The trajectories leading Saint Catherine owners Sara Williams and Brad Nicoll to the bartending realm may be worlds apart (Williams’ first behind the bar gig was at an all nude strip club in a rural Massachusetts corn field; Nicoll implored the owners at The Mercury Lounge to give him a break with a coat check shift), but what they do have in common is the devotion they’ve built for their industry, as evidenced by their Prospect Heights bar. The two met while working at The Mercury Lounge, and after Nicoll witnessed the work Williams had put into her first FiDi venture Fresh Salt, he approached her with plans for another venue. The Saint Catherine was born in March 2012, and since then, the duo has been filling seats thanks to music-inspired cocktails and updated takes on comfort food (think meatloaf sliders and three cheese pita melts). Here, they chat about simplicity served up, the secrets to a successful partnership, and the big misconception folks have about cutting teeth in their industry.
BoozeMenus: What inspired the name of the bar?
Brad Nicoll: I spent just about every summer growing up on Lake St. Catherine in Vermont, and when we were tossing name ideas around “The Saint Catherine” got thrown into the mix. It didn’t click immediately as the name, but it just kept coming back up and making more and more sense. We fought really hard to avoid all the Brooklyn naming clichés — the biggest one right now being named after the street you’re on — so naming was a long, drawn out process. But we just felt this name had a timeless and classic feel that we both really liked.
Sara Williams: Also, I studied in Italy for a semester, and the patron saint there coincidentally is Saint Catherine.
BM: What's the best day/night of the week to check it out?
BN: It depends what you’re in the mood for. We have Trivia on Tuesday, which really brings people in, and our 'Bring Your Own Vinyl' night on Thursday has developed a following and a community of regulars that keep coming back. On Saturday and Sunday afternoons, people like to set up camp as brunch turns into Happy Hour, so that always seems to turn into a hang. If you’re looking for a party, Friday and Saturday nights can get really busy with birthdays and large groups coming in. The weeknights tend to be more locals and small groups of friends coming by for a drink, a bite to eat, and a chance to chat with their neighbors.
SW: I would recommend Wednesdays if you are into cocktails. Danna, the bartender, does a nice job. Thursdays are 'Bring Your Own Vinyl' night, totally fun and chill.
BM: Any great inspirations behind any of the drinks?
BN: We’ve got a list of band names from obscure, now defunct bands that used to play the Mercury Lounge back when Sara was working there to use as cocktail names. So far, only The Last Train Home, the Uptown Sinclair, and the Paper Crane have been used, but there are definitely still some good ones waiting in the wings.
As for inspiration, coming from a venue background and really being a bar back by trade, I spend a lot of time thinking about the logistics of how a drink is going to get made. I like cocktails that are simple and focused that can be made quickly under pressure, so I spend a lot of time searching out a few ingredients that work well together and then try to get out of the way. It took a couple of weeks to find the right bourbon to make the Last Train Home do what I wanted it to do, but I’d rather do that than add one more step to the process. If I’m going to add a fourth ingredient to a cocktail, it really needs to bring something to the table.
BM: What is the last cocktail you two collaborated on, and what was the process like?
BN: The original cocktail list was a team effort, but I tend to spend more time messing around with the drinks these days. That said, Sara’s cocktail, The Southern Monk, has been on the list since we opened.
BM: What is the most important aspect to remember when working a team?
BN: Staying focused on the end goal of putting the best product out there that you can. Once you let things become about winning the argument or getting your way for the sake of getting your way, it’s tough to ever get back to a workable partnership. Many a bar has gone under because somebody wanted to “win.”
SW: I also think we try to promote a team effort with the staff — everyone tries to be considerate and help each other out. We have a really great crew, and some really smart and talented people doing very creative things with their lives. We all pitch in to make The Saint Catherine a great place to visit, as well as a great place to work.
BM: If you guys were to make drinks for one another, what would the other person be drinking?
BN: Sara’s been on a real cider thing recently.
SW: Brad would get a beer.
BM: What's one of your favorite food and drink pairings at the restaurant?
BN: We tend to keep everything really casual, so everything is designed to be enjoyed regardless of how it’s paired. But, if I’m walking into the bar at the end of a long day, I think our S.A.L.T. sandwich and a cold IPA is pretty tough to beat.
SW: The Catherine Wheel and a Few Barrel Aged Gin with a couple of cubes. I don't even like gin, but that gin is something special.
What's your go-to brunch cocktail?
BN: I can drink a beer at any time of the day, so first thing in the morning I’d go for a nice stout or black IPA. That said, if I’m going cocktails, I’d go in a completely different direction and get something light and crisp — probably our Orange Aperol Sun, with Aperol, orange juice, and Champagne.
SW: Bloody Mary. We make the best Bloody Marys — serious.
BM: What's one of the biggest lessons you've learned in this industry?
BN: The importance of humility. I was lucky to work at The Bowery Ballroom at a really amazing time and it was really, really educational to watch the owners go about their day-to-day. You realize how unglamorous this business really is, but — especially in the case of the Bowery — you also see how stunning and exciting the finished product is. You also watch as people who talk big game come and go, while the people that put their heads down and work keep putting out quality day after day.
Taking on the responsibility of ownership is tough enough as it is, but if you step into it thinking about the glamour and the accolades that a successful bar can have in this town, you’re going to be sorely disappointed. You’ll probably get eaten alive, too.
SW: Not everyone is able to pull off working in this industry. There's a misconception out there that anyone can be a server or anyone can be a bartender. Sure — but not everyone is good at it. Not even close.
By Nicole Schnitzler
(Photos from left: Cocktail by Kimberly Mufferi; Sara Williams and Brad Nicoll; Cocktail by Kimberly Mufferi)