Dishin’ with Dez

Pull up a barstool and meet Edmonds' favorite bartender
By Brian Soergel | Oct 19, 2017
Photo by: Brian Soergel Desmond Van Rensburg has made many fans during his seven years at Daphnes in Edmonds.

When interviewing Desmond Van Rensburg at his place of employment, here’s a tip: Make him shut the door.

A few minutes into an adventurous back-and-forth at Daphnes with Edmonds’ favorite barkeep – before opening time on a sunny day made for Main Street strollers – two women ducked inside.

“When is happy hour?” one asks with a sly smile and a hint of seduction.

Desmond meets her gaze, matching her seduction and raising her ante. “When you get here!”

Welcome to Desmond’s world, one that in seven short years has made him the toast – pun intended – of Edmonds’ cocktail-happy bar scene and Daphnes a must-stop on any alcohol-fueled pub crawl.

Edmonds has its share of national celebrities – a European travel expert and a ditzy Hollywood actress (at least she plays one) come to mind – but Desmond is a bona fide local superstar. Only his first name is necessary, and maybe 1 in 10 patrons could even guess at his surname.

Desmond has his regular tics – crooner radio set to Bobby Darin on Pandora, raspy laughter, welcome greetings for all and a natural and infectious skill of connecting with customers that cannot be faked.

“I believe Dez’s popularity is down to one thing,” said Daphnes owner Brian Taylor. “Be a longtime customer or a first-time patron, Desmond has an innate way of making you feel like you own the place as soon as you walk in the door. No pretense at all. Pure genuine. He plays no favorites.”

Desmond is genuine, certainly, but he’s hip that his easy gregariousness is great for business and keeping customers coming back.

He says that several bars in town have asked him more than once to name his price, but he turns them down every time. So you know Desmond loves his job and keeping customers happy while loosening them up with double shots of alcohol and triple shots of Desmond.

“I’m just good at entertaining and having fun,” he said. “This place fits like a glove.”

But here’s one thing you might not know.

“I’ve always been a people pleaser,” he said. “But to be quite honest, that results in being insecure in a lot of ways. It’s an insecurity that made me always outgoing, trying to go above and beyond to make people happy.”

Keeping fit, stopping bad habits

Desmond Van Rensburg is a 60-year-old man in a 40-year-old body. A full head of bright blonde-gray hair complements his angular good looks. He sports ties, and buttoned shirts cover a flat stomach that raises appreciative eyebrows from both sexes.

You wouldn’t guess it now, but until recently Desmond packed on a few more pounds.

His secret to slimness is really no secret. He stopped eating food that was bad for him. “I’m taking care of myself. I try to avoid restaurants, because of so much seasoning and salt. I have my apple fritters and my ice cream occasionally, sure.”

But in moderation. And he takes a three-mile walk from his Edmonds home in Maplewood every day.

He does admit to a “puff” every now and then; he slips around the corner of Daphnes and down an alley occasionally for an occasional smoke. He trusts his customers not to misbehave. They don’t.

But his customers do like to drink. And Desmond used to imbibe with the best of them.

“I have an addictive personality,” he said, his shoulders shrugging slightly. “I promised myself year after year that I’d quit, and I finally said no more. It made me a better person. When I drink or did any form of drug, I always got really quiet. I thought I might have ADHD. Ya think! But now I’m having the best time of my life. I feel good. I’m healthy. People say I’m too skinny, but I eat like a horse, exercise and am so high-energy.”

Don’t you have to drink to be a bartender? People ask Desmond this a lot.

“But the thing with me is, I remember the past,” he tells them. “I know from day one, when it comes to me, if you get clean and sober, I’m one of the best. I know that. I know it’s being egotistical, but you have to be. Ever since I’ve been at Daphnes, people see the best of me. And I’ve been all over, but people never saw the best of me. They saw a glimpse of me.”

Growing up in South Africa

Desmond’s consonant-heavy South African accent is part of his appeal, adding a touch of the exotic.

Born in Salisbury, Rhodesia (now Harare, Zimbabwe), he grew up in Johannesburg, South Africa, and attended Hilton College in Durban, a prestigious boarding school for boys. (“A waste of money,” Desmond said, followed by a burst of laughter.)

He was 18 when his father moved the family to Clyde Hill on Seattle’s Eastside to take a job with an oil company. Desmond played soccer at Bellevue High and then at Bellevue Community College. Scouts noticed his talents, and it wasn’t long before Desmond made the Los Angeles Aztecs pro soccer team, where he was a reserve.

He lasted a year.

“Back then I was partying, doing drugs and drinking alcohol,” he said. “My parents to this day just shake their heads; I had the talent, but I just threw it all away.”

Back in Puget Sound, Desmond settled into a job as a salesman at Nordstrom. He moved plenty of merch with his outgoing way. But one day, a customer suggested his people skills would go over well as a bartender, and a career was born.

Desmond worked at several Seattle locations, including Benjamin's on Lake Union (now Daniel’s Broiler), the former Gateway Tavern in Shoreline and Reservoir Bar & Grill near Green Lake. Bartending school was not an issue.

“Bartending is 80 percent people skills,” Desmond said. “There are thousands of bartenders who know many more drinks than me. If I don’t know the drink, I’ll look it up. If I can’t find it, I’ll move on. But it’s all about how you relate to people.”

