Set ’em up, Farouk

For 50-plus years, the Rattlesnake Club’s legendary bartender has shaken for some of America’s biggest movers.
Photograph by Martin Vecchio

Someone once said a bartender is just a pharmacist with a limited inventory, but any frequent pub patron knows he’s far more than that. A good bartender is equal parts counselor and therapist, a dash of father confessor, a pinch of life coach, with a little stock analyst and sports commentator blended in. And if he can mix a perfect martini, so much the better.

There are many excellent bartenders in metro Detroit. But there’s only one legend. He stirs things up at the Rattlesnake Club just east of downtown, where he’s held court at the corner lounge for 24 years, almost since the celebrated restaurant first opened its doors.

Before that, Farouk Elhaje — or simply “Farouk,” as he is universally known — was the “startender” for 29 years at the original London Chop House when it was the premier fine-dining establishment in America, mixing it up with an amazing assortment of celebrities large and small along the way. From Walter Cronkite and Ed McMahon to Coleman Young, Sonny Eliot, and Lee Iacocca, who he describes as “a real good buddy of mine,” Farouk has shaken for some of America’s biggest movers. He’s even rubbed (or bent) an elbow with President George H.W. Bush.

If you’re counting, that’s 53 years in all behind the bar. “I was five when I started,” he says with a laugh.

Actually, Farouk began as a dishwasher at the old Caucus Club downtown when he was just out of his teens, fresh in America from his native Lebanon. “I did that I think three or four months, then they put me behind the bar,” he recalls. “I learned the business so fast because I worked with a lazy bartender. I probably shouldn’t say that, but he told me, ‘I wash glasses, you make drinks.’ So one night the old man, (Caucus Club and London Chop House co-owner) Sam Gruber, he was watching me. He made me so damn nervous I didn’t know what I was doing! Finally he approached me and said, ‘Tomorrow I want you to go to the Chop House and start there, on the service bar,’ just like that. And I was there for 29 years.”

While the bond between bartender and customer is sometimes seen as a priest-penitent relationship, on the occasion of the Rattlesnake Club’s 25th anniversary (commemorated by a lavish gala at the restaurant last June benefitting the Gleaners Community Food Bank of Southeastern Michigan), Farouk agreed to break the bar code of silence and tell a tale or three. Not that he needed much prodding; the Rattlesnake Master is one of Detroit’s most captivating storytellers.

In 1960, Gruber discovered a young singer at a small New York nightclub and soon flew her in to perform at the Caucus Club. Her name was Barbra Streisand. “She used to pack ’em in at the Caucus,” Farouk says, “but she was a pain. Spoiled. We used to squeeze her orange juice to order, by hand, and she’d keep coming up to the bar, ‘Can I get my orange juice?’ I’d say, ‘Get out of here! Can’t you see we’re busy?’

“Then [former Tonight show host] Jack Paar came in one night to the Chop House. Gruber told him, ‘C’mon, I want to take you to the Caucus Club to listen to my singer.’ The next night exactly, she was on his show. That was her first TV appearance.”

Farouk holds a special fondness for the late J.P. McCarthy, the great voice of WJR-AM, arguably this city’s most influential radio personality. “J.P. McCarthy was a great guy,” he recalls. “We used to party a lot outside the bar. One night we were at Little Harry’s on Jefferson, having a great time, and all of a sudden we see it’s way past 2 o’clock. He’s supposed to be on the air at 5! So we’re going down those wooden steps to the parking lot and I say to Harry’s manager, ‘Hey, I’ll bet you 50 bucks J.P. won’t be on the air this morning.’ J.P. says, ‘Farouk, don’t bet against me.’

“That morning, he was on the air. And the first thing he said was, ‘Farouk, you lost.’ And I did.”

A superior mixologist — he once won a local Kentucky Derby-themed celebrity contest for the best mint julep outside the Bluegrass State, as judged by Kentucky’s lieutenant governor — Farouk has amassed such a loyal following over the years that some diners will change their plans if he’s not stationed behind the bar. “He knows everybody,” says Rattlesnake Club General Manager Bob Sereno. “There’s not a person in this city he doesn’t know. He’s got a real good following.”

As for the second incarnation of the London Chop House that opened downtown in 2011, Farouk hasn’t seen it. No interest, he says. Too many memories. “They’ve been calling me, calling me, but I don’t want to go back there,” he says. “I’m happy here. I spent 29 years there, but I’m my own boss here.”

A divorced father of four grown children, Farouk doesn’t see retirement in his immediate future, but he does have an exit strategy. “Ninety-five,” he says with a smile. “That sounds like a good age. Why would I ever want to retire? Sit in front of the TV, watch baseball and dirty movies, and get fat? I love what I do.”