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Aguirre: Bartender to the stars

Posted: December 11, 2011 1:30 a.m.
Updated: December 11, 2011 1:30 a.m.
Celebrity bartender Manny Aguirre, of Saugus, wears his Musso & Frank red jacket as he mixes up a Cosmopolitan. Celebrity bartender Manny Aguirre, of Saugus, wears his Musso & Frank red jacket as he mixes up a Cosmopolitan.
Celebrity bartender Manny Aguirre, of Saugus, wears his Musso & Frank red jacket as he mixes up a Cosmopolitan.

James Bond had it wrong, according to celebrity bartender Manny Aguirre.

“When you make a martini, it shouldn’t be shaken. It should be stirred. When you shake, the drink gets all watery.

When you stir, you get a cold, strong drink,” Aguirre said.

He should know. Aguirre’s been pouring the martinis for Hollywood stars ranging from Lucille Ball to Drew Barrymore for more than a half-century.

For the last 22 years, Aguirre, a Saugus resident, has been holding court behind the bar at the legendary Hollywood restaurant Musso & Frank.

The job has led to a bit of fame for Aguirre himself, since he’s regularly featured on travel and cooking shows, as well as in magazines.

“People come in and say, ‘Manny, I saw you on TV,’ and I say, ‘Welcome to Musso & Frank’. It makes people feel at home,” he said.

Just two months ago, chef and Food Network star Emeril Lagasse stopped in to learn how to make Aguirre’s signature vodka martini.

“Then Emeril made me one. He did good, but he did watch me first,” Aguirre said with a smile. “Emeril asked what would happen if he had seven. I told him that he would be under the table after three.”

Living in the SCV
Donning the trademark Musso & Frank red jacket with black velvet trim, Aguirre, 77, drives 45 minutes or more to Hollywood five days a week to work the lunch shift from 1-7 p.m.

He and his wife, Cruz, moved to Saugus in 1974.

Cruz Aguirre had seen a house for $42,000 and immediately put a down payment of $500 on it, without consulting her husband.

The home was in the first phase of a planned community and charged $25 a month in association fees. “When I told my customer, a lawyer, he was concerned. ‘What if they don’t build the rest of the homes?’” Aguirre recalled.

The Aguirres raised three children, including daughter Adrianna (who helps run Cruz’s Bridal), and became grandparents in the 1990s. Though he loves working in the city, living in the suburbs suits Aguirre just fine.

“Sometimes, we go to Glendale to get pastries, and I always want to come back right away,” he said.

Originally from Ecuador, Aguirre came to America after his mother died. He was 19, and something she told him as a child stuck.

“She said go to school and you can be anything you want. You can be somebody,” Aguirre said.

Seeing stars
Sponsored by cousins already established in Los Angeles, Aguirre went to school to receive his high school diploma and to learn English. He also began working as a busboy at area restaurants located near studios such as Paramount.

Regular clientele included stars, such as Elizabeth Taylor, Cesar Romero and Lucille Ball. One day, after “Giant” wrapped, James Dean stopped in.

“He called me over and said, ‘Busboy, may I have a cup of coffee?” Aguirre recalled.

Working hard, Aguirre moved up the restaurant ranks from busboy to waiter to maitré d and, finally, bartender.
At Nick O’ Dells, he would serve stars from “Mission Impossible,” “Laverne & Shirley,” “Happy Days” and “Mod Squad.”

At the Pacific Dining Car, it was more of a corporate crowd.

Whomever the clientele, Aguirre has a motto on how to make them happy.

“No. 1, to be a bartender, you have to like people. You’re like a doctor, lawyer and priest in one. Customers know when they’re dealing with a person who cares,” he said.

Musso & Frank

At Musso & Frank, a Hollywood dining institution since it opened in the 1920s, Aguirre soon became known for his martinis. In the beginning of his tenure, the cocktail was made with gin. Now, the in crowd prefers vodka.

“You’re supposed to put vermouth in a vodka martini, but people tell, ‘Vodka martini, no vermouth.’ Either way, we pour three ounces. It’s a strong drink, and 99 percent order their martini with an olive, maybe 1 percent with a lemon twist,” he said.

Over the years, Aguirre has seen the Los Angeles drinking culture change dramatically.

“Don’t forget, if you have two drinks now, you can get in trouble with the law. Most people at lunch will drink Coke or Diet Coke,” he said.

Not that the three-martini lunch is entirely over.

“Sometimes, there are four people at a table, three will drink and the fourth will drive,” he said.

According to Aguirre, technology has changed the leisurely vibe that once inhabited Musso & Frank, where Charlie Chaplin had his own table.

“The new generation is nothing like the old generation, if you ask me. People are always on a hurry or on their cellphones. One customer had two phones going at a time. It’s terrible,” Aguirre said.

Some of the restaurant’s patrons sidle right up to the bar, while others prefer to remain more anonymous. Johnny Depp, Aguirre noted, usually eats with friends at a back table. Along with Keith Richards, Aguirre cited Depp as one of the nicest celebrities he’s had the pleasure of waiting on. When Aguirre asked for a photo to share with his family, Depp immediately obliged.

Harrison Ford, who was making a movie next door to the restaurant, took it one step further. Ten years ago, at Aguirre’s request, the actor called Adrianna at home to talk to her twin sons. Ford went on to tell the Aguirre grandchildren that

Aguirre was a great man, and a hard worker. That they should stay in school, work hard and make their grandfather proud.

“My customers are very nice,” Aguirre said.

Retirement is on the horizon someday for Aguirre, but he has a hard time committing.

“I’d like to make a trip with my wife to Spain, Italy and France, but I can’t tell you when. One thing I have to say, if my legs give up on me or I lose my memory, then I know it’s time to go,” he said.


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