Row 34’s Van Hongthong is Back Behind the Bar

Row 34

Van Hongthong is an expert bartender on the Boston Bar Scene; from Baldwin Bar to Island Creek to Row 34, he’s been around the block. But the pandemic put so much of that to a halt, and ‘though things were surely difficult, he welcomed the pause to work on his fishing game and make sure that when he did get back behind the bar, it was done in a safe manner. The opening of Row 34 in Burlington (which replaced its sister/predecessor, Island Creek Oyster Bar) presented just the opportunity. Though he had been behind the takeout cocktails and bar programs of all of the Row 34 sister restaurants, he’s been loving the challenge of creating their drink lists with similar themes while retaining unique individuality. Here’s your chance to see inside the mind of this craft cocktail-maker and get a glimpse of where he thinks the bar scene might be headed post-pandemic (and how best to support restaurants going forward… hint, having a bit of understanding is key).

What were the pre- and post-pandemic trajectories at Row 34? Did you have goals that changed or shifted?

We definitely did. I was looking at an old menu from Island Creek and comparing it to the Row menu, and we had a 15 or 16 drink list, and currently it sits at 6 for Row, but it will change as we grow more. It’s just like the whole way of making was “this is what we need to offer our guests”, we used to need to have variety, to have all these kinds of different drinks, to have something for everybody and now it’s like, like “let’s make sure we can offer drinks that people will be excited to drink.” With Row, you just want to come in and decompress from a workday, and you want your drink to just be delicious and tasty, but also that you can get another one when you kill it pretty quickly.

Do you work back behind the bar, or do you mostly do admin?

Mostly admin. I will get behind the bar when they need it, which was funny. At Row Boston, we had a cordial license [before the pandemic], but we never utilized it, so we utilized it when we reopened the second time post quarantine, and I went back there just to kind of get a feel for how service would run and it was just like, “oh my gosh I got forget how hard it is to A) bartend in a higher volume and B) to bartend at a bar that was never set up to make cocktails.” It was definitely hard, and it was an eye opening experience.

Van garnishing a Bordeaux Spritz // Lillet Blanc, Maritini & Rossi Fiero, Grapefruit, Sparkling Wine (left) Row 34 hot buttered lobster roll with homemade potato chips (right)

When you get behind the bar, how do you feel like it’s changed since before Covid-19?

It’s a tough question, you’re definitely more aware of how you approach everything and how you’re being perceived. When it was pre COVID, you just put your head down, and you were a drink making machine. You have tickets, you’re just executing your drinks out. Now, I have to make sure everybody sees that we’re following protocol, and you want people to feel reassured that everything that you’re doing is safe.

Do you feel like it’s affected bartending socially?

Well, I was behind the bar a couple of times [in Portsmouth, where the bar-seating is open], and it was almost a novelty for me because we haven’t had that over-the-bar-top guest interaction in so long. It was nice to actually joke with your guests, and it pretty much felt normal. Yeah, also it was in New Hampshire, so everything’s Live Free or Die, baby!

How’s it been since the opening at Row 34 Burlington?

The guest reception has been awesome. We weren’t quite sure how people would perceive it, but the concepts are so similar, the food is so similar and our staff is still very much the same staff that we had prior, so I feel like having that comfort level with the space and with our staff, made people feel at ease. There were a lot of people who reached out via Instagram or Facebook saying, “Oh my gosh, I heard about Island Creek switching to Row, Are you still there? Is it like a whole new staff?” I was like, “Don’t worry, we’re still the same management staff, we’re still the same service staff, front of house etc.”

So are the bar programs at the three Row 34’s similar? Different?

They are similar in the three spaces. In Boston, we have a cordial license, so we have to follow the cordial licensing structure, but in Burlington, it’s a full liquor license, New Hampshire has a full liquor license as well, but it’s New Hampshire so there are things that are available, and things that are not available because you have to buy all your booze from the state. I was able to get a menu together that’s pretty similar in all three spaces, so that’s been a challenge, but fun.

Were there any inventions or things that you guys created to try and get through the pandemic? 

