Portrait of a Career Bartender

If it’s after 5 o’clock, you’ll likely find Steve Bull chipping away at an ice sphere for one of his regulars, sleeves of his pressed shirt rolled up just above his elbows, exposed forearms showcasing a storybook of tattoos designed by his brother, an artist. The veteran bartender at downtown Raleigh’s 10th and Terrace—the rooftop bar located on the highest floor of the Residence Inn on South Salisbury Street—is left-handed, so it’s the left arm that he’s dedicated to his craft: There’s a sketch of a flaming Manhattan in a coupe glass with the word “cheers” in place of the stem; there’s a bullet to symbolize his favorite Bulleit Rye Whiskey and there’s a drawing of a single-prong ice pick, to name just a few. 

Bull, who relocated to Raleigh from Maryland a little over a decade ago, has tended bar at 10th and Terrace, overlooking some of Raleigh’s best-known landmarks, since it opened in 2017. Before that, stints at places like O-Malley’s Pub, the old Ziggy’s Bar and Restaurant in Wake Forest, the Renaissance Hotel in North Hills—even a two-year go at co-owning his own spot—fill up his resumé. But, in contrast to the wayward college student who found a place at the bar before moving on to find a career, Bull knew more than 20 years ago that, for him, the bar was a career. 

Following a job working as a lab tech at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Bull, seeking a change, found himself newly married and unemployed. “It was a restaurant called Maggie’s,” Bull recalls of his first bartending gig in Westminster, Maryland in 1997. “I walked in and told the owner I had no bartending experience. But he let me in and agreed to train me.”

Now, with years of experience under his belt, Bull fine-tunes his signature cocktail ice behind a marble bar top at 10th and Terrace. It’s a transparent, rectangular block that’s frozen in a five-quart Igloo ice chest every other day. Bull tempers the ice perfectly before he cuts away at it with ice picks, creating personalized shapes for his guests. To Bull, the guest is everything; from the businessman who knows exactly what he wants to the wedding party full of bridesmaids looking for something new. Bull’s best guest, he says, is one who can “take some time to talk” and engage with him over creative cocktails. 

Of course, over the years, Bull has landed in some challenging environments. But none have been extreme enough to have driven him out of the industry completely. “I believe you need to enjoy what you do as work,” Bull says. “If there comes a time when I start dreading going in to work, then I know it’s time to find another gig.” 

At 10th and Terrace, a couple visiting for the weekend quizzes Bull on his favorite dishes. In the service well, a block of ice, fresh from the Igloo, reflects colors from an array of bottles on the back bar, including his favorite Bulleit Rye Whiskey. At home, Bull’s wife, Amy, watches over the couple’s six children. It’s Bull’s birthday, and he’s working, but none of this bothers him. “Everything I’ve done the past 21 years is bartending,” Bull says. “So many people come up to me and say, ‘Hey Steve, what are you gonna do after this?’ And I just say, ‘This is it.’”

The author runs the Instagram account @bartendersofraleigh.