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April 6, 2023

Spirit Guide: Nick Lawlor Takes The Helm at the Tony’s Bar

by Joe Bonadio

After months of seemingly endless rain, Spring is finally in the air here in the Bay  Area. The sun is shining, and North Beach feels refreshed after its long shower. In keeping with that spirit of renewal, big changes are afoot at Tony’s Pizza Napoletana: last month, bartender Nick Lawlor officially took over as Bar Manager.

Nick is already a familiar face at Tony’s, having been behind the bar for two years now–but this is a big step up. In his new position, the young bartender has not only taken charge of the bar, itself a pretty big responsibility. Lawlor has also been given free rein to invent a brand-new collection of signature Tony’s cocktails.

New drink, Sicilian Ties

A heady combination of Jamaican rum, rye, amaro and absinthe, the Sicilian Ties is powerful but smooth. | Photo: Joe Bonadio

Of course, Tony’s has had a serious cocktail program since its earliest days, and scores of talented ‘tenders have manned this bar over the years. Without question, Nick is stepping into some pretty big shoes. Last week, he took the time to talk with me—while at the same time introducing me to his new roster of cocktails.

We met at the Tony’s bar, far too early in the afternoon to be drinking, and Nick proceeded to take me through my paces.

Joe Bonadio: Okay Nick, what do you got for me?

Nick Lawlor: Alright. This one’s a riff on Colonial Ties; We call it the Sicilian Ties. It’s made with Worthy Park Jamaican rum, our rye, mango and orange bitters, maple syrup, Amaro Montenegro, and finished with a spritz of absinthe in the glass. Those are pieces of star anise, which help bring out the Montenegro and the Jamaican rum.

So it’s sharp, but it’s also kind of smooth—the way the absinthe and Jamaican rum play together brings out these really funky warming notes. The star anise really helps with that as well. A very booze-forward cocktail, for sure.

JB: Delicious. Right up my alley.

NL: Yeah, I love the way that one turned out.

This one is our Bianca Spritz. It’s actually a grapefruit/rosemary/bergamot spritz; we start with these bitters from King Floyd’s, a brand out of Novato. Local guys, make really nice bitters. This is their grapefruit rosemary bitters, and then we add Italicus, a lower ABV Bergamot liqueur. Really tasty and bright. There’s also a Malfy lemon gin, which is on the dryer side, and that works with the prosecco to keep things from getting overly sweet.

Bar Manager Nick Lawlor

Bar Manager Nick Lawlor in his element behind the Tony’s bar, mixing up yet another tasty cocktail. | Photo: Joe Bonadio

I really like this cocktail. I love the color of it, and I think the presentation is really eye-catching. It’s also a really fruity drink, without having any real juice in it.

JB: On the lighter side. Very refreshing.

NL: Next we have the Pinkies Up: Pisco, lime juice, a little bit of agave, Giffard Rose liqueur and grapefruit liqueur–pamplemousse they call it, the French word for pink grapefruit. This one was actually created by one of our servers, Liz Pera.

With a scattering of dehydrated rose petals on the top, it’s a sweeter cocktail. I feel like I get a lot of honey on the palate; I think that’s from the pisco. The grapefruit and rose just work so well together. The Pisco Sour is probably one of my favorite egg white drinks, so I love this one.

Joe Bonadio: Very nice. So Nick, tell me how you got into the food and beverage industry.

Pinkies Up was concocted by Tony's server Liz Pera

A blend of rose and pink grapefruit liqueurs, lime and agave, the Pinkies Up was concocted by Tony’s server Liz Pera. | Photo: Joe Bonadio

Nick Lawlor: When I was younger I worked as a barback at a restaurant in Mill Valley called Piazza D’Angelo. I started off bussing there, and there was another bartender there that was a couple of years older than me, who I had met as a freshman in high school. He told me they needed a new barback, and I said “Yeah, sure, I’ll do that.”

I started out pretty young, and it was terrifying. I remember going into work and just being scared to death. I had never even been to a bar before! Here I was learning these brand-new concepts from people who just couldn’t care less about the whole thing. It took me the longest time to even begin feeling comfortable, and adequate at my job.

