Peninsula/27 inches/dp1st/mark2nd

By LARRY KANTER

Senior Reporter

Standing behind the bar at the Peninsula Hotel, Nicole Balick grabs a slender bottle of Belvedere vodka and pours the clear liquid into a silver cocktail shaker full of ice. A quick splash of vermouth, and she hoists the container over her right shoulder, rattling it dramatically, like a maraca.

"Shake it, baby!" a somewhat sodden, gray-haired patron slurs. He laughs and looks up hopefully, before retreating back to his tumbler of vodka and melting ice.

If Balick hears the comment, she doesn't let on. A bartender for more than five years, she is well acquainted with the unholy cocktail of alcohol and testosterone. Besides, things could be worse. At least she's no longer earning her rent serving kamikazes to rowdy twentysomethings at Hollywood watering holes.

If this is what constitutes an unruly drunk, so be it. She places the martini on a cocktail tray, tosses an empty glass into the sink, and hurries on to the next customer.

"It's not a big deal," says Balick, a 26-year-old San Diego native with dark, shoulder-length hair, dark eyes and an engaging smile who has been pouring drinks at the Beverly Hills hotel bar for two years.

A voiceover actress by day (you've heard her if you've ever seen the promos on MTV or VH1), she's accustomed to the spotlight, and knows better than most how valuable a thick skin can be, especially in this town.

"People are people," Balick says. "And, obviously, we try and be personable."

The coddling of customers extends far beyond the bar. It's been a hallmark of the Peninsula since the hotel opened in 1991. This, after all, is a place where guests are greeted by doormen clad in white pajamas and matching skullcaps a not-so-subtle appeal to fantasies of colonial privilege.

The Club Bar strives for the ambience of an English gentleman's club. It's all polished wood and soft light, oil-painted landscapes in gilded frames on the walls, tables tucked into shadowed corners, and plush barstools crowded around a dark birch bar, where a premium martini will set you back more than 10 bucks.

As many as 450 customers will come through the bar on a typical Friday night, for total alcohol receipts of almost $7,000. Balick and her partner behind the bar, Daniel Evans, will pour some 900 drinks between them. Citing the long finger of the IRS, Balick refuses to disclose her nightly tips. But it's easy to do the math. If the average tip is 20 percent, she could take home more than $200 a night.

Seated atop one of the barstools is Paul Kornmehl, an Australian property developer who is wrapping up a two-week stay at the hotel. The slope of his shoulders suggests it's been a long afternoon.

Placing a fresh tray of olives, pistachios and tortilla chips before him, Balick notices that Kornmehl's glass is nearly empty. "Get you another?" she asks. Kornmehl reaches into his wallet and presents her with a card. It looks like a standard business card. But instead of name and job title, it has the recipe for "Paul's Cocktail" a vodka martini, straight up, with a single drop of red Cinzano ("not too much") instead of vermouth ("for the coloring").

"Every time I have to explain what I want, I have a bit of a problem," he says. Balick laughs and prepares the drink to his specifications.

Kornmehl drinks up and leaves, but his seat does not stay vacant for long. Friday evening is fast approaching, and the room is beginning to fill up. It's an after-work crowd, mostly male, mostly middle-aged men in business suits or golf sweaters, congregating in groups of twos or threes, looking for a quick drink or two before heading out to dinner or home for the night.

Many are regulars and Balick takes special care to recall each one's name as well as his drink of choice. Some bartenders at the Peninsula have been known to create elaborate charts and cheat sheets to keep such memories fresh. Such attention to detail can mean the difference between an average tip and a lavish one. But Balick insists she needs no such aids.

"People kind of look like what they drink," she says. "After a while, you can tell who's drinking Chardonnay and who is having Glenmorangie on the rocks."

Noticing that one of the regulars is down to his final ice cubes, she pours him a Johnny Walker Red on the rocks. The boyish-looking 53-year-old entertainment attorney with a thick head of brown hair and a tidy dark moustache said he comes to the Peninsula three nights a week.

"It's a classy joint and they treat you well," says the attorney (who like most of those interviewed did not want to be named). "And then there is the promise of women. Women come here to be met without apology."

He is quick to add that the Peninsula is no mere meat market. "This isn't where the Ben Affleck types come to meet the Gwyneth Paltrow types. This is a place for people in their 40s and 50s, who still have a romantic dream."

Based on tonight's ratio of men to women, his dreams likely will remain unrealized. But that's OK, he says the opportunity to flirt with Nicole, as well as the three female servers, helps cushion that blow.

"That's part of their role," he says. "I don't think they'll go out with me. I don't even know if I want them to go out with me. But there's a nice thing about getting to know the bartender even if you are having no luck at all, at least you can feel like you're talking to a beautiful woman."

Balick says she appreciates the attention. "We have some very nice guests," she says. "It's like a neighborhood bar that happens to be in a five-star hotel."

As the alcohol flows, the conversations grow louder, nearly drowning out the pianist in the corner, who is playing Nino Rota's theme to "The Godfather." A graying gentleman in an open-necked, gingham-checked dress shirt nurses a vodka-on-the-rocks at the bar, looking admiringly at Balick. (He also refuses to give his name or occupation, other than to say he is a native of Mexico involved in the textile business.)

"You see that beautiful one," he says, gesturing at Balick. "She is the one the woman of my dreams. She told me 'yes,' but she did not tell me 'when.' Isn't that true, Nicole?"

"Was that yes to going on a shopping spree?" Balick answers. "Or was that yes to you buying me a new car?"

"She is my advisor, my psychologist, my protector," the man says. "Sometimes, when I am out of place, she pulls me back in line."

"That's right," Balick says. "I take care of you."

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