As American as Apple Pie Shot

Photo by Jeanne RiceChris Panaia has been a bartender since 1984, working bars and restaurants all over the county. Today, he's bar manager at Arriba Baja Cantina in Huntington Beach. We asked him what the holidays are like from behind the bar.

OC Weekly: So what's the customer mood during the holidays? Chris Panaia: There are more people out, sure, but mostly, they're happy. They're more in the mood to talk than usual. We tend to get a lot of customers who grew up around here, then moved away and are now back visiting for Christmas. The mood is usually fun, mellow. Do you ever go out on Christmas or Thanksgiving?

Every year since I can remember, I've gone to Woody's Wharf in Newport on Thanksgiving and Christmas night. It's one of the few places that's open. You see a few regulars but mostly a lot of people you haven't seen in a while. Mostly, though, the crowd at Woody's are people in the bar business.

What's the saddest holiday bar story you've got?

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I don't really have one.

Oh. Well, have you ever worked on Thanksgiving and Christmas?

Oh, yeah. You always get a few people who come out to enjoy some company, but they're usually pretty lonely. You see a lot of small families, too, who don't want to go through the hassle of holiday cooking. When I worked at Sid's Steakhouse in Newport Beach, we'd get regulars in on Christmas. But that place was home to them. Sid's was fun during the holidays. All the waitresses would wear Santa hats and these tight little dresses.

What's the increased work like?

I started out at John Dominic's in Newport, and we'd end up working double shifts, trying to handle all the parties. In December alone, you'd make about three months' worth of income. And except for Christmas and Thanksgiving days themselves, you'd tend not to get a lot of days off. Those weekends when most people are going away, you have to work. Oh, that reminds me of a really sad story.

What is it?

The first holiday season I had to work, I was at John Dominic's. We were told not to do anything to jeopardize our working during the season. So, at the end of November, I ignored that and went skiing at Steamboat. I ended up breaking my hand. When I got back, management was pissed. I lost all my shifts except one. But that's the trouble working in the bar industry, paycheck to paycheck: if you're injured, and it's not work-related, you're screwed. This was my first real opportunity to make a boatload of cash, and I lost it. I couldn't bartend at all—I was broke, laid up and without a job. It was the worst Christmas of my life.

Sure. So do people ask for a lot of eggnog during the holidays?

Yeah, on occasion. I've had people come in and ask for brandy and eggnog. It's rare, but there's usually someone. It's never enough for us actually to stock the stuff, though.

Right. What's eggnog?

It's basically egg yolks, sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg and cream. It's pretty heavy—one drink, and you're ready to pass out.

You get requests for any other crappy holiday drinks?

Most people ask for warm coffee drinks. We sell a lot of peppermint Schnapps. Or we make peppermint martinis. But if people are being naughty, then I make them a Turkey Shot, which is just a shot of Wild Turkey. Or I'll make a Prairie Fire shot, which is just tequila and Tabasco.

Good God, you could strip paint with that.

Oh, yeah.

Okay, two words: drunk Santas.

Hmmm. There was this one restaurant I used to work at that had a dance party every other Friday night. During the Christmas party night, our resident DJ was up there wearing a Santa hat. But he kept taking his girlfriend into the back between songs to engage in, well, sexual activities. They were also doing a little too much "White Christmas," if you get my drift. Anyway, they both OD'd right there and had to be rushed to Hoag Hospital.

Wow. What's an Apple Pie shot?

Apple Pucker, Goldschlager, butterscotch Schnapps and whipped cream.

I see. And people actually ask for that?

Yeah, once in a while.

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