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Updated: 4:32 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 26, 2011 | Posted: 11:06 a.m. Wednesday, Oct. 26, 2011

Inside the Cloak Room

Bartender emphasizes hospitality, confidentiality, politeness



By Emma Janzen

AMERICAN-STATESMAN STAFF

An unassuming, windowless basement bar dwells quietly on the edge of the Capitol grounds downtown.

The closest thing Austin has to an authentic speakeasy, the dimly lit Cloak Room is a historic drinking den known for rumored under-the-table political dealings (and other potentially unsavory activities) since it opened in the 1970s. What happens within its doors stays within its doors.

The only thing more notorious than the place itself is the wise woman who has been running the show behind the bar for more than 20 years.

Beverly Pruitt is a no-nonsense, forthright bartender whose focus revolves less on the technique of mixing drinks and more on the importance of creating an atmosphere that caters to all kinds of clientele. The "enforcer," as she has been dubbed by some of her regulars, might appear to be heavy-handed, but underneath her all-business exterior, she's also a specialist in the lost art of hospitality.

"Bev" excels at the role of hostess. If you're one of her regulars, you're welcomed with a warm hello, and your usual poison is quietly placed on a napkin in front of you without a word or request exchanged.

Almost done with your drink? Bev's there before the final sip to inquire about another round before the thought has crossed your mind.

She'll even jump into debate between smoke breaks if encouraged.

With the proliferation of bars that either focus on the art of mixing drinks or the art of mixing drinks as fast as possible, it's rare to find a bartender who holds a sense of responsibility for their customer's experience. Bev does just that.

She maintains a safe and comfortable atmosphere in the bar, protects the identity and reputations of her clientele, and if you treat her with respect and kindness, will share some of the best yarns about the heyday of one of Austin's most story-rich bars with you.

How long have you been a bartender?

Since August 1989.

What made you get into the business?

The lady who bought the Cloak Room in 1989 was an acquaintance of mine, so when I left where I worked at the time, she called me and asked me if I would help her out here for a while. I had never heard of this bar before, and had never worked in a bar before. I had no experience. I had certainly drank at a lot of places in my time, for happy hours and things like that, but I did not know about this establishment. And so I was brought on to help her out, and I'm still here.

Why have you stayed here so long?

I just love it. When you've worked in a venue like this for a number of years, it becomes like a family. Customers can fuss at you and you can fuss at them, and it's kind of like coming to another home every day.

What is the most important role you play as a bartender in a bar like this?

To make people comfortable and be congenial. I control the atmosphere so everyone is happy, which means customers respect each other. This is important so that everyone can have a good time.

What is your No. 1 house rule?

Manners are very important. Treat me respectfully, and I will treat you respectfully.

What are some of the biggest changes you've seen regarding what people drink since you've been here?

What people are drinking changes depending on what is popular. Everyone was drinking martinis and smoking cigars when I first started, and then it shifted to cosmos during the "Sex and the City" craze. Now it seems we are going back in time to older drinks. A lot of people are drinking bourbons, Scotch, etc. Many people ask for old fashioneds, but I don't have the ingredients to make those.

The Cloak Room is part of Austin's drinking history - not many bars have stayed in business this long. What would you say to people who haven't been here before but are curious about checking it out?

The ambiance of the bar is very "speakeasy," very Frank Sinatra in a way. It's a historic building and was modeled after a political speakeasy in Washington, D.C. Since we are right next to the Capitol, it creates a kind of political curiosity. People come here wanting to see senators and the like. At one time many years ago, during the late '80s and '90s, a lot of political wheeling and dealing took place. However, that's changed now. That kind of thing doesn't happen as often as it used to. Now, it's just a quaint, cozy bar that's very "Cheers" friendly, where everyone knows your name. But at the same time no one knows anyone's name, because we respect their privacy. We have regulars who have come for years and feel it is their bar.

What kind of a crowd do you typically get?

We have college kids, lots of sightseers, and politicians like it because of the darkness and the privacy that provides. People who are interested in the history come by also. Over the years I have heard of passages to the Capitol. I don't know about that. Perhaps ghosts, but if they are here they are not mad at me. So many great stories live in this bar.

Favorite part of your job?

All the different people and personalities. Many of my regulars have become very special friends.

Least favorite part of your job?

Closing time, or any time I have to tell someone it's time to go. You have to monitor people who are drinking and be sure that everyone is safe. This can cause hostility sometimes, but as the person who is responsible for the guests, it's something that has to be done. I want to protect everyone, and that can be hard.

What do you drink off the clock?

When I am on my own time, my beverage of choice is a Colorado bulldog. Some people call it a "Bev Dog," because it's been my drink for about a hundred years. It's vodka, Kahlua, milk and a splash of coke. When people ask for something new, that's usually what I make them.

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