Veteran barkeep shows his spots nightly at Espuma

August 30, 2011
David Engel shows off his trademark pelt as he scrutinizes his latest creation. BY SUBMITTED PHOTOS

At one point during my reign of terror as the barbecue maven of Bethesda, Md., I became thoroughly fed up with my bartender. He thought he was Tom Cruise, fearlessly juggling liquor bottles behind his back. Quite a show, actually - except that Tom Cruise didn’t drop them. As $38 worth of Tanqueray swirled down the drain, I told him not to give out my name as a reference.

“How hard can it be?” I rationalized. “I can certainly pour a few beers and mix stuff.” So I hired myself as bartender. Finally! The perfect employee. Until I found myself frantically flipping through the Old Mr. Boston Bartender’s Guide every time somebody ordered a scotch and water. Or a Miller Lite.

And woe be to the hapless victim who dared venture into my no-man’s-land of Manhattans, Singapore Slings and Rob Roys. I should have handed out those numbered now serving tickets like the deli counter at the Giant.

The regulars were not amused. Of course it wasn’t their Tanqueray keeping the bar drains clean. One busy night when my nose was buried in the guide (searching for the difference between straight up and on the rocks), they organized a vote. After a show of (unsteady) hands, the returns were in: I was unceremoniously elected World’s Worst Bartender. I laughed. They didn’t. They urged me to fire myself. I did.

My new-found respect for barkeeps is probably why I so enjoy watching master mixologist David Engel pour, muddle, uncork, chop, puree, squeeze, slice, shake, strain and splash at Jay Caputo’s Espuma restaurant.

At 18, David’s career began rather unassumingly at the Beaver Falls Elks Club near his home in Pittsburgh, Pa. As he earned his degree in art education, he managed the school cafeteria and tossed pizzas at a local hangout. At 22, David trekked out to San Francisco to tend bar at The Palms, a noted punk rocker haunt. During the day, he whipped up health shakes and stuffed pitas full of falafel. “It was a crazy life,” he says. “A little too crazy.”  Engel eventually landed a job at the famed Mr. Henry’s in Washington, D.C. But he was destined for bigger things.

There are few eateries in the Nation’s Capital better connected than the Old Ebbitt Grill, a watering hole for presidents, journalists and celebrities since 1856. When a low-level server position opened up, David jumped at the chance, quickly advancing through the ranks to the lucrative status of dinner front waiter. His regulars included such VIPs as George H. W. and Barbara Bush, Sting, Charlton Heston, Jeff Smith (TV’s "Frugal Gourmet"), Johnny Cash, Newt Gingrich, Sally Struthers, and even Timothy Leary.

In ‘91, David took the summer off to tend bar at Rehoboth’s Renegade nightclub. He got to know Houston Vaughan and Alison Blyth, both of whom had worked at D.C.’s posh, but now defunct, 2 Quail restaurant. The entrepreneurs were planning a new eatery in Rehoboth Beach called La La Land. David resigned his enviable position at the Old Ebbitt Grill to help them open what would soon become a Wilmington Avenue landmark.

The pocket-sized courtyard bar at La La Land soon became Engel’s exclusive domain. He adopted his leopard-spotted persona, and everybody who was anybody (including plenty of us who really weren’t anybody) spent many an evening celebrating life in that glowing little space.

It was a sad day in 2008 when the windows went dark. David took his talents to Nage, serving up his trademark potions and humor until that much sadder day when Espuma’s longtime barkeep Darrin Beachy passed away unexpectedly. Jay Caputo and Nage’s Kevin Reading put their heads together, and David agreed to take over. Though Beachy can never truly be replaced, Engel turned out to be the perfect guy to get people smiling again at Espuma.

David doesn’t need to twirl bottles to be a pro. He muddles cucumbers, jalapeños, peaches, basil, mint and who knows what else - and never once sneaks a peek at the Old Mr. Boston Bartender’s Guide. My unruly barflies in Bethesda would have loved him.

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    Masthead photo by Grant Gursky. Used with permission from Coastal Style Magazine.