In the past decade, Matt Wallace’s life has changed dramatically. He moved from a backwater south Jersey town called Tuckahoe to Los Angeles and ended up working at Seven Grand. He started as a barback, rose through the ranks to become head bartender and currently manages one of L.A.’s most popular bars – Harvard & Stone – a place in Thai Town with a perpetual party up front that simultaneously satisfies cocktail geeks in back. On November 4, I met the native of Mason City, Iowa, before the bar opened, and Wallace illuminated his background and approach.
What brought you to Los Angeles?
I literally had nothing better to do. Somebody offered me a plane ticket. I was living in south Jersey at the time, and I don’t know if you’ve ever been there, but it’s kind of a shithole.
I’m from New Jersey, from northern New Jersey.
Yeah, well, you got lucky then.
What was your very first bar job?
My first bar job was actually when I was 16, 17, back in high school. I delivered pizzas, washed dishes and changed kegs for a local bar and grill.
What was it called?
It was called The Other Place, I think. It’s been awhile since I’ve been back there.
Do you still have family in Iowa?
Yeah, they’re in Des Moines now. Moved out to the big city.
What was your first bar job in Los Angeles?
It was at Seven Grand.
How did that opportunity come about?
I guess I hung out there enough and kept bothering them enough that they finally decided, okay, let’s put this kid behind the bar and see what he can do. I started as a barback and didn’t know my head from my ass. It was amazing.
Would you say that you had any mentors there?
Oh yeah, definitely. John Coltharp was a huge influence on keeping cocktails simple, keeping standards high and being knowledgeable about your product.
What was your very first night like behind the bar?
I remember the first night it was busy. I would do barbacking shifts on Sundays and have to take over bartending duties a little bit, so that was comfortable enough, but you’re in the service well, you’re a bartender now, you’re in the big leagues. I remember just getting fucking crushed, because we had two cocktail waitresses, and I had about a good 10 feet of real estate in front of me. The one thing I remember is my general manager – David Fleischer – coming up to me, pulling me aside and saying, “Look dude, you’ve got to calm down. You’re the life of the party. You’ve got to be the life of the party, and if you’re freaking out and look stressed and look like you’re about to punch somebody, nobody’s going to have a good time. Just relax, we’re just making drinks, now go out there and have fun.”
Were you able to from that point on?
Yeah. I always remembered that advice. Whenever you’re in the shit, it’s always a matter of stepping back. People can wait five minutes as long as they’re having a good time. People can wait 10 minutes, as long as they’re entertained, having a good time and know that you’re paying attention to them.
Was there a moment where you knew you’d work in bars for a living?
I don’t know if I could pinpoint it, but some of those nights at Seven Grand, the way everybody treats each other at the end of the shift, the way everybody supports each other during the shift, it’s that stuff. I grew up working with my hands. I worked in factories, I’ve done kitchens and delivery stuff, whatever, a bunch of weird fucking jobs – the ones that I’ve always liked are the ones where I’m active and dealing at least in some small measure with people.
How did the opportunity at Harvard & Stone come about?
[Steve] Livigni just came up to me one day and said, “Hey, we’re starting up a new project and I want you on board. Come check out the place.”
So he had you in mind for manager from the beginning?
I think so, yeah. I don’t know if that was necessarily his intention. I said, “I’m not going to leave my head bartender gig at Seven Grand to bartend at a new place. I’m not going to jump on that right away, but if you can offer me the same thing I do now, with a little more control over the cocktail program, then hell yeah, I’m on it.”
So what are the biggest challenges about managing a bar and not just working as a bartender?
Well the bar manager/head bartender position’s one of the weirdest positions on the hierarchy, in my opinion. It’s a weird position of authority, but not really. It’s fun to be there and keep those standards up and keep morale up. I’m the cheerleader for the bar.
What do you look for in bartenders?
Our General Manager does the hiring and firing and all that sort of stuff. I obviously weigh in on it. I don’t look for a speed demon. I don’t look for a cocktail geek. I look for someone who’s going to come in, have fun doing the work and still do the work. I want someone with a good attitude who’s going to have a good time, so this doesn’t feel like work. It’s not a thing where you get up, like, “Fuck, I’ve got to drag my ass over there again.” It’s where it becomes, “Hey, I’m hanging out with my friends.” It’s hard work and it’s a pain in the ass, but we have fun doing it.
What do you think makes Harvard & Stone unique compared to other bars in town?