Honestly cocktails to-go was a big driving force. I reached out to a lot of friends to be like “hey, you’re making cocktails to-go, tell me how are you doing this.” Honestly it was using a lot of things that preserve a cocktail, like using citric acid instead of using fresh citrus juice. Because you don’t want a drink that has old citrus in it, even if it’s take-out. With citric acid you get a lot of that sharpness and brightness. But with that, you’d have to tweak your recipe – you can’t just make a lemon-citric acid solution, and sub that where you’d use fresh lemon juice. I mean if you ever take citric acid on its own, it’s like a Super Sour Warhead. That was the biggest challenge, because you’re trying to make to-go cocktails that are approachable, balanced, delicious and of perceived value, you know? During the pandemic, a lot of people were stuck in their homes and everybody was like “I can go and learn how to make drinks!” – there’s so much information out there. But the joy of going to a bar is to be at a bar and to talk to people and shoot the breeze with your bartender and not be in your house. A lot of people, even though the intent was there, still weren’t able to get the mechanics or the nuances. So people were like, “oh, I know I’ve had great drinks at this restaurant, and I know their to-go drinks will be really good, so I’m just going to try what they have and then I’ll go from there.” 

Is there a drink that people were especially pumped about?

I just did a pineapple Mai Tai, like a Trader Vic’s style with citric-acid adjusted pineapple juice, Bacardi Silver, Rhum Barbancourt (8 year), orange cordial, Orgeat, and two different kinds of raw honey, and they were delicious. And then we would make a big batch, and I would put a count on it at the start of takeout– by Sunday night we’d be sold out. But even if you didn’t sell them all it doesn’t matter because they’re not going to go bad because they are preserved in that facet.

Van behind the bar pre-pandemic (left) Shores Of San Juan // Bacardi Añejo cuatro, coconut cream, mango, lime (right)

Do you get a lot of interaction through social media?

I’ve been really lucky to have a following, and when the news broke that Island Creek was closing, we got a lot of messages from people who are so loyal to us. They were a little worried, but we were able to reassure them; they knew that the familiar faces would be there, so it really made the transition much easier than any of us, or at least I could have, thought. 

Do you feel like social media is going to become a more impactful part of the bar puzzle?

There are bartenders who have followings like celebrities. Social media is such a huge thing, you know, people follow bartenders. What’s the running joke… it’s like your accountant, your hairdresser and your bartender are people that you don’t let out of your life. Like wherever your barber goes you follow them and that’s like your bartender. Sometimes people just want to be doted on and feel special, especially right now. And you make really lasting relationships and really great connections that way, and in turn, it helps come full circle.

Where are you finding creativity these days?

I always defer to very, very fresh, so whatever fruits and things are in season. Sometimes I’ll think “hey, what about using something like this, but with like, something that is not as obscure, just to kind of blend them together?” Right now, not this menu so much, but on one of our previous menus in Burlington, there was a drink with simple syrup, celery water, Greek yogurt, Gin, lemon – it sounds kind of strange, but everything comes together so harmoniously.

Do you feel like the pandemic has led you in a new direction or do you feel like it’s strengthened the one that you were already on?

I spent so much time during the pandemic chasing things that I wanted to do because I finally had time to do those things. It was funny, it wasn’t really cocktail-related at all. I know some people have really dug in and enhanced themselves – I did do a little professional development, but I really used that time to do things that I wanted to do, like spend more time with my family. Because the restaurant industry is tough, or was tough. Before the pandemic I think a lot of people got burnt out, and there was a welcome pause for everybody.

I told [my staff] that I hope in our lifetime we will never have to go through something like this again. So use this time wisely, use this time for whatever you want. If you always wanted to do this one thing, make time to do that– this is the time to do it.

Redesigned interior of Row 34 in Burlington, MA (left) Van masked behind the bar during the pandemic (right)

Is there something that you’re really excited about within the industry going forward?

Right now, I mean, just the tightening of the community. People understand that a lot of really great restaurants didn’t make it. So you want to support the people who weathered the storm; you want to be there. Like, we made this together, not to say it’s a point of pride, but we made it through. And now we’re hopefully on the other side. There is an outlook of normalcy that has come with opening the bars again. I could sit at a bar and not have the partition and not be 20 feet away from [other guests]. Just to go into a friend’s spot and be like, “hey, I’m so happy to be here.” Everyone’s excited to be in a space now. 

