- The Washington Times - Friday, October 12, 2001

John A. Boswell's job doesn't drive him to drink.
It does drive him to pour.
Mr. Boswell is a bartender at Off the Record, the posh lounge inside downtown Washington's Hay-Adams Hotel. The job lets the former Leesburg farmboy serve the city's elite, including some of the folks who work across the street at the White House.
"I've got the best job in the city. Everybody will tell you that," he said.
Mr. Boswell arrives at work about 4 p.m., dressed in his gold, green and burgundy vest and bow tie. For the next nine hours, he will glide effortlessly from one end of the oak-and-brass bar to the other, pouring drinks, chatting up customers and playing along with the contestants on the television quiz show "Jeopardy," which the bar patrons watch religiously.
Mr. Boswell has been a bartender for almost 30 years. He came to work at Off the Record six years ago, after several years at bars around the city including a hotel bar on Capitol Hill.
He has a loyal following. Customers say he pays close attention to them.
Indeed, on this Wednesday shift, Mr. Boswell lets no customer's glass sit empty for more than a few seconds. Crumpled napkins are quickly scooped off the shiny bar and put in the trash can behind the bar, and the pewter bowls with baked cheese doodles and cashews are replenished regularly.
One woman, who is single, says she comes to Off the Record because the men in the bar don't hit on her.
"This is a nice, quiet place to come after work, and 90 percent of that is due to John. He sets the tone here," the woman said.
Mr. Boswell says he has memorized the favorite drinks of his regular patrons, and he can usually tell what first-time visitors to Off the Record will order before they sit down.
"You can almost always tell what people like by the way they look. It's a trade secret," he said, flashing his infectious, toothy grin.
Most Off the Record patrons stick to the classics, like martinis and wines, Mr. Boswell says. To keep up with new drinks, he visits the Web site for the television series "Sex and the City," which features recipes for the trendy cocktails that the characters drink on the show.
Mr. Boswell is a member of the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees union, which he says helps ensure he is paid more than typical nonunion bartenders.
The base pay for many bartenders can be as low as $2 an hour, he says.
"Tips are your income. That's where you make your money." Mr. Boswell adds that he feels "lucky" to work in a tony bar like Off the Record, because the patrons tend to tip well.
"A lot of bartenders count their tips as soon as the customer walks out the door. I don't look until we've closed [the bar]. I think it's bad karma," he says.
The Hay-Adams Hotel is scheduled to close for five months in November for a massive renovation. Mr. Boswell says he will use the time to travel, and is planning an excursion around the world, including India and the Philippines.
Working at Off the Record which is frequented by local politicians, network news anchors and Hollywood celebrities who visit Washington has also given him a lifetime of stories to tell.
There was the time Nelson Mandela walked into the bar, one of the few times Mr. Boswell says a customer left him starstruck.
"He was playing tourist that day. He had never gotten to see the sights in Washington. We had a nice conversation about the places to see," Mr. Boswell said.
Among Mr. Boswell's recommended "must sees" were the National Air and Space Museum, the National Portrait Gallery and the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial, which had recently opened.
On another occasion, Mr. Boswell says "Jeopardy" was playing on the bar's TV sets when a contestant was asked to name the only journalist who has covered eight presidents.
"The answer was sitting at that table over there," Mr. Boswell said, pointing to the corner where former United Press International White House correspondent Helen Thomas sat that night.
Serving the rich and famous alcohol is a long way from rural Loudoun County, where Mr. Boswell grew up.
He was raised on a farm, which he says gave him a love for nature. He studied biology in college, where he took his first job as a bartender, working nights so he could be free to attend class during the day.
After school, Mr. Boswell worked for two years as a horticulturist for the city of Richmond. He says the job gave him "too much time outdoors," so he eventually drifted into bartending full time.
His love for nature also helped fuel his hobby as an artist. Mr. Boswell draws in his spare time, and is known around town for his illustrations of birds. He also sculpts miniature versions of characters from nursery rhymes and fairy tales. At Christmastime, he decorates the bar with some of his sculptures of Santa Claus.
As usual, Mr. Boswell's evening reaches its high point Wednesday when "Jeopardy" begins on the matching TV sets that hang above the bar. It's his favorite show, and he and his customers play along with the contestants every weeknight.
This evening's edition gives Mr. Boswell and his customers a chance to show their stuff. They get to demonstrate that they know cats aren't mentioned in the Bible, the television sitcom "Barney Miller" aired on ABC from 1975 to 1982, and Alistair Cooke was the original host of "Masterpiece Theater" on PBS.
"That's one of the things that makes this place special. It's a smart bar. It's filled with smart people. I love talking to them every night," he said.

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