News / Toronto

After 42 years, bartender Alina Budzinski is mixing her last martini

The Fairmont Royal York Hotel says it will shutter the tiny York Station bar once Budzinski is gone.

Bartender Alina Budzinski is retiring after 42 years at the Royal York hotel, 28 of them at the same tiny train themed bar.

(HANDOUT)

Bartender Alina Budzinski is retiring after 42 years at the Royal York hotel, 28 of them at the same tiny train themed bar.

Alina Budzinski drops a skewer of fat olives into a gin martini at the Fairmont Royal York Hotel for the umpteenth time.

“The Royal York special, 3-ounce ‘birdbath’ martini. It’s still my most popular drink.”

She’s been fixing cocktails, cracking beers and pouring wine at the hotel for more than 40 years — 28 of them at the tiny York Station bar, tucked inconspicuously in the Royal York’s second-floor mezzanine.

“This has been my home, literally,” she says.

Budzinski is just a couple of weeks away from retirement, set to serve her last drinks as a professional on June 30. She will leave behind a faithful following of regulars, some of whom drank her cocktails for decades.

“I’ve developed relationships with people,” she says. “I’ve served three generations in one family. It’s a compliment to me to have people bring their wives, introduce their kids, their girlfriends.”

The Royal York says it will shutter York Station once Budzinski is gone, and find new uses for the mezzanine as part of a renovation.

“I’m here for your fantastic seafood chowder,” says a woman who came straight from the train, suitcase in hand.

Five minutes after opening on a Friday at midday, the bar is already half-full. There’s the woman from the train, a man who greets Budzinski by name, and two separate couples, soon joined by another, on the leather banquette.

“Everyone in here is a regular,” Budzinski says.

“I have both lunchtime regulars and cocktail hour regulars, and some are here for both lunch and cocktail. They come back for a quick drink before they catch their commuter train home or go to the ballgame or the theatre.”

She is the lone bartender here and has been for a long time. She glides swiftly and expertly around the room, from bar to tables, filling up bowls of nuts and chips, arranging sandwiches on plates, checking in to chat with patrons she’s known for years.

One of them notices the model train and the miniature tracks that run around the room, close to ceiling height. He sheepishly admits to never having seen the little CP locomotive in action.

“The train hasn’t run since last year,” Budzinski tells him. “But I can blow the whistle for you.”

Off the shelf comes a wooden whistle and onto Budzinski’s head goes a denim train engineer’s cap.

“And the train would go around, and I would say ‘All aboard!’ and blow the whistle,” she says.

And, “Woop, wooo-wooop,” she blows on the whistle.

The room is captivated. These are Budzinski’s people.

Opened in 1972, York Station is a perfectly-preserved artifact of its era, all pale brown leather and dark brown wood, faintly lit by faux-gas lamps, and candles set on the bar top between bowls of chips.

Open only on weekdays, from noon to 7 p.m., the bar is long and narrow, meant to replicate the bar cars of old fashioned passenger trains.

Ken Taylor, the late diplomat who in 1980 helped six Americans hostages escape Iran, would come by with judges and Bay Street lawyers.

“In the days when you could smoke a cigar and drink wine in the afternoon if you wanted to,” Budzinski said with a laugh.

Chiefs of police have stopped in to compose their thoughts before delivering remarks upstairs in the hotel’s ballroom.

Budzinski has served celebrities both local and international though she won’t reveal their names, observing the time-honoured bartender’s pledge of confidentiality.

It’s the everyday visitors Budzinski will miss most though. The ones who come in to unload their problems or share their victories.

She still gets the 1970s-era businessmen and women, doing deals over three martini lunches.

Younger patrons come in now, too, inspired by mid-century glamour, or searching for an intimate spot to chat with friends.

“To see a person come back a second and a third time, that makes me extremely happy,” Budzinski said.

“I can win awards for being employee of the year, and have writeups from the newspapers, but it’s the guests, the-day-to-day talking and listening . . . the familiarity that I’ve really truly enjoyed.”

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