that sits about 15 people, just one of the reasons why Wilson loves working here so much. “It’s a really big bar,” she said. “I’m not into making drinks and having a server deliver it to the clients. I like the relationship I have at the bar with each customer.”

Born and raised in Goleta, where she attended Dos Pueblos, Wilson was managing Longboards on Stearns Wharf in 2008 when she moved downstairs to the Harbor Restaurant. Upon leaving the hospitality industry to help her husband’s moving company, her favorite spot was always The Brewhouse. When the opportunity to work there came up, she quit her spouse’s business and learned to bartend from the bar manager Maria Yapur and bartender/now Brewhouse co-owner Grant Danely.  

Wilson is best known for her margaritas. “We don’t measure here,” she said proudly. “They’re strong, stiff margaritas. You get a real drink.”  —RD

The Ultima Palabra: Marcos Altamirano 

Now serving: Uptown Lounge

To his surprise as much as anyone else’s, Marcos Altamirano found himself behind the bar at Palazzio on State Street during the New Year’s Eve celebration in 2000, without any training whatsoever. “They just threw me behind the bar!” said Altamirano, and something must have clicked. He’s now the mixologist in charge of the Uptown Lounge, which reopened on Upper State Street in January, and he’s quite popular on Instagram with the handle @elcantinero805.

Originally from Oaxaca, where his family makes mezcal, Altamirano came to the area in 1995, working with his uncles in the avocado and lemon orchards as well as dishwashing at Esau’s Café. He became a server at Palazzio in Montecito when he barely knew English, and then kept that bartending role until his daughter was born a few years later, deciding to work day shifts instead. 

He shifted back to drinks at the Mesa Café and then The Nugget’s former location on West Victoria Street, where he became more interested in craft cocktails. That interest was put on steroids at Santo Mezcal and the short-lived Smitty’s. “I learned a lot at those three places,” said Altamirano, who gives a lot of credit to the mentorship of Sean Sepulveda, then the bar manager at Santo Mezcal. “I look up a lot to him.” 

Four years at Flor de Maiz came next, where he helped develop one of the more intriguing cocktail cards in town. He’s taken that spirit to Uptown Lounge. “Everything is nice and fresh,” said Altamirano. “I make all the juices in house. Everything is craft.”

He admits that the craft cocktail scene is much different than it was a quarter-century ago, with so much emphasis on fresh and local. “It’s not the bartending school that I started with,” he laughed, but that’s good. “Now we expect a good drink anywhere we go.”

Like every other bartender, Altamirano thrives on direct interactions with customers. “I love the energy behind the bar,” he said. “I love seeing people happy when they taste my drinks. I love talking to people. I love meeting new people all the time. That’s what gives me life.” —MK


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