Seven Questions with Veteran Columbus Bartender Cris Dehlavi
The Tucson native and former M at Miranova bartender talks about the pandemic, her regulars and what’s next in her career.
If you ever grabbed a bar seat at Cameron Mitchell’s ritzy restaurant on the Scioto River, M at Miranova, then you probably know Cris Dehlavi or have at least imbibed one of her fantastic cocktail creations. One of the best bartenders in the city, Dehlavi worked at M from September 2002 until last spring when the COVID-19 outbreak changed everything. Since shutting down last March because of Ohio’s mandatory dine-in ban, M is one of the lone Cameron Mitchell restaurants that has yet to reopen–even for carryout. (A spokesperson for CMR recently told Columbus Monthly there’s no update on the restaurant’s future.) We asked Dehlavi to reflect on her pandemic journey and on saying goodbye to M after 17 years. Last fall, she took a new job as brand educator for Diageo, one of the largest beverage companies in the world, known for iconic brands such as Tanqueray, Ketel One, Johnnie Walker and many more.
Can you take me back to last March, when you learned that M was closing because of Ohio’s temporary restaurant shutdown?
Business started to decline and, you know, nobody was wearing masks yet, but we were starting to do things like deep cleaning and those beginning protocols that we were all kind of starting. We had no idea it was going to turn into this. I worked that last shift, which was the Friday, and then Sunday [March 15, 2020], the governor made his announcement. And it was surreal. I remember exactly where I was sitting in my kitchen, watching it on my laptop. And I just burst into tears because I had worked at M since 2002. And I was like, “What do you mean we're closed? What are you talking about? How's that possible? How can that even be a thing?” And of course [the staff] were all texting each other. But even in that moment, in our minds, we thought this is gonna last a couple of weeks.
What were you thinking at that time?
I thought, OK, I'll take a couple of weeks off. I've never had a staycation in my life. This could actually be cool. Take a couple weeks off, get recharged and go back to work. Which of course turned into a seven-month staycation for me. I did not start working again until the end of October. You know, my entire adult life I've worked since the day I turned 18, and I have built this career. And so, there was a lot of fear in those seven months of like: “Is my career over? Did I work all these years for nothing?” Et cetera. I was thankful that it happened during the spring and summer. I took up rock climbing on a really serious level. I got hooked up with a group of semi-professional rock climbers who took me under their wing. And I spent the entire summer outside climbing rocks all over the state and even West Virginia. It was amazing. And I would never have had that opportunity otherwise. So, I guess that was the silver lining for me.
Had you dabbled in rock climbing before or was this completely new?
It was completely new. I've always loved the outdoors. I come from a family of people who camp. My brother is a forest ranger. I've always loved hiking, but I had never rock climbed. And one of my regulars [at M] has always done it on a semi-professional level. And he invited me to go with them and I said, “Sure, I'll check it out.” And I fell in love with it. And within like a month, I was buying shoes and a harness and ropes and gear. I was climbing outside, never even in a gym, but outside on real rocks, like five days a week for six months straight. And it's turned into my thing. I'm good at it, and I love it and it's fun and I traveled to do it. And it's just become a huge part of my life. It's crazy.
When did you know that you likely weren’t going back to M?
Having all that time off was fun and great and wonderful, but I also have built a career out of this. I'm not 25 where I can just [take] off for the next year and a half and do nothing. Unemployment isn't that much money. For a little bit there, we were making good money and then the good money went away. It got to a point where I was making half of what I needed to pay my bills.
For me, it was a decision of: Am I going to go to another Cameron Mitchell restaurant? Am I going to go to a completely different restaurant group? Or am I going to start looking elsewhere? I've always been interested in the brand side. I've always been an educator at heart and a mentor. And so, when this Diageo job was posted, I thought, "This is literally written for me." So, I applied for it and went through many interviews and then I got the job. I'm just thrilled. I absolutely love it.
What does your new job with Diageo entail?
My job is to go around the state and educate bars and restaurants and bartenders on those brands, but also as a consultant [to help] them create cocktail menus. So, not only training the staff on spirits and spirit knowledge and mixology, but also on hospitality. … It's kind of the perfect progression for me, honestly. I didn't want to bartend for my entire life anyway, although I loved my job at M with all my heart, and I miss it every day. I really do. I miss my regulars so much. And I miss standing in a busy bar with the energy and excitement of a restaurant. That is something that hurts, but COVID had other plans, unfortunately.
What was it like not working behind the bar this past New Year’s Eve?
Hahaha, it was the first New Year's Eve of my entire adult life that I was not working behind the bar. Wow, it was weird. It was bittersweet. And, you know, because of COVID, it wasn't like I was out at another restaurant celebrating. I was home for the first time ever. And while that was kind of cool, it was bittersweet because I love bartending. You know, I loved what I did and I loved—especially M. I loved the energy and excitement of M. That restaurant will always hold a place in my heart, big time.
I don't know if you ever spent New Year's Eve at M, but it was a sight to be seen. It was our busiest night of the year. We dressed up. We had noisemakers and hats and Champagne for the entire house, and we'd put Dick Clark's ball drop on the TV and the whole entire restaurant would be packed at midnight. And so it was very strange for me.
What do you think made you such a good bartender?
Obviously, I know how to make a good drink, but I think above and beyond that was just the hospitality piece of it for me. I really devoted my time and genuine desire to make regulars. And to make new people who sat at my bar feel welcome, learn their names, invite them back in. And then when they would come back in, I would remember them and I would remember their name and what they drank and what they ate and all the things. I even had a little book behind the bar of people, of names and what they drank, what they ate, so that I would always remember. It was just really important to me. And now, I teach that you can have that at a dive bar, you can have that in fine dining, you can have that at your local coffee shop. And there's just something really special about having somebody that welcomes you. That's why there's a lot of dive bars that do so well, because it's not that they're making these over-the-top fancy cocktails. It's just the way that bartender makes the people feel when they sit at his bar.