Tiki, Crime, and Rock ‘n’ Roll at Paris’s Dirty Dick
We spoke to Scott Schuder about the finer points of tiki and what exactly brought him from the high desert of California to the sleazy streets of Paris to sling tropical cocktails.
Welcome back to Last Call, where we visit watering holes around the world to collect life advice from their trusty barkeepers, learning everything from how to get over a broken heart to what drink orders will get you laughed out of their bar.
You might think that opening a tiki bar called Dirty Dick in a gentrified Paris neighbourhood was an exercise in irony, but you would be making two fatal assumptions.
First, Dirty Dick is hardly the new kid on the block. It's been called Dirty Dick since 1936, when it was a sex club owned by the Corsican mafia, but more on that later. Second, owner Scott Schuder's love of tiki is anything but ironic—it's steeped in a deep respect for ingredients and very genuine desire to offer the people of Paris what he calls "escapism."
We spoke to Schuder about the finer points of tiki and what exactly brought him from the high desert of California to the sleazy streets of Paris to sling tropical drinks. He is a bartender and raconteur of the highest order, so let him regale you, as he did I, with tales of rock 'n roll, crime, survival, and tiki.
MUNCHIES: Where you from, Scotty? Scott Schuder: I'm from Victorville, California in the Mojave desert.
Does growing up in such an extreme landscape influence you in any way? It totally does. People from the desert are very similar. We're all addicted to methamphetamine [laughs]. Just kidding, but it definitely shaped who I am. Not just creatively, but spiritually. There's something about being alone in the middle of the Mojave desert, surrounded by Joshua trees and rocks that made me feel more connected to the Earth than I ever have before.
How did you end up in Paris? Long story. I moved to San Francisco, fell in love with a French girl, got her pregnant, and had no health insurance so we decided to move to France to have the baby. But that didn't last very long and I had to choose whether I was going to stay here with my son or move back to California. So, I just stayed and my kid is 17 now.
So you'll be serving him soon enough, I guess? Well, he's already got a job in a bar. He's a chef in a really good restaurant here called Le Mary Celeste. He's in cooking school and doing high school on the side, so we'll see what happens.
When did you decide to open Dirty Dick? I've been bartending a long time. But I went to Frankie's Tiki Room in Las Vegas right when it opened and I was blown away by the music, the drinks, the vibe—everything. It gave me some escapism from being in the desert and in Las Vegas. I became kind of obsessed; I dug the scene and started reading all the books. It was my dream to open Dirty Dick and it took a long time to save up the money, but we just did it, and it's been almost three and a half years now.
Why do you think a tiki bar has been so well-received in Paris?
It's not like there's a bunch of tikiphiles here trying to understand the culture. What we give to people is escapism and they really like that.
Most great bars have the ability to make you forget where you are or even what year it is as soon as you walk in the door. You just lose track of time and space. Everybody's kind of looking for that. You forget you're in Paris when you're in here. You're drinking these exotic drinks and there's these great smells and you're meeting people and you forget about stuff and I think people really like that. Tiki adds another type of tropical dimension because it doesn't really match with where you're at. Paris is definitely not a tropical setting.
Where does the name Dirty Dick come from? It's always been called Dirty Dick. Originally, I had a different name in mind, but it's been open since the 1930s and thought I should keep it.
Wait, so it's always been called Dirty Dick? Yes. I was talking with my crew and with a lot of women and wanted to make sure it wasn't derogatory or that they didn't take it the wrong way, but everybody thought it was funny. It was opened as a sex club and it was owned by the fucking Corsican Mafia in the 50s.
What's a false ceiling? The ceilings were low and we were trying to soundproof. We ended up finding all these secret rooms above. The flooring was fitted to hide heavy materials like guns, drugs, and people. They're pretty big rooms; the whole back of the bar was like that. Someone even left a newspaper in there from '51 or '52 about the biggest heroin bust in France. I was talking to a cop buddy of mine and he said this is where they must have hidden all the drugs. Also, the Corsicans at the time were all big in the Resistance during World War II, so it was a good place to hide stuff.
Pigalle has always been considered a pretty tough part of town. Why open a tiki bar here? I had been looking for a while for the right place. I had only seen a bunch of shitty places and there were no cocktail bars on Rue Frochot at the time. My friend had told me about this place because she was opening a bar across the street. As soon as I saw the facade, I knew that was it. It was a gamble because no one wanted to go to Pigalle because it was so rough. But after we opened, everyone sort of followed suit and there's like ten cocktail bars in a kilometer radius now.
I got mugged on Rue Frochot a couple of years ago. I feel like it's still a little sketchy. It's completely changed. It's fucking crazy now, dude, there's two luxury hotels on the block. It's totally gentrified. You have, like, gluten-free bakeries and baguettes, and tea shops.
So what was the vibe in Pigalle before gluten-free baguettes? It was the red light district. Dirty Dick and every other bar on Frochot was a prostitute bar or a sex club. When we bought it, it was still a dodgy little sex club. Pigalle was where all the British and American soldiers came to get laid when they were off-duty. There were always military cops in the area because there were so many soldiers.
What are the signature drinks at Dirty Dick? We do a lot of our own creations. But the classics sell really well, like Mai Tais, piña coladas, Zombies. We do about 90 percent cocktails.
What's the secret to making a good tiki drink? The most important thing is freshness. For us, it takes ten hours of prep for one night of service. We make everything homemade; we have six different juices, from watermelon to pineapple and we make 12 or 13 syrups. We're a high turn-over bar and we have to do a lot of prep. Our fruit bill is almost six grand a month right now. Everything we make is made with love and it's homemade and mostly organic. The other really important thing is to balance the drinks, not too sugary or too acidic.
What makes a good bartender? I think the first thing is not having an ego. Listening to what the customer wants and not what the bartender's ego wants to serve them. Being cool and just creating a nice ambiance for the client. They're paying money to come relax and take a load off and you have to remember that. We're in the hospitality business, so we're there to take care of the customer and make sure they have a great time. If they want a vodka soda, we won't fight them over it.
What's an ideal customer? [Laughs] Someone who knows what they want straight off the bat! Don't wait ten minutes to get to the bartender and be like, "I don't fucking know what I want!" And someone who's ready to pay straight away is good too.
Do you ever get famous customers? I'm really good friends with Josh Homme from Queens of the Stone Age [another son of the high desert] and the whole band. They come in the bar whenever they're in town, same with Eagles of Death Metal. Josh came in here recently while he was on tour with Iggy Pop. We usually make them drinks backstage at their shows, too.
Are they big drinkers? Oh yeah. They're real rock 'n roll stars. I bumped into them randomly in Miami a few weeks ago when I was doing a pop-up there and we partied til eight in the morning.
You held a fundraising event at Dirty Dick after the Bataclan show? I was actually at the concert. We got lucky and made it out. I was invited to the show and we were down in the pit. It was pretty gory… We got really lucky. We barely made it out.
That's terrifying. Did you go right back to work? I closed the bar for a few days and stayed away from everybody for a few months. I'm just getting back in form again. We did a fundraiser for like two months. My barmen had it on lock while I was gone, and the bar never stopped busting. But we're moving on.
Well, thanks for talking with me, Scotty. My pleasure, brother.