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San Clemente Journal

A Toast to Two of San Clemente’s Best

Nov 20, 2017 07:44PM ● By Cara Taylor
by Cara Elise Taylor

Good bartenders approach you casually, lean in, and size you up in an attempt to figure out your type. They inquire about your palette, what spirits you hate (because of that one time in college), and how your night/day is going. These details help them deliver a nearly therapeutic experience, in which you have exactly the drink you need. It lets them understand the atmosphere and act accordingly. Because for them, it's about more than just giving you what's on the menu. It's about making sure you leave the place feeling giddy from the pleasure of hospitality, flavor, and ingenuity. I, like many others in this town, have had this experience at both Vine Restaurant & Bar and Pierside Kitchen + Bar. I wanted to know more about the people who participate in making these places so memorable, and in doing so felt a bliss under the influence of bourbon and good conversation. 

Gabe Whorley | Vine
Gabe Whorley’s typical order is a glass of Hendricks Gin, stirred with a twist. “I like a lot of floral flavors. Plus,” he shrugged, “I like to catch a buzz real quick,” he said, charming the couple to my left and making them chuckle. 

Despite his towering frame, and the confidence about him, he makes you feel at ease. So, I sat down at the bar inside the beautiful Vine Restaurant & Bar, to learn more about the man behind it. 
Gabe is truly a San Clementean. He even had an endearing pride in his eyes when he told me that he was born at the former San Clemente Hospital. Back when he was a beach kid, attending San Clemente High School, he discovered the potential he had in the food/beverage industry. His first job was bussing, but he worked hard and made a conscious effort to learn as much as possible, ending up at establishments such as Blue Corral, Pelican Hill, and Charlie Palmer’s. Now, Gabe is a partner at Vine alongside three of his best friends. They’ve taken their gorgeous and well-received concept at Vine to a second location called Ironwood (in Laguna Hills) and they’re in the process of opening a third location in Newport Beach called Olea. These wonderful spots are the manifestation of the dreams he cooked up at 17-years-old. 

During our chat, he made me a drink called The Bad Decision, made with vanilla infused bourbon, micro-planed orange, drambouie, millet blanc and lemon zest. The bourbon and vanilla reflected the warmth of the place. The layers of citrus from the orange and twist of lemon mirrored its energy. It’s a somewhat boozy cocktail that’s perfect for Friday night this time of year. 

Vine, a nice place to dine and drink, is filled with the kind of people, food and music that make you feel welcome and happy. When you enter, you hear universally beloved oldies, and you can smell the complex flavors and seasonal ingredients from the garden out back. When you sit at the bar, someone behind it directs their smile at you, and asks how work is going. Even if they don’t remember your name specifically, you can tell in their eyes that they remember you, and they’re glad you came back. We’ve met only once before--when I had drinks there with my parents a few months ago--and yet, as soon as I said hello Gabe asked me how my folks were doing. That kind of hospitality that takes an interest in you, and not just your wallet, is why Vine is buzzing with patrons pretty much every night of the week.
 “The reason why people come back is that Cheers environment where you’re joking around, you’re having fun. They’re going to remember something stupid that you said and were able to make fun of yourself and laugh and have fun with it. They may come in grumpy or whatever else but when they walk out they wanna shake your hand. That’s my goal,” Gabe said.

Nate Duffy | Pierside Kitchen + Bar
About two years ago Nate Duffy was preparing to move his life from D.C. to Puerto Rico in an effort to make his dreams come true. He’d been passionate about the food & beverage industry for years, and had found his niche as a bartender, something that turned out to be a position in which his palette and creativity could flourish in an exciting way. He was set to open a restaurant with a good friend, until tragedy intervened and his partner had to back-out due to a family illness. “Don’t worry man, I’m a bartender. I can go anywhere in the world except Utah and the Middle East,” he responded when his friend called with the news. 

From that statement alone, one can understand why San Clemente, was the perfect place for Nate to re-route his life. A Maryland native, he has a mother and younger brother that had been living in San Clemente for seven years when he called them with his plans to move out west. Just days after he arrived, he sat down for a meal and a drink at Pierside, and felt the potential it had to improve itself, as well as Nate’s life. 

When I sat down to chat with him, it was dusk and cool and he brought me a twist on a Manhattan that feels right this time of year. It had dry vermouth, rum, creme de banane and black walnut bitters, and it had been barrel-aged for a few weeks. “The barrel is like a sponge,” he tells me, excitedly, which transfers some notes from the oak into the flavor of the cocktail.
Recently their chef had to try out a banana nut version of the bread pudding they serve, and Nate thought he could make a drink of it. What’s perfect about the drink is that it’s not too sweet, so that it tastes more like a Manhattan than a desert, while still being a treat. 

Putting new randomly-inspired cocktails on the menu is something his management has faith in him to take care of. “My creativity gets to flourish in a place like this,” he says. That kind of approach is, according to Nate, a reason why Pierside is so beloved. 

Back in D.C. he was working in an incredibly fast-paced scene. While he remarks that people here still want their food and drinks in a timely manner, he also notes that when people sit down at a place like Pierside, they’re not expecting to get pushed out to make room for new paying customers. They come to take in the air coming off the Pacific Ocean, and consume things that were made with passion and care as well as skill. 

“You can come in a vest, tie and blazer and have a lovely meal. You can come in your board shorts with sand still on your feet and get the same experience,” Nate said. 
On that note, the interview ended, but over an hour later I found myself drinking something sweet and spicy with muddled watermelon (jalapeno watermelon caipirinha) and taking in the familial spirit among staff. I didn’t want to leave, and it’s that feeling that bartenders like Nate Duffy and Gabe Whorley have been able to gift the people who drink and dine wherever they work.