But I feel like once I did, I started to get really interested in tasting, and in drinking spirits. I still am; I drink a lot of rum, just neat. I also spent a while drinking a lot of bourbon. Most recently I’ve been drinking more aggressive things like scotches. I make a conscious effort to try to taste everything, and understand what people like about it.

JB: How did you end up working with Tony?

NL: I got the job through Natale, the GM here. His cousins run D’Angelo’s. So I was moving into the city….and I needed a job (Laughs). I talked to the people at D’Angelo’s, and asked if they could inquire with Natale about a job here. And it was all roses from there.

JB: You make it sound pretty easy.

NL: Yeah, it was a pretty smooth transition. But from the beginning, I’ve felt comfortable behind the bar at Tony’s. The flow is similar to what I was used to.

JB: D’Angelo’s must be a pretty busy place.

NL: It’s a huge place—a massive restaurant. It produces hella drinks.

JB: A good place for you to start out. It got you accustomed to heavy volume right away. 

NL: Yeah, and burning the candle. In the beginning of Covid they would shut down the streets, and that would add an extra twenty tables to the restaurant. We were just two bartenders, so we’d get slammed every weekend.

JB: So this chaos is familiar territory for you.

NL: Yes. And everyone here is just so friendly, and so competent. It’s a great place to work.

JB: So where are you originally from, Nick? 

NL: I grew up kind of all over the place. My mom is from the Philippines and my dad grew up in Boston. But they first met in Guam, and that’s where they had me. I was the middle child between two girls. We would always move around a lot, so before I moved here I was in Boston—after spending some time in Kauai, and in Walnut Creek before that.

But we’ve been in the Bay Area for the past 12 years or so.

JB: So this is your home.

NL: Yeah, I feel like this is where I’ve spent my formative years.

JB: Where do you live?

NL: In the FiDi.

JB: There are more than a few good cocktail spots down that way. Where do you like to go?

Mai Tai

With Barr Hill gin, Lillet and house-made sauvignon blanc syrup, the Blood Orange Mai-Tai is even better than it looks. | Photo: Joe Bonadio

NL: I feel like the bar I go to the most is PCH [Pacific Cocktail Haven]. I’ve been going there for a long time. Kevin Diedrich, the guy who runs it, uses a lot of things like ube and kalamatsi. Things that I’m pretty familiar with, so it’s interesting to see it done in a craft cocktail environment.

I remember being 21 years old, going there. I also like to go to Stooky’s a lot. Have you been there, Club Moderne?

JB: I don’t know it.

NL: It’s supposed to be a turn of the century bar, and they have drinks from all different time periods. It’s kind of interesting to see the cocktails that were popular back then. It’s a tight little spot.

JB: So you also came up with a new tiki drink, I understand.

NL: Yep. Should I whip that up?

JB: Go to it!

[Pause for much vigorous shaking]

NL: OK, here we have the Blood Orange Mai-Tai. This one has Barr Hill Gin, lime juice and a little bit of Lillet. It’s also got a touch of Sauvignon Blanc syrup that I make: sugar, Sauvignon Blanc, cook it down a little bit. Makes a very full bodied, very rich cocktail. And it works really well with the Barr Hill gin, which is  distilled with honey.

JB: Delicious.

The new collection of signature cocktails

The new collection of signature cocktails, now mixing at Tony’s Pizza Napoletana. | Photo: Joe Bonadio

NL: The next one’s my favorite. It’s a really rich one, a Sesame Ginger cocktail. I take some of that Redwood Empire Whiskey and fat wash it with sesame oil: I blend it with sesame oil, and let it sit. Then I strain it, and then I use black  sesame seeds. It’s finished with ginger beer and lemon. We call it the Seedy Situation.

JB: That’s a very savory cocktail. Wow.

NL: Isn’t that great? I love that one. Now this next one is the Florentina Gimlet: Gin, lime, Lillet, Sauvignon Blanc syrup and lavender.

JB: That’s really nice. Delicate, but with a punch.

NL: Thanks. I’m really confident in all of these flavors. It took me forever to decide what I was going to have on the list. And as nervous as I am about making sure that all of these are drinks are tasty, I’m really excited about doing it.

JB: Thanks again, Nick.

The new signature cocktails will be available at Tony’s Pizza Napoletana in Mid-April.