In our line of work, we cross paths with a wide range of bartenders and walk into an equally diverse range of bars. While no two bars are truly the same, there are some that tend to stand out. Maybe it's because Halloween is right around the corner, but one spot tucked away in the historic Shockoe Bottom neighborhood in Richmond, VA comes to mind. We stopped by and visited our good friend Chad Painter at Wonderland for a peek into the rabbit hole and to hear how this iconic spot came into existence.
First thing’s first, who are you?
Chad Painter, and I am Overlord here at Wonderland.
How long have you been bartending?
Probably close to 15 years now. I’ve been in the industry for about 20 years though.
What first got you behind the bar?
I’m a Richmond native and I’ve pretty much always been in Shockoe Bottom - I started out at a place that was across the street from where we are now. It started with me working the door at a bar, then became the back bar guy, then front bar guy, booked the bands that came through, and after I figured all of that out, I decided to just do it on my own.
Any pro-tips for someone starting out behind the bar?
People tell me they want to learn to be a bartender so they’re going to go to bartending school or whatever. Here’s my thing: you can send a monkey into space if you teach it to push the same buttons over and over again. Same thing with bartending - you can go to bartending school and learn to make whatever stupid drinks people are freaking out over today. Doesn’t mean you’re going to be a good bartender or, at the end of the day, even enjoy doing it.
Realistically it comes down to maybe 10-20% drink knowledge and the rest is just personality. It’s about knowing how to talk to people and interact. Now I’m not saying you should stand there and bullshit people, but you’re never going to know everything there is to know about making drinks. So why worry about it? Spend more time getting good at bringing people together and showing folks a good time, and the rest will come naturally.
Favorite drink made by someone else?
It’s hard getting out to go places but when I get the chance, it’s more about getting to see specific people than to drink a specific cocktail. I’ll stop by to see everyone at Banditos or head over and see Beau when he’s bartending. A lot of these are folks that I’ve watched over the years and who have taught my how to “hone my craft” in one way or another.
Favorite drink that you make?
We don’t do the standard thing here at our bar. I don’t make up names for drinks, I don’t do a set cocktail menu, and so on. It’s different here. We ask what people like, what they don’t like, and from there we work something out. It’s more interactive and forces you to keep flexing that creative muscle. The staff will test out drink ideas on each other beforehand. Our “Bar Experiment” nights have taken a weird turn a few times...
What is the weirdest concoction that you guys have whipped up during your “experiments”?
We’ve made some wicked drinks before, so it’s hard to choose. Sometimes we’ll just push each other to come up with the nastiest drink we can think of, but most of the time it’s all on accident. One experiment that we thought might end up tasting decent but ended up being vile was, and I’m sorry to say, a combo of Belle Isle Ruby Red Grapefruit and Belle Isle Cold Brew Coffee. Separately, they are amazing. Together, not so great… It’s my new favorite thing to offer people when they ask for a free shot because it’s their birthday.
What’s your favorite part about working at your bar?
It’s meeting new people, which is both the best and worst part of the job. You get to know people from all over the world and from different walks of life. We’ve had people walk in here that have heard from friends of friends or just searched for bars on the internet. It’s a lot of word of mouth and that brings in everybody from homeless people to CEOs and directors of whatever boards. I don’t care who you are or where you’re from or what you do, it’s all about just being here and having a good time. That motto works for me and has worked for the past 13 years now here at Wonderland.
What’s your take on today’s cocktail culture?
I like when people give me the freedom and trust me enough to make something up for them. I’d say 95% of the time, it works out. And the other 5% is just a learning opportunity. The whole “craft cocktail” movement is cool, but it’s a pain in the ass to me. As a casual drinker, I don’t need every drink to be a spectacle. Some of the extracurriculars that go into some of the drinks I see are hysterical. Lots of respect to those that do it and keep the craft movement going. We’re a “beer and a shot” bar though, so it’s just a different mentality.
With the rise in craft cocktail spots, are “beer and a shot” places like Wonderland harder to come by?
We’ve always stuck with our original idea for Wonderland, so that’s why we remain who we are. Back in the day, especially in Shockoe Bottom, places had their shtick and stuck to it. You could walk down the strip and go into the jazz club, then pop next door into the disco club, stop by the Irish pub, go to the punk bar, and so on. These places weren’t labeled that way, but over time built up a reputation and as a result, there was a greater diversity of the types of bars you could walk into on any given night. With the craft cocktail movement coming back, a lot of places think that they should hop on the trend and do that too. So you see places conforming to that style and they all start to look the same, so now places like Wonderland seem special.
Wonderland has a very specific atmosphere to it. How did all of this come together?
I had a very clear vision for the place from the start, but it was definitely a snowball effect. The horror vibe is great because it’s all stuff I love and it helps keep out the riff raff of people who would be tempted to come in here and act like an idiot. Less and less places are confident enough to stick to what they know, and I don’t blame them. But sticking to my guns has made Wonderland what it is. We still have changed over the years, even if it’s all still within the same vibe that we started with. Like recently I’ve put up a lot more clown stuff since that seems to be freaking people out more. Clowns are fun and creepy - what’s not to love?
Give us your golden rule when it comes to bar etiquette.
Have respect for yourself and the people you are interacting with. You don’t have to show them love and whatever else, but respect them. You never know what kind of day someone has had and chances are that if they are sitting at the bar, it was probably a shitty one. I just follow the age-old saying: Treat people the way you want to be treated.
Some lucky patrons of Wonderland get the pleasure of snapping a "bathroom selfie" with you every now and then. How did that start?
I don’t even remember how it started. It’s just a thing you do now. When bands come through or random people visiting come by, we make them do it. It’s pointless and stupid to crowd a bunch of people into a tiny bathroom just for a picture, but it’s funny and people love it. I think there’s like 300-400 up on the Instagram hashtag now.
Halloween isn't the only holiday around the corner. I know you're a part of a cool program in town called Punks for Presents. Tell us a little bit about that!
Punks for Presents started 13 years ago during the holiday season. A bunch of people get together and we make cover bands, write covers of songs and add holiday stuff to it, then put on a series of shows all around town. It’s all volunteer work and all of the money we get goes straight to buying presents for kids. Each year we work with a different charity, so this year all of the proceeds are going to buying presents for kids at the Children’s Hospital at MCV. We run the shows, get together at the end, and go shopping for the toys, then take the presents over to the kids. It’s a great cause and one of those things where you know for sure that all of the money or support you are putting into it will directly benefit the kids. None of us are walking out with a check or getting anything out of it.
What's your favorite way to sip Belle Isle?
I'm a big fan of Belle Isle Ruby Red Grapefruit - it’s the shit. It’s perfect any time of the year, it’s light and crisp and fresh. And I’m not just saying that because you’re sitting here interviewing me. We make a tasty citrus drink with Belle Isle Ruby Red Grapefruit and Belle Isle Honey Habanero.
Combine ingredients with ice, shake, and pour into a pint glass. Garnish with a lime wedge or a mint sprig.
- 1 oz. Belle Isle Honey Habanero
- 1 oz. Belle Isle Ruby Red Grapefruit
- 3/4 oz. sour mix
- ¼ oz. orange juice
- Splash of lime juice
- Dehydrated mint
Photos by Joey Wharton