Although Desmond loved his customers, he eventually tired of his commute from his Edmonds home, where he and wife Kimberly have now lived for 22 years. In 2010, she suggested he grab a resume and offer his skills to Edmonds. “She said just go down and see if there’s an opening. You can get a job anywhere.”

She didn’t have to tell her husband that. Desmond has a well-earned confidence that, instead of coming off as boastful, sounds about right.

“Every place I’ve been, I just come in there and fill it up. It’s never been a problem with me. And they call me ‘D Money.’ Money baby, you are money in the bank.”

He scored an interview at Daphnes and was told to speak to Louise Favier, Taylor’s wife, the next day. “She still grins about this story,” Desmond said. “She had me sitting there for 45 minutes while she talked to some people cleaning up. Then she got up, grabbed her purse and said let’s go to Walnut Street Coffee to talk.”

Turns out Favier had already decided Desmond was right for the job. She had a feeling. Things weren’t going so well at Daphnes, she told him – the bar needed some life, some oomph, and she sensed he could turn things around.

She was right. And it didn’t take long for her husband to agree.

“I met Desmond over the phone when he called me in the middle of the night in Paris to tell me how well he had done one night at Daphnes,” said Taylor, the head of a peripatetic family (which includes kids Jack and Kate) that moved to New York from Edmonds and now lives in Ireland. Taylor also has a bar in Brooklyn called the Pencil Factory and, until he recently lost his lease, a sister Daphne’s Bar (with the possessive, for you grammar nerds) in Bellingham’s Fairhaven neighborhood. “I didn’t even know who he was, and thought he was one of our New York bartenders.”

Seven years later, Desmond says he can’t imagine working anywhere else. Daphnes is small for a bar – after an itty-bitty expansion a few years ago it still has only eight barstools and two cozy tables (and cheese plates!) – but that suits Desmond just fine.

If you want the Desmond experience, you must know that he works Tuesdays through Fridays. That’s not to mean Daphnes doesn’t hop on Saturday nights. It does, and you should give bartender Jeff Rose a try. Desmond’s just not there. And last year, when Desmond spent five weeks on the sidelines with hip-replacement surgery, Daphnes regulars suffered without their Dez fix.

In a bind, Taylor rang up Shawn Mathay, who used to work at Epulo Bistro up Main Street, and asked if he’d sub for his star bartender awhile. To his credit, Mathay accepted.

Desmond remembers a conversation with Mathay. “He phoned me up and said he was having anxiety. People want me to entertain them, he said. They said, hey, Desmond does this.”

Things soon returned to normal at Daphnes upon Desmond’s return. Business is a good as ever, he said, and crowds have evolved over the years.

“Before, there were a lot of older, more mature people and a sprinkling of younger folk. Now there’s a lot of the Amazon type, the yuppies, classy but not pretentious, a lot of younger kids in their early or mid-20s. Good looking. They tell me they love the music, and I tell them they must have fantastic parents. Then they bring their parents in here to meet me, and the parents say, I can’t believe my daughter likes to hang out here. We were so concerned.”

That doesn’t mean those with a little more life experience have ceded Desmond to the millennials.

“People say, does your wife get insecure? Come on, give me a break,” Desmond said. He laughed. “I’m 60 years old. I’m like in a petting zoo now. Women come up to me and pat me on the back. And, I tell you, the older I get, the more the men hit on me.”

That last comment comes with Desmond’s biggest laugh of the interview.

As you can imagine, there’s plenty of laughter at Daphnes. Desmond like to make sure people get to know each other, like they’re immersed in a cocktail party. He compliments customers, and will lead the bar on a round of “Happy Birthday” when appropriate.

Regulars know there are a few Dez-isms, and will frequently try their best imitations of him. “Spank the mint” is a big one – Desmond says that he slaps a mint sprig before dropping it into a Moscow Mule.

“Yeah, baby!” is another.

“I just like to make everyone comfortable,” he said. “Single women will come into the bar, and introductions make them comfortable.”

A health scare

Desmond may get goo-goo eyes from the ladies, but he belongs to Kimberly. They’ve been married 27 years.

Recently, they went through a medical scare as Kimberly, who works at Swedish Cancer Institute in Edmonds, underwent open-heart surgery. The Van Rensburgs have health insurance, but the surgery caused Desmond to miss a substantial amount of work and income.

Taylor sent up a GoFundMe page for Desmond and Kimberly, which will remain online through the end of the month. As of this week, it had reached about half of its $10,000 goal.

Taylor is offering private cocktail hours with Desmond during this year's holiday season for the first 100 people who donate $50 or more. It includes “two Moscow Mules, door prizes and plenty of spankings, both mint and otherwise,” Taylor wrote on the page. Those donating less than $50 will be automatically entered into drawings for Daphne’s stuff including gift cards, T-shirts, hats and tote bags.

“Until you experience it, you don’t know,” Desmond said. “Everything’s great in my life, and then just an absolute avalanche. We have $37,000 in bills, and the surgery was $1.3 million, although we were able to knock it down to 12 grand (with insurance).”

Are there any little Desmonds running around?

Yes. But he’s no kid – he’s 25-year-old Dillon, who graduated from Western Washington University. It appears unlikely he’ll follow his father into the biz.

“He’s more like the wife,” Desmond said. “More mellow and serious. Every day I thank God for him. He’s very responsible, works hard. He’s a very nice young man, but he’s not like me. He’ll go, please dad, don’t embarrass me.”

 

 

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