Line up the early bits of Connor Danaher’s biography and his laid-back demeanor, and it’s easy to see how he was destined to land and thrive in San Clemente
Danaher grew up surfing in a small beach town in Delaware, and after taking up bartending in his early 20s, he escaped the East Coast winters for a season on the Big Island of Hawaii, where he lived with his aunt and uncle and worked at the Kona Inn.
As fate would have it, Kona Inn was owned by the same people who own the Wind & Sea Restaurant in Dana Point Harbor, and Danaher was asked if he wanted to transfer to California. Thankfully for him, Southern California is also a nice respite from East Coast winters, so he accepted.
After some turns slinging Mai Tais in the harbor, Danaher joined the staff at Vine Restaurant & Bar in San Clemente, where he grew and excelled under Gabe Whorley, himself a several-time Silver Ole winner as one of San Clemente’s best bartenders and beverage director for the group’s restaurants.
Now, Danaher has taken up the reins for nearly five years at Vine, and he’s earned the Golden Ole, as the People’s Choice for Best Bartender in San Clemente.
Jessica Kavanagh of Big Helyn’s Saloon received the Silver Ole for bartender.
In addition to mastering Vine’s selection of craft cocktails, wine pairings and the fundamentals behind the bar, Danaher has made connections with his patrons and stable of regulars with warm, welcoming service and a bright smile.
“My mentality is always I try to treat everyone the same. Nobody is more important than the next person,” Danaher says. “Treat everybody great, like you’re welcoming them over to your house for dinner and they want to get up and help with the dishes, but you tell them to sit down and enjoy a glass of wine.”
Danaher says he connects with the “small-town vibe” of San Clemente from his time growing up on the Delaware coast with friendly and familiar faces every day. In his time working in restaurants on the East Coast, Hawaii and South Orange County, he says there are differences to the environments and expectations in each location.
“I feel like California is a bit further ahead, as far as the food and drink scene goes,” Danaher says. “There’s a lot more competition. Everyone is always trying to one-up each other. We’re spoiled with so much good food. Every restaurant you go to in town is amazing. On the East Coast, the seafood is delicious over there, but as far as the plating and the dishes go, they’re working their way up to what California is.”
While California’s food and drink are slightly elevated, Danaher maintains that the secret to the perfect cocktail is pretty simple—something he learned under the tutelage of Whorley.
“I’ve definitely learned more about craft cocktails, especially working here,” Danaher says. “Obviously, Gabe is also one of the best bartenders in Orange County, so it was cool to learn from him. He taught me how to perfect a cocktail and make it taste good. It doesn’t need to be over-the-top fancy, as long as you get it quick and it tastes good.”
Aside from the list of craft cocktails, Danaher says he’s up for anything patrons want to run by him, whether it’s an exotic cocktail—provided they have all the right ingredients behind the bar—or picking people’s brains to figure out their palette and pair one of Vine’s excellent wine selections to a food item. It’s his favorite part of the job. However, don’t ask for any bartender circus tricks.
“They call that the flair. I’m more functionality over the flair,” Danaher says with a laugh. “I always shake my martinis super cold. It always has the ice chips over it. I tell them straight-up, I will break everything in this bar if I tried that.”
It’s the pleasing of the clientele and the hospitality side of job that’s most rewarding for Danaher.
“On the really busy nights, when I’m here making the cocktails for the entire restaurant and I’m also serving people up here, I think when it’s just a smooth night . . . everybody is happy, everybody is chatting, everything is just flowing,” Danaher says. “At the end of the night, it was super busy, but we got through it, and we had a good time doing it.”
Walk into Vine, pull up a spot at the bar, and Danaher will be sure to take care of you.
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