Alexandr Tolmachenko, or Alex for short, does not take his job as a bartender at Virgilio’s for granted. That is clear. Behind these walls he was given the opportunity to learn the skills of the trade and it is here that he learned to speak fluent English. It is also where he met his wife of eight years, Pip Kean. Pip, as the manager, hired him to be part of the team and taught him how to bartend by example.
“To me it was very easy,” Alex replies when I ask him about learning to be a bartender. “I actually didn’t need any training. I was just watching my wife.”
And asked who he has become as a bartender he answers, “I’m friendly. If I have time I always try to chat with people, and I have to say I’m also fast.”
After moving to Key West from Sochi, Russia, 11 years ago “because it was an adventure,” he worked in construction before finding a position as a food runner and bus boy at La Trattoria. Three months in and he was promoted to the position of bar back at Virgilios, the swanky and secluded martini bar adjacent to the Italian restaurant La Trattoria. Shortly after that, he became a full-time bartender.
“My favorite part about bartending is talking to people, meeting new people and of course the mixology. We don’t have those bottles in Russia,” he explains pointing up to the bar’s liquor display, “What I like a lot about Virgilio’s is that it is mostly locals, because it is this hidden place that not a lot of people know about. But my very favorite part about it is my team. We are like a family back here. We always have each other’s backs.”
Virgilio’s was one of the small number of businesses that suffered extensive damage after Hurricane Irma, forcing the bar to close for a while so that they could rebuild. While they were at it, they figured they might as well go ahead and update their look from rustic to sleek by exchanging old wood for more modern stone. The facelift included an extended bar top to seat more patrons as well as significantly more square footage behind the actual bar so that it would be easier for bartenders to move around faster. However, although the decor might look a little different than before, the bartender who is serving you is probably the same person who served you last summer and the summer before. The crowd, the food and the cocktails are all the same, and they still throw a very popular “Martini Monday” every week with signature martinis for just $7.
“I always recommend the espresso or the key lime martini,” Alex suggests, “the espresso is made with real espresso so if you want a little kick that’s the best one to get, and I can’t say what our secret is but the key lime just tastes exactly like a key lime pie.”
Live music is another draw for the off the beaten path gem to complement an open aired vibe thanks to a kind of urban garden set-up with only half of the space covered by a roof. The rest is underneath a canopy of trees and stars.
“If you are looking for a place to hide, then this is the perfect spot,” Alex says.
Virgilio’s is tucked just behind its parent restaurant, La Trattoria on Applerouth
Lane directly off Duval along with recent newcomer pub Mary Ellen’s and longtime retailer Leather Master. To find it, look for the Walgreens in the old cinema and look both ways before crossing the street. Then find the side door where a bouncer is more than likely blocking your view from seeing inside while he diligently checks IDs. It is not big, by any means, but it is special enough to have developed a small population of devoted customers who keep the handful of bar stools occupied on a nightly basis.
“I want to thank the regulars for taking care of us and being such loyal customers,” Alex says.
See Alex every day except for Thursdays and Sundays from 6 p.m. until close, which usually ends up being around 2 a.m.
On his days off Alex spends his time hanging out with his pit bulls Lily and Burto, doing chores at home, or on other days enjoying his drinks of choice, a beer with a shot of Tito’s.
“If I’m in the mood, I’ll come downtown and see the people who come to see me.”
And if you haven’t yet gone to see him then maybe it is time that you do. ¦
Virgilio’s 524 Duval Street 305- 296- 8118 www.virgilioskeywest.com