RYAN MAGARIAN drank his first cocktail—so he says—at the age of 21, when he got a job with Club Med, first in Florida, later in Cancún. "At Club Med, cocktails were basically what my friend Bob Hess calls 'an alcohol delivery vehicle,'" recalls Magarian. "Nobody, especially the bartenders, took them seriously." It wasn't until 1996, when he got a job at Portland restaurant Bima, that he discovered how good cocktails could be. "After my shift, I sat down and decided, 'What the hell, I'll have a margarita.' I'll never forget it. Summer afternoon, end of the bar, Bima's signature margarita: reposado tequila, citrange orange liqueur, fresh lime juice, over ice, no salt: 'short in a bucket.' I think it was the hint of agave flavor in the tequila that pushed me over the edge. 'Holy shit,' I thought, 'I've got to learn how to make cocktails!'"
Magarian started making up his own cocktails at Bima; by the time he was hired to run the bar at Scott Staples' Restaurant Zöe in Seattle, he had developed a style of his own. The clientele at Zöe, "intelligent, thoughtful people who took their cocktails seriously," helped him refine it.
By this time, too, Magarian had developed some bartending rules to live by. "First: great ingredients. You can't make a great cocktail without fresh juices; you don't have to make your own simple syrup, but all the good bars I know of do. Second: precision. A really good bartender does not splash stuff into a shaker but measures every ingredient with a jigger. The difference between a great drink and a bad or OK one is getting the proportions exactly right. Third: cleanliness, tidiness—keeping your bar in tip-top shape, your ingredients organized and handy."
Since his days at Zöe, Magarian has branched out. In collaboration with Kathy Casey, he began to create "drinks programs" for other restaurants. "Kathy is the real pioneer in this field. She was developing menus and cocktail lineups together before anyone else." Some of Magarian's inspirations got more attention for their creator than orders from customers, most notably his signature "Hunter" cocktail for Kirkland's Jäger restaurant: "Our house specialty! Horseradish- infused Vodka with a hint of Grand Marnier. Garnished with grilled Beef Tenderloin tip." (That one even made it into the pages of The Wall Street Journal.)
Currently Magarian is busy not only thinking up new drinks but coaching bar staffs on how to present them with consistency and flourish. "I can write a cocktail list, train a staff, but if you don't also get people fired up, make sure the whole restaurant staff takes the bar as seriously as the kitchen, it's not going to work."
Ryan Magarian's Picks
Best Total Food and Drink Experience:
"Waterfront [on Pier 70] is hard to beat, but I'm prejudiced because they have lots of rums, and I'm partial to rum. Among new places, Crush on Madison opened to great expectations and has absolutely lived up to or exceeded them, in every area from the menu to the decor to the atmosphere."
"I think Zig Zag [on the Pike Place Market hillclimb] is not just the best bar in Seattle but one of the best in the United States. Ben Dougherty makes cocktails for adults. Last week I had one made with gin, maraschino, Chartreuse, and fresh lime juice that knocked my socks off: complex and interesting to the last drop."
Best Men's Clothing Store:
"One of the things that bothers me about some bar personnel is that they don't always realize that they're part of the experience. You have to dress well, as slick and sexy as you can but not over the top. For clothes, I favor Mario's [downtown] and Nuvo Moda [across the street from Seattle Art Museum]."
"It doesn't matter what you wear if you have bad hair. If you want an expert haircut, go to 7 in the Hyatt Grand Regency [on Seventh Avenue and Pine]. They're expensive but absolutely worth it."