I first met Steve Denes when he was a cashier at the old Chatham food store on Pennsylvania and Fort. He was a very energetic, customer-oriented person. Steve’s career was in the airline industry, but only recently did I learn he had a sideline that he loved and embraced with a great passion: bartender.
Steve was once recognized as an international superstar bartender. After all, there was a piece written about him in the Windsor Star (That’s in Canada, so that makes him international!). During the 1970s and 1980s Steve Denes dominated the glass and ice cube business in the Detroit area. He learned his craft while in the military service at the NCO club in Germany and became so talented that he was runner-up in the Michigan Culinary and Bartender competition, representing the famous Brau Haus restaurant in 1977.
The former 1968 Riverview Community High School graduate is now retired from the airline industry and had several hundred drinks stored in his memory bank, and even had a number of them patented. Steve had all the tricks of the trade and was the ultimate showman — flipping full bottles of alcohol and catching them in mid-air, pouring martinis over his shoulder, and carrying six full glasses of beer without spilling a drop — that boy had balance, I tell you!
Denes, who lives in Trenton, worked in many establishments in the area: Sherlock’s, The San Bar, Pier 500 and McCaffery’s, as well as the previously mentioned Brau Haus, the Detroit Plaza, the Admirals Club and the Summit downtown. When I asked him why he moved around so much, he told me he was in high demand and kept getting better offers.
With a reputation for inventing drinks, liquor companies approached him for new recipes. In fact, Steve would invent drinks and name them after current people and events in the news. During the Iran Contra scandal he invented a drink and named it after Oliver North, “Ollies Contra Aide.” Another drink was named “Tammy Faye Folly” after Tammy Faye Bakker — it was a purple shade, for her excessive use of cosmetics.
Steve’s signature drink, titled “ABC,” consisted of amaretto and butterscotch candy. Steve also represented the Detroit Plaza Hotel when a contest was formed to come up with a non-alcoholic drink for the National Council on Alcoholism Greater Detroit area at Cobo Center. The ingredients used in his drink included five slices of banana, five fresh strawberries, one and a half ounce of Rose’s Lime Juice, one teaspoon of powdered sugar, a half orange with rind, then blend with crushed ice until almost frozen, and serve in a chilled wine glass. He named this drink “The Kaleidoscope.”
Working many years in different places, I asked who he remembers most when it came to celebrities he served and he named Johnny Cash, June Carter, Carol Channing and Sid Abel off the top — quite an array of personalities. And all, he said, were generous when it came to gratuities.
A local celebrity who frequented Steve’s working establishments was Bill Bonds. He was a good tipper as well as a good tipper. And I’m not being redundant. He was both. Another well-known local newswoman rumored to tip a few before going on live TV also visited Steve.
The bartender is a sort of psychiatrist. As Steve puts it, “You have to be a super listener. I listened so much to so many peoples’ stories and problems that at the end of the night I thought my head would explode!”
Probably the most trying part of a bartender’s job is when telling a customer, “You’ve had enough to drink,” and how their demeanor can become quite meaner. Comedian Richard Pryor had a part of his routine about a bartender having to cut off a patron. The only thing that convinced the drunk was, “We’ve got no more liquor!”
Another responsibility of a bartender is providing transportation home for the customer if they have gone over their limit. In my bartending days I was a bit annoyed when a semi-inebriated person would bellow out rudely, “Call me a cab!” I wanted to call him something else, however I could have fun with the local cab company’s phone number. It went like this: “I’ll call you a cab, what’s the phone number?” “282-2222.” “28…what was that again?” “282- 2222.” “Slow down I’ve got to write it down!” I just handed out a little frustration for revenge.
There were countless times Steve Denes grabbed car keys and personally drove his customers home — that’s what a conscientious bar keeper does. They were good times, too, like the 1970s and 1980s, making drinks with funny names, such as Harvey Wallbanger, or its cousin, Freddy Fudpucker. Other colorful delights: Sloe Gin Fizz, Whisky Sour, Pink Squirrel, Tom Collins, Grasshopper, Old Fashioned — love thinking about how good they went down.
“I’ll have a Sloe Screw!” It sounded R-rated but in reality it was just Sloe gin with orange juice. Back in the day when a couple walked into the bar it was automatic, the man would order a beer and if the lady didn’t order a glass of wine, it would be a mixed drink or fancy cocktail.
Liquor liability laws have changed American culture today as women now request less of the drink variety and consume far more beer than before.
The skilled bartender like Steve always was on alert to keep the booze flowing. He constantly watched, and all he needed was a nod from his customer and Steve knew they needed their drink refilled and they would receive it pronto, an extraordinary method of transaction.
Beer drinkers could be very impatient. Even though they might have more than half a beer in their giant mug, they would ask, “Hey, where’s my beer?” I’d think to myself, “I believe that yellow liquid in that glass is your beer, or I’m mistaken and it’s a sample to be sent to a lab.”
Proof that Steve was always on his toes was the tips he pulled in: up to $400 a day at some of the swankier places he worked at. That was more than 35 years ago, so just adjust that for inflation and it is a very significant payday.
These days fancy bartending is somewhat of a lost art, but Steve Denes has fond memories of what he learned about people, their interesting lives and occupations.
Tony Mazzella welcomes readers to friend him on Facebook, where he frequently shares recollections about some of the interesting people and businesses in Trenton’s past.