Ever wonder what goes on behind the bar down at South on Main? Meet David Burnette, Bar Manager and drink creator for the restaurant. He talks Old Fashioneds, his start in Nashville, and the general shenanigans that make South on Main’s bar one of the places to be in Little Rock.
How long have you been bartending?
About 12 years.
Where did you first get your start, and how did you end up at South on Main?
I have always been fascinated by booze. My dad first taught me the difference between types of spirits when I was a teenager – only tiny tastes, I assure you. I immediately found it intriguing.
I first got started bartending in downtown Nashville, Tennessee, at the Merchants, a restaurant located about a half a block from the historic Ryman Auditorium in the heart of Lower Broadway. I was waiting tables there, and desperately wanted to try my hand at bartending. They gave me a shot. I was terrible at it, but they let me do it anyway. I continued to tend bar and worked at a lot of fun restaurants in Nashville for the next few years. My personal favorite was a rum bar called Rumba which was located close to Vanderbilt. This was where I began to learn more advanced cocktail making techniques, and I got to work with some really talented bartenders. This is also where I met my wife, Laurel.
I moved to Little Rock in the fall of 2008 and got a job at the Capital Hotel. This is where I met Chef Matt Bell and most of the crew at South on Main. Most of us worked together for several years before South on Main was a reality.
Can you briefly describe the bar for someone who hasn’t been in?
When Amy Bell and Mary Steenburgen set out to design the bar at South on Main, they wanted to create a space that didn’t feel dated – something that could stand the test of time and always feel a little bit “classic.” I feel like they knocked it out of the park. The bar fits the antiquity of the building, but doesn’t feel “old.” My shelves are well decorated with great bottles of tough-to-find bourbon, and my drinks are generally classic recipes or riffs on old favorites. Every once in a while we will “shake things up” a little and set something on fire tiki-style or depart a little from the norm. We’re allowed to have fun with it.
What’s your favorite part of bartending/mixology?
My favorite part about what I do is hearing the door open. I love the excitement of seeing who is coming in the restaurant. We have an awesome clientele, and I genuinely look forward to seeing the faces I get to see and having the conversations I get to have. Also, I get to taste good whiskey for a living. That isn’t too bad.
Which South on Main creation do you think is most popular? What’s your favorite to make and/or drink?
When we conceived this bar program, I wanted to be known for our Old Fashioned. I didn’t feel like the classic, old style of Old Fashioned was being served anywhere in Little Rock, and I wanted to change that. We sell a ton of them.
I really enjoy making classic recipes come to life. There’s something about the continuity of recreating something from 150 years ago and watching people enjoy it so much in this modern age. I also like making drinks that I can set on fire.
What have been some highlights about working at South on Main?
The main highlight about working at South on Main is the team of people I get to work with every day. They are truly special, and I am fortunate to have them in my life. I have really enjoyed my great vantage point for all the great music and programming we have had. The Oxford American has really done a fantastic job of utilizing the space. I have been exposed to a lot of great stuff that I would have missed otherwise. My favorite shows have been Pokey LaFarge and St. Paul and the Broken Bones, and it’s also great to work somewhere where I can see my younger brother John Burnette play on occasion.
The most moving thing I have experienced at South on Main, however, was the rally held by the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) regarding the recent discriminatory legislation SB 1228. It was incredibly moving to see so many people come together for such a pertinent reason. I was very glad to get to be there.
What about some of the toughest moments?
The toughest part of SOM is that there are so many different types of events that we have to constantly adapt our strategy to make things successful. This makes it a constant challenge, but also keeps it from becoming monotonous. I’m not complaining about that! It’s fun! It’s also a very physical job, but again, it’s fun to stay moving!
Do you have any exciting news for the future?
My current most exciting news is that my wife and I are expecting. As much as I love bartending, I’m very excited about this new addition. I welcome any cocktail-oriented name suggestions.
If you could change anything about Little Rock, what would it be?
Our liquor taxes are amongst, if not the highest, in the nation. This can really tie my hands when trying to be creative with ingredients while also trying to be budget friendly.
What is your all-time local drink/brew?
I’m really excited about our local brewing scene right now. I have built a great friendship with the guys that are opening up Flyway, so I’m kind of biased towards their beers, but I also am a sucker for all things Lost 40, and the Shamus Stout from Stone’s Throw is my favorite readily available beer right now. There is also a surprisingly fast growing number of great bartenders around town that make awesome cocktails. I love sitting at their bars on my day off.
What do you like to do in your spare time?
I can often be found grabbing a night cap at Ciao Baci after I leave work at night, but I really enjoy spending time with my family on my off days. I like to cook a lot, so coming up with new recipes and trying to perfect cooking techniques while spending time with the people I love is my favorite way to spend spare time. I will occasionally be found on a golf course, fishing, or picking up a musical instrument as well.