This time of year, there is nothing better than diving face first into a stiff cocktail. The heat makes us cranky and tired, and generally the only salve for that is something made with vodka or gin. If the cocktail is truly refreshing, it will likely include a lot of fresh fruit juices or seasonally appropriate herbs, especially if it is mixed by The Mansion’s Lauren Festa.
Throughout her career in Dallas, Festa has worked at some of the city’s best bars. She worked alongside Matt McCallister to create a cocktail menu that could pair with the city’s most innovative and interesting food. Now, she’s moved on to The Mansion, one of the city’s most venerable hotels and drinking establishments. We sat down to talk with Festa about navigating her way up the ladder in Dallas’ bar scene, working with seasonal ingredients and how she helps maintain The Mansion’s dedicated crowd of neighborhood regulars.
How did you get started behind the bar?
I started bartending in college. I went to Baylor, and it was interesting, for sure. Fine dining in Waco is a different story, but after two college degrees, I still choose to do this. I love every moment of it.
What was your first job in Dallas?
I worked first at Houston’s. I’ve always gone straight into the bar, and I worked at Houston’s for several years. I moved from there to be a corporate GM, and then went to FT33 to run the bar program. Now, I’m running the bar program here.
Can you talk about your experience at FT33? How did it shape your cocktail philosophy?
It was a great experience ... I learned so much while I was working there and it was a huge stepping stone for my career.
Do you feel like you were able to really hone in on what you wanted to do as a mixologist when you were at FT33?
Getting to use so many different kinds of seasonal products was really great. To work side-by-side with Matt was great, and he always provided me with everything that I needed. We foraged for elderflower together and made a gin-based cocktail with that and put it on the menu.
When you’re writing a menu or coming up with new cocktails, what do you focus most on?
When I make drinks, I want to make something that people are going to like. It’s not about what I want to make or what I want to drink, but what the guest wants. That’s always my top priority.
What do you think your guests want? What do people come to The Mansion for?
To be completely honest, I don’t think that most people know what they want. People come in and say they want this or that, and that’s what we’re here for. We’re here to figure out how to translate that into a cocktail.
How do you figure out what someone wants to drink? Do you guide or coach them along the way?
I’m very big on seasonal ingredients, and I think that’s how you give the best quality to your guest. We take the ingredients that are in season right now, and go from there. Right now, we’ve just changed over to our summer menu, and there are tons of cherries. We have a peach cocktail, a watermelon cocktail. Those are the things that really enable us to give a guest a great experience.
What does seasonal mean to you?
Asparagus should not always be on a menu. You can always go technical and use your Food Lover’s Bible, but anything I can grow or produce myself in that time of year is what should be on the menu. I’m a huge gardener, so if I could grow it, that’s what I want to be working with.
What do you think you serve the most of?
It’s a little bit of everything. In a hotel, you get a world of different dynamics.
How is working in a hotel different than working in a regular restaurant bar?
It’s really not that much different, it’s just a little more broad. You get people who are not from Dallas, obviously, so you get people who want different trends. Different liquors are popular in different cities, so people ask for a specific bourbon or vodka that you might not be used to. We try to keep the selection here pretty broad so that we can accommodate.
Many bartenders seem to think Dallas drinkers care more about how much they can drink as opposed to how good it is. Is that true at a place like The Mansion, too?
I don’t think so. I think Dallas has a really great clientele for anything from a vodka soda to a craft cocktail. The dynamic here is pretty broad. We’re doing more craft cocktails now. People like Michael Martensen and Eddie Campbell have really inspired the industry. They’ve established a precedent that it is possible for bartenders to make good cocktails in Dallas, and they’ve shown consumers that they can get a really great product here. I don’t think that the craft cocktail movement has been as well-facilitated in some other cities, but the great people in the industry here have made it happen.
If someone orders a vodka-cranberry, do you try to push them to something more sophisticated and nuanced?
My response is always offering another similar cocktail on the menu, but if you really want a vodka cranberry, it’s my pleasure. If that’s what you want to drink, that’s what I want to serve you.
Everyone seems to rave about the tonic at The Mansion. It was here when you got here, but are you involved in the making of that at all?
That came before me, so that has been at The Mansion for about four years now. My co-worker Danny has been involved in that process from the beginning. We make our own everything. We make our own lime cordial and pickle the seasonal vegetables for the martinis.
The gin & tonic here is so established. Do you ever want to play with that cocktail?
No. I think it’s great, and I think it’s a Mansion staple. Not toying with the classics is important. People like consistency.
The permanent cocktail menu here is pretty simple — martini, margarita — what do you do to liven that up?
With the volume that we do, you have to have a menu that is stable and consistent. Come Friday and Saturday night, it is very lively in here. We have to have some things that are easily executed. The idea is that we have complicated cocktails on the other side of the menu, but we do a lot of the prep work to make the process go more quickly. At FT33, I was doing 15-, 16-ingredient cocktails, and I’m doing the same thing here. We just consolidate the process for execution purposes.
What are your favorite elements and flavors to work with?
Anything herbaceous. I’m really big on herbs in cocktails, and I love fruit. Everything seasonal. I’m a gin person, I think it’s dynamic and diverse.
Are there ever times when the bar is pretty empty that you have more time to experiment with cocktails and ingredients?
I think the bar is always pretty busy, actually. We have a great crowd of regulars and locals, they make up a lot of our business. It’s not just hotel guests. We have frequent guests from the neighborhoods that really enjoy the environment here, and that brings in a lot of great business.
How is your working relationship with chef Bruno Davaillon?
We have a great relationship. It was an interesting transition from FT33, where I was working side-by-side with Matt [McCallister] every single day. Bruno has been very embracing and very supportive of any ingredients that I want to bring in or work with.
How do you cultivate a good crowd of locals at a hotel bar?
Danny and I build relationships with people, and that brings people back. I go to bars myself where I can connect with the bartender and feel comfortable eating dinner by myself. That’s what we want to recreate here. It’s very cozy here. You can chat with your bartender, have a good drink, eat some great food.