Meet Joey Donnelly, a maritime treasure of a human, who has made a solid east-coast stamp on the west-coast hospitality industry here in BC. He is the GM of Clough Club in Gastown (his last name is unrelated to the Donnelly Group) and even after almost a decade in Vancouver (with eight years under his belt at the Clough), he still greets you from behind the bar with genuine maritimer charm and an enthusiastic drawl of, “Hey Bahd!” He also owns a couple of restaurants in Tofino with some of his old ‘Scotian pals’ (being the much-admired Lil’ Ronnie’s Backyard BBQ, of which a second location just opened in early June 2019), and he sits on the Board of Directors for the newly formed mental health initiative, Mind The Bar, which serves as a resource for Vancouver hospitality workers struggling with thoughts of suicide, addictions, depression, or workplace harassment. Despite his efforts to be low-key, Joey is absolutely beloved in the industry, from colleagues to patrons to musicians to CEOs. If you don’t know him, you should. Hailing from the Annapolis Valley in Nova Scotia, this is Joey Donnelly.
Laura: OK. Hi bahd! Tell me about what is going on in your world these days?
Joey: Just got our newest place in Tofino opened this past week. Putting together some fun stuff for Clough Club, which you’ll see really soon.
L: Well you definitely know that I will, given my residential proximity to your bar. Haha. Ok, so you’re an implant from the infamous maritime hotspot bar scene of Halifax, Nova Scotia. Did your restaurant career start there, or here? Tell us about how you got to where you are now?
J: I was about 13 years old when we had a “what do you want to do when you grow up” assignment in school. I was dead set on being a chef, and my teacher knew a local restaurant owner, and I got set up to job shadow. I ended up volunteering there for ages and being paid in meals. It was awesome.
A few years later, I moved to Halifax and stepped foot into my first real bar. It was like straight out of ‘Cocktail.’ A room full of people having the best time of their lives and the bartenders were at the centre of all of it. I knew that was what I wanted to do.
L: Please tell me that bar was the Velvet Olive (a legendary East Coast bar from back in the day).
J: It was the Olive, of course. And after pestering the owners long enough for a job, I finally got in, and eventually got a job bar backing. In those days in Halifax, you had to have a bunch of bar experience to get on the bar (or be better looking than I was) so I started learning about cocktails as a competitive edge. Eventually the bartenders were asking me how to make certain drinks and it kept going from there…
L: The energy in the bars in Halifax is wild. How would you describe the Vancouver bar scene? What makes it different from other cities that you’ve travelled to, or worked in?
J: There are not a lot of cities in the world where can you walk into almost any bar or restaurant and get a pretty damn good drink like here, it’s crazy how consistent it is. It might not have the flash of Paris or the hipness of New York, but it’s almost just as good.
L: Do you think it’s hard for new bartenders to break into the scene in Vancouver? Any sage advice on how to wet your toes?
J: I have been trying to hide from the “scene” for years… So there are probably better people to ask than me. I guess all the best bartenders I know started off as hostesses and bar backs. So start there. If you think you’re above cleaning the bathroom floor, it’s probably not the right business for you.
L: I’m shuddering recalling how much gum I picked from under bar tops. It is definitely humbling.
Do you (or did you ever) have a mentor? Or maybe it’s just someone who knows exactly what to pour you at the end of the day?
J: I’d be remiss to not mention my dear friend and personal Sherpa, Cooper Tardivel, who I moved alongside with to Vancouver in the first place. Slinging cocktails with him 10 years ago at Mosaic in Halifax was special… but I was awful lucky to come up in a world class bar scene like Halifax with some incredible unheralded pros. Brad Dillon deserves a shout out… no one runs a tighter ship than that guy.
L: I worked in a bar next door to Cooper in Halifax for years. I still find it absolutely bonkers that you and I never met until we were both in Vancouver…
Bartending has a pretty wet and wild reputation as a job, particularly for those who have not worked in the industry. What is a misconception people have about bartending?
J: I have been around long enough to know there is probably some truth to every misconception.
L: What is the most underrated bar in this city?
J: Clough Club.
L: If I didn’t agree with you on that answer, you’d have me rolling my eyes!
What’s your guilty pleasure drink? Mine is super cheap buttery chardonnay, just to set the bar really low…
J: I drink Rainier. Always have, always will. No guilt.
L: Mountain fresh, baby! How about the most memorable drink you’ve ever had?
J: Shivering cold and sharing a flask of Old Crow with my favourite musician of all time after a long day kayaking down a frigid, wild rapid called “the cheese grater” in Idaho. Whiskey never tasted so good.
L: You can’t leave me hanging on who the musician was??
J: Darrell Scott.
L: Nice. I hope you got to see him play!
Now what drink makes you cringe?
J: I have never and will never drink a Caesar.
L: *Shakes head*
What’s the hardest part about your job?
J: This business is fairly transient compared to other jobs. Lots of people just passing through on working holidays or moving away, etc. It’s always tough to see good friends move.
L: Yeah, there’s always a lot of coming and going. And then of course, there are the late nights, which are not always easy to juggle. What keeps you sane and balanced outside of work?
J: I play a lot of guitar, so either playing or listening to music… Getting out of town is a good reset.
Also, mindless action movies will do in a pinch.
L: Perfect. Let’s cheers then to Netflix for giving our poor minds a well-earned respite. Salut!
Catch Joey on his guitar on random Friday nights at the Clough Club playing with the Wyper & Parker duo!
Dog or cat? Dog.
Negroni or Boulevardier? Doesn’t matter.
Most overhyped bar trend? Instagram garnish.
Most despised bar term? Mixology.
Most underutilized spirit? Rum.
First drink you ever had? Rum (my first taste at 4 days old, no joke).
Pinot or Cabernet? Pinot.
Go-to hangover cure? Swimming.
High school prom song? Strawberry wine, Deanna Carter.
THC or CBD? I’m not that cool.
Oh frig off. There’s nothing cooler than a Maritimer on the west coast. Thanks for your time, Joey!
—by Laura Starr