It never occurred to me then or later, toying with swizzle sticks in other bars to think that this seemingly useless plastic device was actually a patented invention. Shame on me for not recognizing a work of a genius. In 1934, an MIT graduate named Jay Sindler realized that he was tired of having to constantly use his fingers to fish an olive out of a perfectly good martini. His bright idea the inspiration for his company, Spir-it was to combine a tiny spear (for garnishes such as olives and cherries) that could also be a promotional tool for whatever saloon was serving the drinks.
To understand how successful Sindler was, take a look at all the collectors buying and selling these brightly colored skewers on eBay. A friend called me in a state of near ecstasy the other day after winning an online auction for a couple of vintage plastic stirrers from the old Kansas City Playboy Club. "For all I know," he gushed, "somebody famous might have stirred a drink with one of these. Maybe Len Dawson or Walt Bodine!"
Molly and Ray Dunlea, who own the five-month-old Swizzle Bistro, have also been searching eBay for swizzle sticks to use at the bar in their cozy restaurant. But, Molly has learned, "Swizzle sticks are hard to come by. We're going to have signature sticks manufactured for us."
My friend Bob was ready to toss a full-sized spear at one of Swizzle's bartenders on a recent Saturday night. From our table at the back of the dining room, we watched a young couple arrive and stand in the nearly empty dining room for several minutes, waiting for someone, anyone, to acknowledge them. The waitress was in the kitchen, and the young man standing listlessly behind the bar barely looked in their direction. After waiting another minute, the couple turned and walked out.
Bob fumed, and I knew exactly what he was thinking: We're relics of the days when servers and bartenders were trained to never, ever fail to acknowledge a customer in some way. As in, "I'll get a hostess to help you" or "I'll be right back to your table." Or just "hello."
What troubled me most about this bartender's unprofessional behavior was that it evoked the disturbing sense of ennui that permeated Jenny's Place, the short-lived restaurant that preceded Swizzle in this same location. Jenny's Place was the only restaurant I've ever walked out of twice, both times because the serving staff was absolutely clueless.
That's not the case at Swizzle, I'm happy to report. Aside from that one lazy bartender, the staff is attentive and charming. And funny. When I asked one waitress whether any customers came in looking to see if this was still Jenny's Place, she said, "Not many. But if they do, they're usually relieved that it's not."
It's important to change incorrect perceptions about a venue as quickly as possible. That's why the Dunleas gave this intimate dining room a serious makeover and hired a talented young chef, Ryan Torpey (formerly of Frondizi's). Bringing Torpey into the mix required another change in thinking. "Originally, Swizzle was going to be a martini and wine bar that served tapas," Molly says. "And that's what we told people it was going to be more of a lounge. But Ryan created such a great dinner menu, we've put more attention on the food."
It's been a wise decision. The restaurant's name may suggest a cocktail lounge, but that shouldn't scare off diners in search of a great meal.
My acerbic friend Ned agrees. After dining there with some of his artist friends one night, he called me to rave about Torpey's cuisine. Of course, not everything passed muster. "The booths are incredibly uncomfortable," he groused. "They must have been designed by Dr. Mengele. And the recorded music sucks. It was bad jazz with a disco beat."
I heard the same discoish background music on my first visit, with Bob. But he loved the music nearly as much as his Caesar salad, served in a crunchy "basket" of baked Parmesan, and, later, Torpey's tender 12-ounce Kansas City strip under a discreet crust of crushed peppercorns and veal demi-glace. "It's one of the best steaks I've had ever," Bob raved.
I'd indulged in a truly decadent cream soup a peridot-colored curried cauliflower along with bread slathered in kalamata olive butter. That would have made a perfectly satisfying meal, but the lure of a succulent Berkshire pork shank, slowly simmered osso buco-style in an intoxicating wine stock, sounded too delightful to pass up. It was a sophisticated, sensual meal in spite of the anachronistic soundtrack.
On my next visit, the first thing that Franklin, Marilyn, Marc and I noticed was a pianist setting up one of those portable electronic keyboards. The dining room is too small and noisy for any additional audio, but the musician played on while Marc, a talented pianist, cringed: "He's awful."
But it was easy for me to tune out the music while enjoying a "strudel" a phyllo pastry puff, really filled with wild mushrooms and creamy goat cheese atop a superb Marsala cream sauce. Franklin, meanwhile, selfishly devoured a bowl full of steamed mussels in a frothy broth of wine, herbs, Dijon and a touch of cream.
After sharing a sassy little salad of greens tossed with dried cranberries, goat cheese and spiced walnuts (and more bread, this time with an herb-almond butter), Franklin and Marilyn moved on to a couple of Torpey's seafood dishes: beautifully seared sea scallops on a potato-and-wild-mushroom ragout for Franklin and, for Marilyn, wild striped bass, pan-seared and splashed with beurre blanc, sided by roasted spaghetti squash, asparagus and mushrooms.
Torpey limits Swizzle's dinner-only menu to a half-dozen or so entrées, including a vegetarian number. Marc raved about his stuffed bell peppers, generously heaped with pearled barley and a rich eggplant caponata, glazed in a walnut oil and balsamic syrup. Everyone's dinner was impressive, but I preferred my own: a golden roasted chicken breast, blanketed with a light mushroom sauce and lolling on a bed of hot mashed potatoes delicately seasoned with horseradish.
We'd stuffed ourselves silly, so only Franklin was brazen enough to order dessert, a commercially made trio of chocolate mousse layers served in a compact little circle. Our server promised us that Swizzle planned to do its own desserts someday.
Or diners could just stumble over to the bar and order something fruity.