Unlike many a Lake Tahoe bartender, Dennis Loo, 73, never aspired to be a ski bum. In fact, he never aspired to be a bartender at all, but 40 years after a temporary move to Tahoe City to help open Rosie’s Café, he’s still pouring drinks.
Loo’s father was a Chinese immigrant; his mother was a second-generation Chinese American who grew up in a farming community near his Central California hometown. (“There was one stoplight, two bars and 20 churches.”) He was encouraged to become an engineer like his uncle, but almost four years into an electrical engineering degree at San Jose State University, Loo switched to business administration. At 22, to help pay for his education, he took a job at The Old Spaghetti Factory, a chain with locations throughout North America. Although trained as a bartender by the Spaghetti Factory, Loo soon found himself in management and spent the next five years opening new outposts throughout California.
Loo’s move to Tahoe City, a predominantly working-class resort town on the lake’s North Shore, 32 miles from the glittery hotel casinos on the Nevada side of the South Shore, was only meant to last a few months. In early 1981, he was going through a divorce when he received a call from Susan “Rosie” Dunsford, owner of what was to become Rosie’s Café. She was the former chef and new owner of The Hearthstone, Tahoe City’s most notorious watering hole, which she planned to reinvent as a casual all-day eatery and bar. A mutual acquaintance had suggested she hire Loo as a consultant. At the time, Loo was preparing to move into his mother’s spare room with his 7-year-old son.
“Rosie told me what she had in mind, and I said sure; I saw it as a working vacation,” he says. “It’s 40 years later, and I’m still here.”
When Loo arrived in Tahoe City, Dunsford had already planned to decorate the 1930s post-and-beam building (sited on the town’s former stagecoach corral) with her considerable collection of antique ski gear. When Loo unearthed a penny-farthing bicycle from her garage—it had belonged to Dunsford’s uncle, who came to an untimely end while racing it against a train—he suggested she suspend it from the ceiling; this led to his procuring all manner of ephemera (taxidermy, vintage signs, more bikes, a chairlift seat) from estate and garage sales. Loo also found the café’s 17-foot redwood, mahogany and brass rail bar at an auction for the historic Tahoe Tavern Resort, which was built in 1904.
In 1989, Dunsford sold Rosie’s to local entrepreneur Karl Motsenbocker, who brought in his own staff. Loo, who by that time had a cultlike following of locals and tourists, was the only employee who remained. The unwashed masses came in large measure for his deadpan humor and lethal Sunday Bloody Marys (well-balanced heat and spice, celery stick, served short) which often necessitated a cab or hitchhike home.
On a recent Sunday morning, just days after Loo celebrated his 50th anniversary as a bartender, he paused between pours to scrawl his phone number on a bar napkin. Later, via phone call, he divulged his secret to surviving five decades behind the bar, why breakfast cocktails aren’t “real drinks” and what constitutes crime in Tahoe.
Hometown: Corcoran, California
Current: Tahoe City, California
Years in industry: 50
Years at current job: 40
Drinks served most often: Bloody Mary
Favorite drink: “I don’t drink anymore because I’m diabetic, but [it] used to be straight Jack Daniel’s.”
Before you started working in hospitality, you held some interesting jobs. What were you doing when The Old Spaghetti Factory lured you away?
I’d worked in a canning factory, as a dormitory cafeteria supervisor and a janitor. I was a quality control supervisor for Grape Kool-Aid at General Mills, doing the graveyard shift when The Old Spaghetti Factory asked if I wanted to be a bartender. I jumped.
What was that experience like?
It was a family-owned company, and it was wonderful; they were Greek, and very organized. I was trained by three very old-school bartenders, and it was three months before I could even touch a blender. I had to understand formats and substitutions first.
What’s the most valuable thing they taught you?
“Treat everyone like they’re your grandmother that you’re going to inherit a lot of money from.”
What was it about Rosie’s that led you to stay in Tahoe?
It was about great timing. I decided to stay because I had partial custody of my young son and I was able to work five days a week, eight hours a day and earn a living. When Karl took over, I told him I didn’t want to have the keys or be a manager. So now I’m the manager, with a set of keys. They sort of snuck it in on me.
