Rona VanSlyck: You don't have to follow all the rules

In this interview, Pizza Republica's Rona VanSlyck weighs in on the importance of being open-minded, her current back-bar obsession and the dive bar she frequents when she's not at work.

Westword: How long have you been a bartender? What made you get into the profession?

Rona Van Slyck: I started in the industry probably about fifteen years ago. I was in college, I needed a job, and I moved my way up to bartender.

I grew up in North Dakota in a farming community, and I went to school in Minnesota. I started out at a steakhouse, where I learned how to make your basic cosmos and things like that. I got into wine and started working on my somm. Then I moved to an Italian restaurant and then an independent restaurant, and that's where it kind of bloomed. I had more chance to play.

I was an opening coordinator for a restaurant, and I helped open a couple of restaurants in Denver. I decided I needed to move here. I started at [now-closed] Nine75 with Jet Entertainment, and they came up with Pizza Republica. I was skeptical at first, but I fell in love with the concept and decided to hop on board.

Bartending rule to live by:

I've never thought about rules to live by! I think my biggest rule is always listen to your guests. Sometimes you just have to do what they like, whether it's something you know is right or not. Also, be creative. You don't have to follow all the rules. That's what makes some of the greatest cocktails -- it's because people have deviated from the rules. And stay open-minded. There are so many things you can do behind that bar. We like to make our cocktails as an extension of the kitchen, and I think it's important not to be afraid to use the ingredients.

Five words to describe your drink list:

Italian-influenced, classic, approachable, fun, made-to-be-drunk. Favorite drink on your list and why:

Bartender's Revenge. The guest gives us a base liquor, and then we create a drink. It gives us a chance to be creative and wow the guest.

Favorite item on your back bar:

I've been totally getting into Chartreuse, so right now that's my favorite. It changes weekly. But currently, I'm loving the Chartreuse.

What was your craziest night behind the stick?

We had a group of ten young kids -- probably 21, 22 -- who wanted us to all make cocktails for them. I've always worked in upscale restaurants, so I've never had a bunch of drink kids at my bar. One of silliest, craziest nights. I don't know if they saw a movie with cocktails or what, but it was fun. Any celebrity sightings?

We get a lot in the Landmark. We're next door to the Comedy Works, and a bunch of football players live nearby. A lot of Broncos. I'm a Minnesota girl, though, so a lot of times, people will say to me, "You don't know who that is? You're crazy."

Favorite Denver venue for a drink that's not your own and what you order when you're there:

We go to the Bull & Bush a lot for a beer, and for a super bad-ass cocktail I go to Green Russell. But otherwise, I'm a dive-bar girl. I go to the Dirty Duck on Evans and have some Grand Marnier. It's a t.otal hole-in-the-wall, but the people are cool

What's next for the Denver bartending scene?

I thought Denver was a cowtown when I moved here, but since then, the cocktail, restaurant and bar scene has been so up-and-coming. There's so much room for improvement, and there's so much opportunity for people like me to move up. It's definitely developing, and so many restaurants are picking up on it. There's lots of room for growth -- growth is coming.

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Laura Shunk was Westword's restaurant critic from 2010 to 2012; she's also been food editor at the Village Voice and a dining columnist in Beijing. Her toughest assignment had her drinking ten martinis and eating ten Caesar salads over the course of 48 hours. She still drinks martinis, but remains lukewarm on Caesar salads.
Contact: Laura Shunk