What are the best ways that consumers can get back into it and support Row 34, especially in Burlington?

I mean, just coming in and supporting us. There’s so many ways to show support to a restaurant, obviously dining or takeout or gift cards, but it’s also just being a kind human being when you’re in this space. We’ve gone through so much, and we don’t like having to police people about wearing a mask. It’s not something anybody ever had to put on their resume, like “I’m really good at making sure people wear their masks.” Just be a human being and be compassionate.

Before the pandemic, it was like, “Let’s pack this restaurant, let’s flip the tables, let’s make this and now!” – We don’t have the staff [anymore], so let’s be smart. It’s all about making sure that you’re taking care of the people that are taking care of you. And a lot of the guests have been really great about it, understanding, but some people are like “why is it taking so long?” There’s maybe three people in the kitchen, where the kitchen should have 10, so it’s important to have empathy. If you want to be the best restaurant supporter, when you’re in the space, just be kind.

What do you think will be coming out of the pandemic for the restaurant industry? Do you think the industry has changed?

I really do believe that, because there’s a lot of things that have changed, and I think a lot of people have their eyes open. The old way was not a very great way for people’s mental health or quality of life. Now it’s like, that could be a tomorrow problem, and that’s okay. There’s a lot of calmness to everything, fortunately for us at Row. It’s like “that’s okay, we’ll figure it out.” Not like “we know this guest needs this, somebody go to the store right now and get it.” That way is hopefully gone.

Do you have any events or things coming up that you’re looking forward to, especially in Burlington?

We’re just happy to be there. Honestly, we’re happy to be a Row 34. It’s a rebirth, you know, like a phoenix rising from the ashes, not to sound so cliché – all the guests that come in there aren’t quite sure what to think, but our enthusiasm for it conveys their experience, and they’re so excited. We always say we’re not mourning the loss of a restaurant, we’re actually celebrating the birth of a new restaurant.

Butterscotch pudding (left) Row 34 Burlington interior (middle) Row 34 branded hot sauce and Island Creek Oysters (right)

How do you feel like the pandemic will affect the future of bartending, especially here, but also in the greater Boston area?

I was talking to some guests, some friends of mine, that came in the other day, and we were saying, “Remember the old way?” You would sit at a bar, and you were elbow to elbow, or you were at a dinner at a table in the dining area and you could have reached out and grabbed somebody’s food off their plate; you could hear the conversation literally happening next to you. I feel like people are going to value their space a little bit more. So how will that change bartending? I don’t know if we’ll ever go back to that fully sat bar, three deep, you’re trying to pass a martini over two people’s heads to get it to the person behind. It’s hard to say what the comfort level is, regardless, but I mean people do want normalcy. But your safety is always something that you keep in the forefront of your mind. I don’t know – I mean, do I miss the raucousness of a full bar? Yeah, absolutely. But I don’t know if that’s gonna be a thing anymore.

I wish I had some more in depth answers about the post-pandemic. We’re just kind of taking it day by day, because there’s never been something like this that any of us had to experience in our lifetimes and now it’s like are we setting the stage for, I don’t want to think of it that way because that’s very daunting to think of yourself in that kind of aspect. You want to keep yourself safe and keep your guests safe, and however that translates to your space, that’s how it translates. Maybe in five years this will all be a distant memory, and it’ll be back to that 3 deep at the bar, but it’s hard to say. I mean I never thought that this would ever be how the food and beverage and hospitality [industry] would be. It was always just the old faithful, the old reliable – this is how restaurants run, this is how bars run. Then the pandemic happened and it’s like, but no, actually that’s not how things are; we have to really be smart, and think, and pivot. 

 And for people who haven’t adapted, you can’t go back to that, at least not yet. I don’t know when. But, you know, you definitely have to transition to what the new is. Holding onto the old just isn’t viable.

This interview has been edited and condensed for brevity and clarity.
Back Behind the Bar is four-part series that shares the stories of beverage professionals as they reemerge post-pandemic and get back behind the bar.

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