If you’ve been to Remedy, the refined comfort food spot on Lower Greenville, you must have sipped one of barman Máté Hartai’s delicately balanced cocktails. The drink program here centers on the idea of the American soda fountain, and Hartai adds plenty of booze, enthusiasm and sophistication to that classic formula. The result is one of Dallas’ most progressive (and delicious) cocktail programs, planned by Hartai and his crew of obsessively trained bartenders down to the last intricate detail.
Sophisticated cocktails aren’t the most logical pairing for a fried bologna sandwich or a killer ice cream sundae, but Hartai makes it work in ways that are unexpected and downright impressive. We sat down to talk with him about how he landed behind the bar, why the guest comes before the drink and his undying quest to create an incredible experience for everyone who bellies up to his bars.
What was your first bar job?
My first official bar job was at The Bavarian Grill in Plano. It’s sort of where I got really focused on beer, and was a very DIY place. That’s a nice way to put it. It’s a very owner-operated, vehemently non-corporate environment that set the tone for the rest of my career. The service industry goes way beyond that for me. I’ve always been in the kitchen. I’ve already had a culinary mind. The roots always start way before your job.
If you’ve got a culinary mind, why not go into the kitchen instead of behind the bar?
I think when you turn something like that into a profession, it changes. You sacrifice certain things, the innocence and the fun. I have a design and interactive media degree. I fell into the service industry and I couldn’t not apply the skills that I already had. For me, this is the perfect match of service and culinary. We do a lot of the same things that a kitchen does, but we’re trying to put on a great experience. The guest comes before the drink. We’re basically throwing a party every day.
I don’t think a lot of people have this perception of bartenders, that they’re so service oriented. How do you balance that, making your guests happy and pushing forward a really progressive cocktail menu?
You have to be able to listen and know what you’re doing and who you’re doing it for. You have to balance pleasing someone on a level that they expect and challenging [them] at the same time. It’s not about turning the world on its head every time. If you can change the way that a neighborhood drinks, then you’re making a difference as opposed to just throwing things at them that might just confuse them.
Approaching the experience from every angle has always been important to me, going back to when I worked at The Libertine. The level of anticipation that you can build in people and being able to set a mood that sets people at ease is really nice. To an extent, you have to look at the people who inspire you. For me, that’s David Bowie.
That’s ... an interesting inspiration.
If you look at David Bowie, he changed the world because he realized that everything was changing around him. Ziggy Stardust exists because he was coming up in the Beatnik movement and everyone was trying to be very authentic, and he realized that the revolution was coming and that he was going to be absolutely fake to the point that it was absolutely entertaining. We’re trying to push ourselves away from a momentum of consumption into a place where the experience is more important than the desired substance you’re playing with.
The cocktail menu is centered on these house-made elements that you’ve built. There’s classic cocktail influence, sure, but how did you approach building this program from the ground up around your ingredients?
At HG and Remedy, evolution is our focus. We introduced the first menu as a foundation. It wasn’t anything too out there, but our next iteration is going to be crazy and amazing. We now have a really great staff at both concepts, real powerhouses at Remedy, and empowering them to take control of their work and ownership of their space is really important to me. We had to set the ship first, but in the next month or so, look for awesome things from us.
We’re going to build on the aspect of the American soda fountain and how that interacts with current beverage culture. When we consider all of that, it means that we’re going to be doing a lot with texture. Presenting classic drinks with a totally different texture. We’re going to David Bowie it up and break rules that are normally observed, but they’re going to be very purposefully broken rules. We want to use basic cocktails as a backbone, but sort of change their attitude. We understand the rules, and now we’re going to break them.
How do you blend these really sophisticated cocktails with, say, the fried bologna sandwich on the menu?
Oh, it totally works. These are drinks that you don’t have to know the history or the backstory. These drinks are just tools in a toolbox, and it has nothing to do with the tools, it has everything to do with the job. Our job is to relate to you, and not to tell you what you’re going to have or dictate your evening. We want to interact with you as a human being, and if I can get that bridge of empathy connected, I have the tools to do all the rest.
That seems to be a very fundamental change in cocktail culture, especially here. High-volume places didn’t always focus so sharply on hospitality.
Honestly, in order to make an impact on people, you have to enrich them. You have to entertain them. There’s so much that you can bring to somebody with an interpersonal relationship that you can’t with just an alcoholic relationship. We want repeat business, and I can’t change your mind unless I can get you to come in here twice. If I want to do that crazy David Bowie stuff, I can’t have you just come in once.
The biggest shift is that these industries are coming into their own, and they’re finding their own pace again. There have been some dark ages where we haven’t allowed ourselves to build on a foundation the way that you do in other careers. If you look at bars only, there is no track. No internally incentivized reason for people to get better.
Doctors and lawyers have very specific protocol for how they learn, how they apprentice and how they practice. That does not exist behind the bar. The better you are behind the bar, the more you’re pulled away from it. You become the bar manager, then the manager, and each one of those steps pulls you away from what you originally loved to do. That connection slips away from you every time you move forward, unfortunately.
Do you think people would like your drinks less if you were less likable? Would they like your drinks more if you were more likable?
Absolutely. The hand that I deliver with is most important. If my hand is dirty, you’ll never trust the cleanliness of the bar or my skills. A vast majority of how people perceive and experience a restaurant is not about the drink — it’s 10 percent maybe. The music, the lights, the first couple words I say to you are extremely important. How many times have you asked someone how they’re doing? It’s the least useful question because people very rarely ask that question. It’s useless information.
To get to the heart of what that question is supposed to be, which is caring and openness, is more important. I can make your day with a glass of water whereas other bartenders cannot with a perfect Manhattan.
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Yeah, but terrible drinks still exist in beautiful environments, right? You still have to make great drinks, people aren’t just going to like bad cocktails because you’re a nice guy.
It’s all about context. It’s about focusing on the whole picture. I have to understand where I can make concessions and where I can’t. When it comes to the quality, it’s about me being able to motivate my bartenders to go home and train. You play like you practice — it’s true in sports, and it’s true here. If I can get my staff to learn more, give them things to work on in their downtime and engage them in the most minute parts of their job, that attention to detail rolls forward.
It’s the silliest thing you might have heard, but one of the things that you have to teach people is to label and date everything because of health code. But you don’t just label and date it, you straighten up the edges of the tape when it tears dirty. That attention to detail, being able to control something so small, matters. When I line up those bottles in front of you, and I line up other bottles with scratchy writing and torn edges, you’ve already made a decision about how I’m prepared.
The brain starts taking in information without even thinking about it, and it affects you. If you can own the smallest part of your work environment, then you’ll never put anything bad out there. If I can train that level of professionalism into a plastic squeeze bottle, you’re never going to put a bad drink across the bar.