Behind the Bar: Mona Watkins at Rhythm Room

Like any bartending pro, Mona Watkins has a cadre of regulars and knows their preferred poison by heart. Thing is, a good chunk of her return customers are bit more noteworthy than your garden-variety barfly or martini sipper.
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As one of the main barkeeps and manager at the Rhythm Room, the 40-year-old has poured pilsner for countless rock 'n' roll and blues glitterati that've visited at the renowned CenPho music venue over the past decade or so. Like busty chanteuse Candye Kane, for instance, who indulges in some Courvoisier, or Russian-American rockabilly quartet the Red Elvises, connoisseurs of Corona and tequila (and lots of it).

"Growing up I wanted to be Lita Ford or Joan Jett," Watkins says. "And since that didn't ever happen, this is probably the next best thing."

Tending bar for the stars has also led to some rather interesting experiences with these music idols, and she's got the stories to prove it. Hanging out in the cluttered office at the Rhythm Room, Watkins rattles off tales in her humorous foul-mouthed style about surf-rock legend Dick Dale teaching kung fu to employees or Steve Poltz giving an impromptu concert after last call.

While she digs waiting on the rich and famous, Watkins never neglects any of her other patrons, however, even if they order some colorful-sounding concoctions.

"People sometimes ask, 'Can you make a Curly-Haired Swedish Boy,' or whatever, and I'm like, 'What the fuck is that?'" she says. "This really isn't a place to order fancy drinks, but we're always happy to try and make whatever they want. If we got the ingredients, we'll figure it out."

​That includes the time she had to guesstimate how to make Pink Lady, which turned out to be a rose-tinted blend of gin, milk, and grenadine on ice.

"That was absolutely the grossest thing ever that looked like Pepto-Bismol. It was like, 'I'll have a Milk of Magnesia on the rocks, please. Ugh," she says. "By the end of the night, the two glasses came back up and hadn't been touched at all."

Watkins prefers coming up with her own recipes for mixed drinks, usually during the Rhythm Room's annual Christmas party.

"We take all the employees, a bunch of random liquor, andy stand there in the kitchen of whoever's house we're at and just experiment," she says. "We've come up with some real good ones."

These experimental blendings will occasionally include some of the newer flavored vodkas, despite her own misgivings for the alcohol industry's recent penchant for candy-like liquor.

"I swear to God to next thing you know there's gonna be pork vodka, which you can serve with Bloody Mary mix and call it dinner," she says. "They even have bubblegum- or cotton candy-flavored vodka now, which I'll be sure to grab that when I serve my next 12-year-old customer. It just drives me nuts."

Speaking of underage alcoholic activity, Watkins got started in the drink-serving trade fairly early in life. During her childhood years, she and her sister played with waitress pads and often fetched drinks for the upper-crust attendees at the "hoity-toity" outdoor parties her well-to-do parents hosted at their Scottsdale home.

"I grew up pretending to be a waitress," she jokes. "I can't even imagine what it'd be like to have a 10-year-old kid come up to me and ask what I wanted to drink."

​Long after her stint as a pint-sized drink-slinger Watkins got a job at the Valley's original 5 & Diner location on 16th Street. It was at the retro eatery where she not only "fell in love with all the oldies and R&B" but also came in contact with some Rhythm Room employees who came in for late-night eats. It helped land a cocktail witnessing gig at the blues bar in 1996, where she eventually worked her way up to a manager position.

In her 13 years at the establishment, Watkins says the biggest benefit has been interacting with "all the crazy people who show up" on a nightly basis, be they major-label recording artists or local indie rock promoters.

"I love meeting people and making people smile," she says. "I'll go to some pretty crazy lengths to make people laugh, like saying some pretty crazy shit. During a big tiki party last weekend, I was wringing out [a] towel behind my back. And the water would hit the concrete and I'd say, 'Oh sorry, I can't hold it sometimes."

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