Welcome to Lifers, an Eater feature that shares stories from the men and women who have worked in the restaurant and bar industry for the better part of their lives.
If you walk into the Waterfront Bar and Grill at any given night, chances are there will be a lot of action and a colorful crowd of people. Behind the bar, you’ll see a handful of bartenders trying to pour and mix as fast as they can to keep up with the influx of orders from thirsty customers, while at the same time passing food orders back to the kitchen, possibly the famous pozole soup or the celebrated fish tacos. If you happen to be there on a Sunday, Monday, or Tuesday night, one of these busy bartenders will be Kevin Mikesell, veteran bartender at the Waterfront for over 15 years--that’s what we like to call a ‘Lifer.’ Kevin was there when the menu consisted of just burgers and fish and chips, and only one person ran the entire bar. On most nights, in the early days, he played mixologist and chef on the same shift. The nature of the clientele, the staff, and the food has grown in size and variety, but for Kevin, the change is all for the better. We sat down with Kevin to pick his brain about life working at the Waterfront, one of San Diego’s oldest bars, and he graciously shared with us some great stories, the recipe to an original favorite specialty cocktail he concocted, the best thing to order when you’re there, and what it is that has kept him around for so long.
Are you originally from San Diego?
No I am not, I have been here for about 30 years, and I moved out here from Phoenix. I was in the service out there. I moved out here after a couple years of school and moving around in Arizona a little bit. I grew up in a military family. My family is from anywhere and everywhere, mostly the Midwest. They settled in Northwestern Arkansas. Joining the military was the way I could get away from home. That was my escape from Arkansas. I have lived in San Diego for 30 years, a good portion of that, I would say 25 years of that, I stepped back into this business [sic] of bartending. I had played around with it a little bit in Phoenix prior to going to school and the military.
How did you get started at the Waterfront?
I actually worked for Tom Fat, I don't know if you're familiar with that name? Fat City? Around the corner from here. Fat City was an amazing place right down here at Kettner and PCH. It is now construction zones, but it had been there since the forties. I started working for them there as a bar back. I knew about the Waterfront, we would come over here, all the workers, and would go out after shift and come in here. And I made some friends there, and many years ago one of the bartenders said 'Can I call you if I ever need help?' because back then there was only one bartender at the time and one cook, even on a weekend. He called me up one day, I said I will be right there and that's how I ended up here.
So you started coming here for after work drinks and then got the job? That's cool!
Yeah, and I didn't even interview or meet with Nancy,[sic] the owner, for months. I mean, that would never happen nowadays. Finally I went to introduce myself to her, said, 'Hi, my name is Kevin" and she goes, "I know. I know who you are. Nice to meet you."
Do you remember what year you started here?
You know I was trying to think of that earlier. You know, it was '89. Right around that time. Because I moved to San Diego in '84, the year the Padres won the Pennant, so yeah I am pretty sure it was '89.
How has working behind the bar changed since you first got the gig at Waterfront compared to now?
It's changed dramatically behind the bar. We have more people on, we have a larger client base to take care of, and it's getting larger, you know. So we have more people on; it used to be I worked solo behind the bar. I've always worked Sunday, Monday and Tuesday night for all those years, believe it or not. And I would let my cook go at 10 at night and would go back in the kitchen and start flipping burgers and pour all on my own. We didn't have the extensive menu that we have now. We served burgers, fish and chips, fries, onion rings, I think that was it.
What's your favorite item on the menu now?
Right now, always our burgers. But we have some great salads and stuff. I would say our sliders are awesome. Our tacos kill. Our tacos wipe everyone off the map. People come in here on Tuesday night, it will be a Taco Tuesday in San Diego, and you know, people can go out and get tacos from wherever in San Diego and try them. But people come back here the next week and say, 'Your tacos blew everyone out of the water.'
Do you have any advice for someone just starting out as a bartender?
Just jump into the business as a bar back. People over the years have asked me these questions like how to do this or what is the best way to do this. I say the best way is to get a job as a bar back or a busser and work your way into it. Get a job in a larger house where they utilize a lot of bar backs, like a club atmosphere, and then you can take it from there. More often than not, people waste their money on the bartending schools. I suggest against it. You need the experience more, because it's a people job. I'm not going to say it has nothing to do with mixing drinks, because especially these days people are getting more and more creative with mixing drinks, thank god. But it's about dealing with people and that's your job. You got to be a people person. If you don’t like people, stay out of the business.
What made you stick around at Waterfront for so long?
I like the place, first of all. I like working here. I never expected to be here all these years. But I also work for the Grand Manchester Hyatt, and I paired both of those jobs many years ago. Within two years of starting at Waterfront, I pulled a job from a customer here [sic] at the Hyatt. I started working as a banquet bartender there, I am still doing that as well now. So I paired both of these jobs a long time ago. That's part of the reason. I could have gone full time over at the Hyatt, but I like working here. And I saw the potential for this place as well and I think I made a good choice.
Do you think it's realized the potential that you saw in it?
Oh yeah. Absolutely.
What is your favorite part about this place?
The mix of people. You still have some of the old timers that come in. Most of the old fisherman would come in the morning, smoke their cigarettes and have their coffee. Some old Sicilian guys. It's like family here. Not just the employees and the family that owns the bar, but the customers. You still have a good hard core set of regulars that come in here. I will see somebody every once in awhile that I haven't seen in 15 years, and they come down to see if I am still here.
What is your favorite drink to serve here?
Most of our drinks are pretty basic drinks, but we have started doing a lot of cocktails--craft style cocktails. Actually, my favorite is one that I make. I call it Orange Sunshine. It's basically made with an infused vodka of your choice, a little bit of agave, sweet and sour, splash of soda. It’s real easy. Oh, and use fresh fruit. Orange, lemon...it's a good summer drink. Makes a good shot and a good up drink.
Where is your favorite place to go grab a drink when you're not on the clock?
I don't go out as much as I used to but I try to keep it pretty close to home. So I will pop into the Alibi once in awhile. It is right around the corner from my house. There, and Hillcrest Brewery. I'll pop over there for a brew once in awhile. They serve pretty good brews over there. Or I will head down to OB and catch up with friends once in awhile. There are two Irish style bars down there I like. I can never remember the names though.
Wow.You must have a really good time down in OB if you can't remember the name of that bar!
Ha, well no. For some reason, the name of that bar just, like, evades me. Always. I know where it is though [laughs].
Are you a beer guy?
If I am out, I will drink beer. If I am out at a restaurant, I will drink wine. If I am home, wine. I have become more of a wine person.
What is your typical shift life when you get on the clock?
Usually the previous shift has things set up for you, hopefully, and you just come in and jump into the fire. I get on at nine o clock. It starts to pick up at ten o clock.
And the clientele?
We get a large clientele of industry workers coming in. They get off shift and come in here. I started coming here 25 years ago and the industry guys were coming in here. And now with all the development in Little Italy we have an even larger clientele of industry people, and they keep coming back. It's not just industry workers; we have all ages of people that come in here. It's amazing. We will have business men coming in late at night even after taking their clients out. There is no limit to who can or cannot come in here. It's for everyone. It's very eclectic. [laughs]. That's what you want.
What is best time to be here?
It depends on what you want. You will get a different experience at any point in time, day or night. Some people come in for breakfast at six in the morning. Or brunch. And the grill is open until 1 in the morning. So there are always people in here.
Do you see yourself staying here for awhile?
I don't see myself going anywhere anytime soon. It just keeps getting more interesting.