Southern Decadence is always a crazy time in NOLA and this year brought bigger crowds than ever before. Bars were packed with people celebrating the largest gay holiday in the city.
But through the chaos and my drunken revelry, I discovered my Bartender-of-the-Month for October.
Brian-Eric Lugo, or Pony as he is affectionately known, works at the fabulous American Townhouse. I cannot say enough great things about this guy. Not only is he an ace mixologist who knows how to make one killer cocktail, but he is professional, hospitable and funny as hell. He is a New Orleans boy, well, Metairie to be exact, but that is close enough to say he’s a local. He jokes that he was born and raised, strived and thrived–with some bumps and bruises along the way–in this city. “I came out as gay to my parents at 19 and I hit the throttle ever since,” he said. “I express myself in every way I can and, even when it gets me into trouble at times, I am at least true to myself and how I express my pride and passion.”
Pony has been a bartender off and on for ten years. “It all started when I interviewed with this dreamboat of a man named John at Kingfish as a barback.” (I actually know John, and Pony is right, John is stupid gorgeous.) Pony then went on to bartend at Good Friends, Lafitte’s in Exile, Sobu, the forever wonderful Pelican Club where he learned his management style. Now he says bartending at the amazing American Townhouse is like working at the gay Cheers, where everybody knows your name!
Pony started at American Townhouse recently but has already developed a regular client base. He goes on to describe working at American Townhouse, “Out of all the bars I’ve been before, this one feels special. There’s a wonderful management team that I’ve known for years and it’s an all-around great environment. Plus, the plants! Dude, working in a living environment is very magical. I also really appreciate their allowance of self-expression. As I said before, that alone is a huge win for me. It’s a safe space.”
Over the years of working behind the bar, Pony has gained many skills in his craft, mostly through trial and error, he freely admits, with an emphasis on errors. The last time I visited him, he gave me a sample of some of the craft cocktails he is working on such as the Dreamcore which was a heavenly concoction consisting of Rum and Triple Sec.
Pony enjoys experimenting with recipes although not every one of them is worth revisiting, he admits. “I remember being a young kid mixing food coloring with condensed milk, peanut butter, and whipped marshmallow cream. Now, I whip together a wonderful Blueberry Lavender Basil spritz and my signature shot named “Down the Rabbit Hole” themed after Alice and Wonderland that tastes of strawberry and mint.”
When asked what his best asset is behind the bar, his answer was perfect. “From my background of being at the bottom of the totem pole behind the bar, to being on the front lines, I’ve gained many skills that make me an asset wherever I choose to work. None of those skills matter though if you don’t have personality. I’d say I’ve got a little of that. I like to treat people with respect, share stories, build relationships, and make people feel seen and respected. These are the things that bring me back to a specific bar, the people. When a person sits at my bar, I want them to feel warmth and kindness. The world out there is hard enough and my bar is a safe place to rest.”
One of the main reasons he loves working at American Townhouse is because as a patron, he felt welcomed and like it was the right fit. He describes working at the bar as a very uplifting experience for his spirit.
So when Pony goes out, he cuts loose with a double vodka Diet Coke. Even though it is nasty, he loves it and orders it wherever he goes. “Something nostalgic about Diet Coke for me. My mom used to drive me from store to store on grocery days and every time we stopped at a Sam’s Club, we would get a massive ice-cold Diet Coke in those cups they keep by the register. We weren’t allowed soda in the house, so it was always a treat. Cut to ordering at the bar, I literally panic order vodka diet, because of the pressure to not waste what little time I have with the busy bartender. However, I do love a Pimm’s Cup or anything sparkling; and during the one week of Nola “winter” in January, an Old-Fashioned does me just right.”
I love the answers I get from bartenders to the question, “What annoys you most about customers?” “I will say as a bartender the most annoying question is always, ‘Do you have Tito’s?’ Really? YES, we have Tito’s. It’s fine, I’ll be fine, everything will be fine. If you are reading this listen up, EVERY BAR HAS TITO’S. If they don’t, come to us, we got you. We even do an all-you-can-drink special called ‘Drink and Drown’ every Sunday featuring Tito’s from 5pm to 8pm.”
Answers to the next question always make me giggle as I feel if anyone sees crazy stuff, bartenders top that list. “What is the weirdest/funniest thing you have seen as a bartender?” “As a bartender in the Quarter for ten years,” Pony replied, “you see some things, things you’d never expect to become desensitized to, such as a man rolling a possum in a stroller, the toxic break-up conversations on every block, but what takes the cake is seeing a homeless man across the street from Good Friends, very ineffectively pleasuring his nether regions, only to have him come ask me for water without wiping his hands. I can’t unsee it, I want to unsee it, but it will never be unseen. For those who are curious about the size, let’s just say it would make a woman cry.”
Pony can be found slinging drinks and making friends on the day shift through the week and mid-day till the sun goes down on weekends. American Townhouse is located at 1012 North Rampart Street.