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BEST BARTENDER Minneapolis 2006 - Michel Bechara

Readers' Choice: Rachel Hager (New Dehli)

Long ago, the epicenter of sin in the Twin Cities was located along Interstate 494 in the south metro, a forgotten land called the "Bloomington Strip." It was the early 1970s, when a twentysomething immigrant from Lebanon started slinging drinks for the legendary Purple People Eaters at the Left Guard, a joint near the old Met Stadium. "I knew everybody: Kramer, Tarkenton, Chuck Foreman, Rickey Young, Mark Mullaney," Michel Bechara recalls, rattling off the names as if going through his little black book. "The first one I met was Ed Marinaro, before he leave to make movies." Times change, of course, but Bechara, now 52, is still slinging drinks—at the Bonfire on Grand Avenue in St. Paul six days a week, and five nights at Runyon's in downtown Minneapolis. "In between shifts, I sleep on Hennepin Avenue," Bechara jokes. "Or at A Déjà Vu." How Bechara got to either place is a slightly longer story. He came to Minnesota in 1973 because his sister started a restaurant in Nordeast. Within weeks, he was working at the Left Guard, then moved to the bar at the Embassy Suites near the airport. By 1990, Bechara had returned to Lebanon to be with his wife and three daughters. In 2003, he came back to the States, and within weeks was working at the Bonfire, owned by a former co-worker. "I want to get my kids to go to school here," Bechara says. "Now that I'm here, they won't come. So I'm supplying their school in Lebanon." He shrugs: "Eh? Kids. What can you do?" Bechara, whose internationalism puts a new twist on the "Coach"-from-Cheers cliché, always wears a silk tie, a white apron, and his sleeves rolled to three-quarters length. Chattiness is his trait, but efficiency and service trump any pretenses of style. And he offers the kind of malapropisms that hint he might only be playing dumb: "Only in America," he often says, shaking his head. "Good to have me back."

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