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Best bartender

Becky Sauer, St. James Place Tavern
153 S. 18th St., South Side. 412-431-3222

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Fresh from a trip to Mexico, and minutes into her first bartending shift since returning, Becky Sauer breaks the seal of a tequila bottle she brought back with her. Then she reaches for some shot glasses for the regulars at St. James Place Tavern.

"Anybody want a shot?" asks Sauer, 31, of Brookline. "Straight from Mexico."

"She has a loyal following," says bar owner Brian Bricker, motioning toward Sauer as she pours a line of shots at the end of the bar. "She brings in a lot of business.

"She's fast, friendly and fun," adds Bricker, who accompanies Sauer behind the bar every Friday night. "Everyone loves her."

Sauer, voted Best Bartender by City Paper readers, doesn't twirl bottles of vodka, and she rarely mixes fruity cocktails. Instead, she sticks to the basics of any good neighborhood bar: knowing what her patrons want, and how to treat them right.

"I get a lime in everything I drink," says St. James Place regular Scott Randolph, 41, of Bon Air. "[Sauer] knows that."

During the week, Sauer works full time as an insurance agent. She puts in just one shift at the South Side bar: Friday nights from 9 p.m.-2 a.m. She's been working that shift since starting at St. James Place shortly after the bar opened about three years ago. Although she's serving drinks only one night a week, she's achieved celebrity status. Bricker estimates Sauer's dedicated following at 20-30 patrons. Many of those, Sauer says, are customers she brought with her when she left her former full-time bartending job blocks away, at the now-defunct Fish Tank.

"A lot of people come here just for her," says Randolph.

And Sauer is as familiar with her customer's orders as she is with their names.

"I make IC Lights and Jaeger Bombs all night," Sauer says. "I get to be creative when someone's in the mood for something other than beer."

In that case, Sauer says she likes making drinks like Sex on the Beach and Madras. But those concoctions are few and far between, especially at a bar that prides itself in offering tequila worm shots to daring customers. Of the 477 worms eaten, tallied on a digital counter behind the bar, Sauer says she's delivered about 50.

"A lot of people just want the worm," she says. "They want it to impress their friends -- or punish them."

Bartending can be "mentally and physically exhausting," Sauer says, especially when she is trying "to keep up with the college kids" who comprise a large portion of the bar's patrons. Still, she says, the job "gets me out of the house.

"The money doesn't hurt, either," she adds.

Drink specials are plentiful at St. James, all of which are clearly posted on the wall behind the bar. Most familiar to regulars is the daily "Mystery Beer," which is always two dollars and advertised as "We pick it, you drink it." Patrons who dare order it could be served anything from Lionshead to Augustiner -- and even, as Sauer says, "some really gross stuff."

Unlike most bartenders, though, Sauer's fame at St. James Place has transcended mere drinks. She even has a grilled-cheese sandwich on the menu named after her, called "Becky's Big Idea."

"It's a big hit," says Bricker.

As for winning Best Bartender, Sauer says she's "pretty embarrassed" about it. But she does covet the title for one simple reason: She's now able to shed the nickname "Number Three," which co-workers have used to mock her ever since she placed third in last year's readers' poll.

"It's been a running joke in the bar," Bricker says.

Jokes aside, Bricker and the regulars appreciate Sauer's work.

"She's so good, I had to come back," says Brad Orr, a former St. James Place regular who now lives in South Carolina. "She still knows exactly what I drink. I don't even have to ask."

On tap, in the can or in the bottle: Becky Sauer knows her pours. - PHOTO BY BRIAN KALDORF

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