clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Life Behind the Bar: Jay Ditlevson of The Sample Room

By Mecca Bos Aged to perfection, a professional barkeep who has mastered the art of anticipating your every need after years.

Mecca Bos

For a man of a certain age Jay Ditlevson is trim as a gymnast, remarkably wrinkle free, and still blessed with all of his hair. I believe "silver fox" is the term. He insists his fountain of youth is the 30 years he's spent behind the bar.

"This business keeps you young. I noticed that even at my 5 year college reunion, many of the others had aged 10 years. It's the mentality of doing this. You're around younger people, it's social, and the more fun you have at work, the less it seems like work."

His college ambitions in political science took a back seat after he got a taste of the booze biz at a campus burger joint. "I thought, 'you mean the better I interact with people, the more money I make?'"

He was hooked. And it's this aptitude for interaction with just about any human, including "howl at the moon types" that makes him good at what he does. "Very few of us have that touch."

He went on to a four year "prison term" at the Olive Garden. "It was on the 494 strip so you'd have your shift drink at a Bennigan's or an Applebees."  But the money was good, they'd seat around 1,000 people a night.

Peripatetic he isn't. The past two decades have been split between Eli's, a beloved downtown drinking institution, and The Sample Room, an equally beloved neighborhood gastropub. He emphasizes the importance of building, and keeping a loyal clientele. "When I left Eli's, people literally said, 'What are we going to do now?' Many followed me over here."

Jay Ditlevson shakes it up PHOTO CREDIT: Mecca Bos

He's got the gift of gab and his story, life loves (travel, mostly, he made a conscious choice not to marry or have children and doesn't have a girlfriend. His life just isn't very conducive to any of those relationships). Memories flow freely in a sort of stream of consciousness. He says the most important qualities a bartender must posess are anticipating needs, and making the fulfillment of those needs interesting.

Ultimately, he says, the bartender is a host, and is responsible for the pleasure of everyone seated at that bar. "It's a balancing act because someone at the bar might be unhappy with their lives and that can be the hardest part. The reality is, we are dispensing medication to people."

Ditlevson says he is tuned in to the reality that the bar is a place for escapism, and he takes care not to talk about things like work, money or current events. "We all have to confront these things, but I want people to forget about the daily grind, and I want them to feel special while they are here."

What changes does he notice as he ages into the business? He's wearing readers now, which he says he's teased incessantly for. "Just wait," he warns. "It will happen to you, too." And he tends not to go out for those post-shift drinks anymore. "I just need quiet after work now. I wonder how many relationships I've sabotaged because of that. I don't want to talk to anyone, and I don't want to hear about anyone else's day!"

But despite the sacrifice-- he says it's all worth it. He regularly satisfies his travel jones with the money he makes and the freedom he enjoys. He recently returned from 15 days in a French chateau where he satisfied his other passion for red wine. "That's my drink of choice these days. It's a health thing."

Worst part of bartending: "Late nights"

Best part: "The freedom"

What might surprise you about bartedners: "We're usually fairly educated." In otherwords, this isn't a "default" profession. It's a choice.

Advice: "If you ever travel somewhere and you want good information about the area, sit at the bar, and leave a good tip."

Sample Room

2124 Marshall Street NE, Minneapolis, MN 55418 (612) 789-0333 Visit Website

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for the Eater Twin Cities newsletter

The freshest news from the local food world