Ciao Baci bartender Lee Edwards is the first to say that the 2004 vote for Best Martini probably did not hinge entirely on the quality of his concoctions. Like the glass that holds the drink, atmosphere plays a crucial role.
"People walk in and feel like they are at a friend's house," Edwards says of Ciao Baci.
Owner Suzanne Boscarolo and manager Megan Bohmova have cultivated a casual but sophisticated mood in the converted house. Patrons are not pressured to order food and they are never rushed to leave. The place stays open so late and service is so relaxed that customers often linger past midnight.
That said, the martini and other specialty drinks have become closely identified with the Ciao Baci experience, thanks to Edwards' skill.
"The funny thing is, I started working at Ciao Baci because of wine," Edwards recalls. "The original concept was to raise the consciousness about combinations of wine and food. Martinis and mixed drinks took off more than any of us expected."
As demand for specialty drinks increased, Edwards began developing seasonal offerings that grew into a voluminous drink menu.
Flavored martinis- not the traditional versions of mostly undiluted gin or vodka - are most in demand. Green apple and espresso are recent best sellers. Kitchen staff passed along the blackberries and blood oranges that spice a couple of popular versions of the cosmopolitan.
Were Times readers really thinking about traditional martinis when they voted Ciao Baci the best? Probably not.
"People like the elegance of the martini glass, they like the way it looks in their hand," Edwards observed. "They don't want the seriousness of the bite of alcohol, and they want something to mask the 80-proof vodka. They also like the visual that the colors create." If somebody does order a "real" martini, that no longer means a splash of vermouth to Edwards, unless the customer requests it. He thinks younger drinkers particularly don't like the taste.
Edwards is in touch with his clientele, and they keep him busy. But he does not cheat on quality when the crowd is two-deep around the small bar.
"I try to accent a drink the same way at 11:30 as I do at 5 o'clock," Edwards said. "Every glass is chilled the same amount. I guess that can translate into popularity."
Here in Arkansas, the coming of autumn is almost a religious experience, given our hot summers. When the leaves start falling, the days grow shorter and the air gets that perfect note of crispness to it, minds turn to holidays, family — and food. There's nothing quite like settling down to a great meal of comfort food on a chilly day, especially when it's homemade. We wondered: What do local chefs and bakers cook for themselves this time of year? Here are their answers, which could inspire readers to fire up the stove and get cooking.
Juanita's, the venerable Tex-Mex restaurant and music venue, is leaving the South Main Street location it's called home since 1986 for the River Market and the former home of Bill St., 614 President Clinton Ave.