Wayne Scalaro at the Rokerij: How George Bush Got Me Laid
The tender: Wayne Scalaro
The bar: The Rokerij (6335 N. 16th St., 602-287-8900)
The pedigree: Scalaro began bartending at restaurants owned by his parents in Portland just before he was old enough to drink, though by his own admission he "pretty much drank everything" before he was of age. After moving to Phoenix 12 years ago, he began working at CJ's Talley's Pub, then became bar manager at Outback Steakhouse and Olive Garden. He's been at the Rokerij for about a decade, tending bar while taking on many GM duties as well.
Bartending school: yes or no?
I don't really think you need to go to. Like I said, I pretty much just drank everything. You make the same 30 drinks over and over again every day. It's not a big mystery, and it's not really that complicated. It's the same thing as with a cook: you don't know if it's good unless you try it. Once or twice a week I'll get a cocktail I'm not aware of, so I'll make sure I taste it so I know exactly what's going on.
What's kept you in bartending for so long?
A lot of people ask me that. It's a couple factors. One: it's what I do best. It's what I know. Being a bartender, you have to be able to read people, to see if people want to talk and interact or if they want to be left alone, if they're having a bad day or a good day. You have to be a good judge of character. I'm very perceptive. I'm also not a nine-to-five guy. I've been there and done that -- I've done real estate, accounting, a couple other things, but that just wasn't my deal. I like coming in to work and every day being a new adventure. It sounds kind of corny, but every day is a brand new day, and just when you think you've seen it all, you see something else. I've waited on anyone from George Bush to Jenna Jameson. When I have time, I think I'll write a book: From Presidents to Porn Stars. Eventually I'm going to have my own place, but in the interim I'm just kind of soaking up the knowledge, going from place to place to take the good aspects and the good ideas from each to try to throw them all into one place.
Having seen all that stuff, what's the most memorable thing that's happened to you as a bartender?
To put it bluntly: George Bush got me laid. He rents out this private dining room we have here and comes in with the McCains, so I call everybody I know and tell them to come down. I've got my friends there and a girlfriend I had been dating for about a week. The Secret Service starts showing up, and I start getting a little nervous, but I've taken care of people like Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods; it's not a big deal. The president is probably the biggest celebrity there is, but I try to treat him like a regular guy. So they come down, the Secret Service guys are here, 16th Street's closed off, they've got snipers on the roof -- everything. I go up to the table, he stands up and goes "Hi, my name is George." I'm like, "Yeah, you kind of look familiar." He introduces me to his wife, to John and Cindy McCain, and we engaged in conversation for a good 10-15 minutes. I don't want to bother the president, but if he's talking to me, I've got to indulge. Like I said, I'd called everybody, and my dad asked that I get an autograph for him. So we're halfway through, and I want to help out my pops, so I say, "George, if you could sign an autograph for my dad, that'd be great." He said, "No problem. Anybody else?" I said, "Well, I've been dating this girl for a week, and I need all the help I can get with her." It happened to be her birthday that day, so he writes her a happy birthday message on presidential stationery, little seal on there and everything. I take it out to where she was drinking, and she thought it was the greatest thing ever. About an hour later, the president's photographer was taking photos of him with the owner and some other people, and I said, "George, I really need help with this girl. Would you allow her to come here and have her picture taken with you?" He tells his secret service guy to go out and get her for us. So I had to go out there and see the reaction this cause, because here's this stereotypical secret service guy, sunglasses, six feet tall, and he walks up to her and goes, "Are you Courtney? The president wants to see you." When she comes in, George stops his conversation with the McCains, gets up from the table, walks up and goes, "Courtney, you know, Wayne's told me a lot about you. Wayne's such a nice guy, and he just wanted me to wish you a happy birthday." Then we took the pictures, so I have this autographed photo of the president with his arms around me and Courtney. That's one of my favorite experiences.
Wow. George Bush is the man.
Right? I'll tell you about one of my weirdest experiences: during this 40th birthday party, these people hired a little person to come in and recite A Midsummer Night's Dream. So I cleared off a spot on the table and we plop the little guy up there, and he proceeds to do the play for an hour. I asked the birthday guy what it was all about, and he goes, "I just wanted something that was random." That's about as random as it gets.
You mentioned that owning your own place is the ultimate goal. What kind of place is your bar going to be?
I've been very fortunate to travel abroad a lot. I've been to maybe 20-25 countries. Never been married, habitually single, so I've got a lot of free time and extra money. Being in the restaurant industry, you don't just see what's right in front of you; you have a 360-degree perspective. So from foods, to procedures, to specialty drinks, everything you do accentuates the place you have and defines it. You can have an old, dirty bar, you can have your Three Olives Cherry with Red Bull and your Bud Light on tap, but anybody can do that. Yeah, it appeals to the masses, but I'm not about that. I'm a little different. I want something that appeals to everybody, from age 21 to 51.
You can often find the Rokerij on the top of "Best Bars in America" lists. What makes this place so great?
First, I think it's the ambiance. There aren't many places in Arizona that have that cellar feel, where you can go 365 days a year and sit by the fireplace. The owner also took a lot of influence from the places he traveled, and it's just things like having Chimay on tap, to the tap handles we got from Europe that are $500 each when I break one. Stuff like that.
If you could choose any person to have a drink with, who would it be?
I'm a Clint Eastwood guy. We'd probably be drinking some Manhattans, or maybe just whiskey on the rocks. I just like Clint; he kind of reminds me of my father. I just like his attitude. He's like a man's man.
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to Phoenix dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.