Sitting on the patio at Mudsmith in Dallas, Máté Hartai is in his element. The former Libertine bartender and HG Sply Co/Remedy beverage director knows everyone on the Lowest Greenville strip, sharing hellos and high-fives with passing baristas and bartenders. After nearly a decade on the block — plus more recent stints at Black Swan Saloon and Shoal's Sound & Service in Deep Ellum — he's moving to Austin for a brand advocate position with Ford's Gin.
It means Dallas loses one of the city's best barkeeps, though Hartai is quick to point out that he's just moving south a few hours, not dying. Here's an abridged version of our discussion about the state of drinking in Dallas and how it has evolved in 10 years.
You used to work at the Libertine. How'd a beer bar start churning out some of the best cocktails in town?
Hartai: When I first started, I didn't know anything about cocktails, and neither did anyone else. In the beginning, we were making lychee martinis. When I left, we had a menu named for The Smiths songs, where guests didn't [know] the ingredients [in a drink] until after they ordered. That's not a small jump.
How has the drinks scene changed since you started?
About 10 years ago, chains started failing. Remember when Bennigan's closed? That was crazy. But suddenly mom and pop operations started to proliferate.
So where do things stand now?
A few years ago, you began to see a formula: These restaurant groups and mini empires started to figure it out and repeat it. They'd dissect it, replicate it, and throw it on a rooftop, and suddenly you've got a place called Asian Fusion Selfie Station Rooftop serving cocktails.
Look at the top earners, and then look a few places below them, and you'll find who they copied.
Lots of people look at that and say they have bastardized the culture. But no, they refined it.
What's the savvy bartender's role in all this?
One of the biggest mistakes [bartenders] make is educating themselves just so they can educate the public. You're not there to preach. You're there to relate.
If someone orders a Miller Lite or a vodka-soda, I give it to them happily. I'm not going to be condescending and push a craft beer on them, or they might go have five Miller Lites down the street.
So I give them exactly what they want. ... If I'm able to create a memorable experience with someone now, [which] creates trust and comfort, I'll be able to push something else on them later.
Is the cocktail scene in Dallas oversaturated?
No, it's highly undersaturated. If you do the math, cocktail bars are still a massive minority — they are just over-concentrated in certain areas. Good luck finding a cocktail bar in Allen or Mesquite.
How does the drinks scene here compare to major players like NYC and San Francisco?
I think we're definitely behind because we don't have as competitive of a talent pool. The city doesn't have the things that draw the best of the best, so we don't have the same size talent base as cities like New York or Chicago or San Francisco. It's more challenging to work in those cities, but that competition benefits everyone — the bartenders and the patrons.
What are you seeing on menus that should just die off already?
The only things that bug me on menus are bad punctuation and obscurity for the sake of obscurity.
But I can't hate on the fact that everyone serves a Moscow mule, because it's a gateway cocktail. It should be there. It should be everywhere.
What will you miss most about Dallas?
Composition with Large Blue Plane.
It's my favorite piece of art. It's by Piet Mondrian at the DMA. It's changed the way I look at art, and the way I garnish cocktails.