THE FLAT-BACKED, WIDE-ARMED EMBRACE, SERAPHIC SMILE AND KNACK FOR REMEMBERING A NAME – Julio Bermejo is a mobile pop-up of the institution of Mexican hospitality that is Tommy’s in San Francisco.
We meet at Tales of the Cocktail in New Orleans and Bermejo, being Bermejo, has talked us into the best seats in town. I’m late to arrive at Galatoire’s but Bermejo has been making friends, to whom I’m urgently introduced. Behind us are some locals, sipping champagne bought by Bermejo and, as I take my seat, servers gather, arms reaching, smiles wide, as if they have known Bermejo all their lives. He has only been to Galatoire’s once before.
But that’s all it takes to be Bermejo’d. Thousands must have met the man fleetingly but feel they know him intimately. Visit his bar in San Francisco and you’ll be friends for life.
But hospitality wasn’t always Bermejo’s calling. “I went to Berkeley and wanted to be a diplomat,” he says. A sharp mind and charismatic bent yes, but Bermejo is not an operator. He shoots the shit straight and true. “It was the Regan era – a shambles,” he says, offering a reason to enter and eschew politics in one line.
His four brothers and sisters all took to the high-flyer path, though retain an interest in the family restaurant and bar his parents opened in 1965 – 50 years ago this year. Bermejo was the last to take flight. “I was a political scientist by trade but I had found myself washing dishes. I was embarrassed to serve my friends in my parents’ restaurant.”
Back then Tommy’s wasn’t one of The World’s 50 Best Bars. Bermejo worked the bar, but “wasn’t a bartender” and certainly not a tequila expert who would later turn distiller. His epiphany came when Patron and El Tesoro launched in America. Bermejo became curious to understand tequila and discover his own distilling heritage. Then, few bartenders travelled and those who did bought maps. “This generation of bartenders have it so easy – they are spoon- fed,” says Bermejo, who not only triggered a fascination that would define his career, he also met his wife Lily in Jalisco.
Over the years Tommy’s became a library of tequila. Bermejo, the not-so-quietly-spoken but affable librarian, hand-picks old treasures from his collection for customers to try, offering a back-story to each sip. Tommy’s Margarita – the classic agave-syrup riff on the classic – was also invented here, so Tommy’s has become a Mecca to bartenders and cocktail enthusiasts alike. Bermejo’s welcome envelops them all.
“I used to think hospitality was the most menial thing – now I think it’s one of the greatest professions,” says Bermejo. “I love to serve people. What is the most intimate thing you can do with someone? Number one is intercourse but number two is to make something someone will take into their body.”
There is hospitality and there is Julio hospitality.