Are you still pulling those same shifts?
I’m 73! I work three nine-hour days a week and I’m in bed by 7. That’s all I have the energy for. I quit skiing in 1985. People ask what I’m doing here (in Tahoe) if I don’t ski. I walk my dogs and read and listen to opera. I have my job. I could bartend anywhere, but in 40 years, I’ve been able to create my own environment, the type of bar I wanted.
What does retirement mean to you?
We were closed for two months in 2020 due to COVID. I had enough savings to be OK, so I worked on the house and gained 20 pounds and I thought, “You know, I can’t sit around and watch movies and documentaries all day for the rest of my life,” so I went back to work. My dad died at 99; I was complaining to him a few years ago about how much my back and knees hurt and asked him how he did it, being that much older. He said, “I just don’t complain about it.” My 8-year-old goddaughter just told me she wants to work at Rosie’s. Maybe for my golden anniversary here, she can work her first shift since she’ll be 18.
You have a rather enigmatic online presence, where you’re known as “Dr. Loo.” Care to explain?
Yeah, that’s what they sorta call me. When I started, Rosie and her boyfriend would come in on the weekends with bad hangovers, always when the bar was three-deep, and she’d shout, “Doctor! Doctor!” That was my cue to get her a Bloody Mary. So, everyone started doing that, hoping to get their drinks faster.
Speaking of Bloody Marys, you’re famous—or infamous—for yours, as well as your Ramos Fizz. Are they your recipes, or is it more about your habit of topping off drinks?
I’ve been doing those recipes for 50 years; I stole them from other people. My prior bartending experience was mostly working breakfast and jazz brunches. There was this pervasive line of thought amongst customers that it’s not really drinking if you’re not sneaking sips of whiskey from a flask, or if it’s a Ramos Fizz or a mimosa. It’s Champagne with some juice. It’s dignified, you know?
Does Tahoe City attract a certain type of customer?
Here, you have two types of couples in your bar. There are the ones who are talking quietly in a corner, and you know it’s their first overnight date, so you give great service but otherwise leave them alone. And then you have the couple who comes in because the wife is planning to ask for a divorce and doesn’t want a scene when she breaks the news, so she’s chosen a public place to do it.
That sounds like a carryover from when Reno was the divorce capital of the nation. Has Tahoe City gone through any major transformations since you moved there?
There have been two big changes, both in the 1990s. That’s when they got rid of diagonal street parking and put in sidewalks, so the snowplows could get through. And in 1994, they cut down the big Jefferson pine, which was just to the left of Rosie’s. It was in the middle of North Lake Tahoe Boulevard and every third drunk would hit it with their car. It was over a century old and at the end of its life, so they took it out because of the bark beetle outbreak. A lot of people were really unhappy about that decision.
One of the things I really liked about Tahoe when I moved here is the simplification of life. “Someone stole my bike!” “Someone took my skis!” That’s crime, here. Meanwhile, Oakland had 133 murders last year.
Are there drawbacks to living in a resort town?
Some people will complain there’s no work ethic. Look, people move here for the environment and quality of life. Tahoe City doesn’t have corporate fast food or Starbucks. But if it’s a powder day, stuff will be closed or open up late. That’s just how it is here.
At this point, you must have your original customers’ or staff’s kids at the bar. What’s that like?
Their kids and grandkids even come from the Bay Area to sit at the bar. Sometimes, they’ll say, “Remember Bill? I’m his granddaughter. He was a busboy here in ’83.” They’ll ask to see photos because I’ve been taking Polaroids and putting them on the wall for decades: They want to see how their mom looked in a cocktail outfit. Sometimes, I’ve got to shut my mouth because I know too many things about their parents, especially if they were here in the 1980s. I don’t want to share, “Oh, your mom had a nickname…”
The curse of a good memory. Aside from the physical, does it feel like it’s been 40 years?
You look in the mirror every day, and in your mind you haven’t changed. But then you see an old lady at the bar, and realize you used to date her.
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