Hamilton Walker’s is a ritzy and welcoming steakhouse that upholds a cool 1940’s vibe and provides the perfect backdrop for any occasion. In this month’s Meet Your Merchant feature, we caught up with DeAnna Craig, the bar manager for Hamilton Walker’s, who served us all the in’s and out’s of working at this popular downtown establishment from curating drink menus to ensuring great service and experiences. Continue reading to learn more about DeAnna.
1. Tell me about yourself.
My name is DeAnna Craig. I am the bar manager at Hamilton Walker’s here in Champaign. I grew up in West Des Moines, Iowa. I was originally born in Peoria but moved to Iowa when I was five. I grew up there as an only child. Then in my twenties I liked to move around. I lived in Arizona for a year and spent a lot of time in Colorado. Then eventually found myself in Illinois with my husband to get back closer to family.
2. How did you find yourself at Hamilton Walker’s?
I have been working in the restaurant business my entire adult life, serving and bartending. Before Hamilton Walker’s I worked at Biaggi’s. It was there that I moved from server/ bartender into management. At Biaggi’s, I worked with Chef Zach. When he left there to start this project, he had mentioned it to me, but I had just taken that management position and wasn’t ready to move. After a couple of years, I was ready for something new, so I reached out to Zach where I learned that they were looking for management here. After some meetings, I started at Hamilton Walker’s in 2018, 2 years after they opened.
3. Your role here is bar manager – Tell me about that?
That was the role that I was hired here as, but I am more of an Assistant General Manager, or AGM. We just have a really small leadership team. So it’s just Nathan, me, Zach, and our Sous Chef, Richard.
4. Can you tell me what it’s like to be an AGM or bar manager? Give me a day in the life.
I come in several hours before service to do administrative stuff. On Wednesdays, I do ordering; I procure all of the bar items and beverage. I will meet with sales reps and make decisions about ordering. So it’s being able to have relationships with those people and thinking about how you want your beverage menu to present.
I also all of the front of house scheduling, hiring, and administration or management. When we are getting ready for service, we need to make sure shifts are covered and everything, and everyone is prepped. In a restaurant like this — heavy on reservations, large parties, and special events — there is a lot more preparing for service. As service starts you are, as I call it, in “organized chaos”: where you have a plan, but you know that not everything is going to go as planned, so you have back up plans and “what if” scenarios, and stuff like that. I like to call it “reprioritizing on the fly”. Then it is just controlling and guiding and coaching while still being pleasant with the public. You always have to keep your finger on the pulse on what is going on around the restaurant. And then, next thing you know it’s 9:00pm and it’s time to wrap up.
5. You mentioned that you are part of curating the menu – can you share a little more about what goes into that?
For the cocktail menu, we try to switch things up seasonally and, to be honest, some of those things are driven by product availability. With our cocktail list, I do like to keep it to only 10 -12 drinks because you don’t want too many recipes running around in your bartenders’ head, especially when there is a rush. So in designing a menu you have to have a certain variety that can please many different palates.
What I love about working for an independent restaurant is that we can guide our menu more towards the community and our regular guests. With wine lists, for example, you have to keep in mind not only your market, but in what kind of restaurant we are running. You have to see what food you are pairing the wine with, but you also have to have a variety in where it’s coming from. I mean, to be fair, I am the one trying everything out, so if I like it and I am getting asked about it I can tell them I like it, and this is why I like it, or if it isn’t my taste I can at least tell you what dish would pair well with it. When it comes to ordering, it really is finding what your niche is in your neighborhood.
6. In working so closely with cocktails you must have a favorite on the menu. What is your favorite?
Oh yes – The Vesper. Culturally, people will recognize The Vesper from James Bond. So what I like about the Vesper is that it is very dry and all of the ingredients are alcohol. It is a great aperitif, a palate cleanser. It is going to dry out your palate before dinner. It’s gin, vodka, and Lillet blanc which is a French aperitif made from white wine. The majority of it is gin, so you can start playing around with different gins in the cocktail to get a slightly different bent on it. If you don’t like gin and you want to start trying gin, then I would say you should try the Bee’s Knees. It’s a crowd pleaser.
7. Spring is here, kicking off the event season. What do you most look forward to this summer?
We have a great patio that the guests love, so that will be nice. Friday Night Live is really great for the community and downtown. It brings a different vibe, or excitement and energy, to the area, so we love having stuff like that. You say that event season is just starting, but it is always event season here at Hamilton Walker’s. With the Virginia Theatre opened up, it has really affected our business being just down the street. Then, there are the rehearsal dinners, the birthday parties, and the pharmaceutical dinners, so really it has all just been coming back. What I really look forward to with all of it is that you can have an expansion of menu, more freedom, and more ingredients. So that is the fun of that.
8. What do you like most about being in downtown Champaign?
Foot traffic is great, and this is probably totally off topic, but I am a huge dog lover! Ever since I started working downtown, staff will just come up to me and let me know there is a dog nearby. It is that bad. So my favorite part of downtown patio season is the dogs. I have dog VIPs.
9. Is there anything else that you would like to share to our readers about Hamilton Walker’s?
Really what I would like to say about Hamilton Walker’s is that I have been working in hospitality my entire adult life and it doesn’t matter if you are working in fine dining or you’re at a dive bar, the same drive is still always there to just make someone else’s day. That’s how we measure success. We probably could have gone to some fancy school to be a millionaire, but here we get immediate joy. It’s the people, the connection with the community, that I like most. We get to become a part of people’s lives. You share big events with them, and you make millions of little connections that stay with you. That’s the real joy of the work and it extends beyond these four walls. Going out to eat sometimes isn’t always about the food, it’s the comfort of knowing that you will have someone take care of you that will know what you like.
Photo credit Darrell Hoemann Photography, member of the Champaign Center Partnership.