Welcome to Girl Walks into a Bar, a weekly Gut Check feature that spotlights local bars and bartenders. This week Alissa Nelson profiles Lola bartender and co-owner Matt McMullin.
"What if a drink was invented wrong?" muses Matt McMullin. "What if someone invented an interesting drink, but not a timeless cocktail?" Lola's co-owner and manager has an eye toward a blend of the classic and the innovative, as evidenced by the extensive cocktail menu in the new downtown restaurant.
And yet his first drink invention was a mistake, a misunderstanding that led to him mixing a Kir Royale -- normally Chambord and Champagne -- as what he has dubbed the Fashion Square: Chambord and Crown Royal.
After graduating from the University of Colorado with a degree in English and medieval literature -- a "pre-restaurant degree," as he calls it -- McMullin got a job busing tables at a French restaurant in Denver. As he moved up through the ranks, he acquired a few bartending basics (and cultivated a taste for fine French wines).
He moved here in 1995, drawn by what he calls St. Louis' "healthy inferiority complex," and landed a job at Dierdorf & Hart's. There he encountered his first muddler, the old-school bartenders' tool used to mash up mint for juleps and mojitos. With the muddler came an infatuation with the wide and captivating world of classic cocktails.
In 1996 McMullin partnered with downtown/Lafayette Square pioneer *LINK Blake Brokaw to open Tangerine, where he managed the bar for eight years. "I got to be a major player in the modern martini movement in St. Louis," he says. "We were one of the first places serving cosmopolitans and infusing our own flavored vodkas."
After that restaurant's demise, which McMullin attributes to the closure of Washington Avenue for its dramatic makeover in 2004, he bounced around the St. Louis restaurant scene, spending a couple of years at Momos, some time at the late Zoe's Pan Asian in the Central West End and about a year at the Mattingly Brewing Company on South Jefferson.
Then earlier this year he found a new home in Lola, where he continues to explore the world of cocktail culture with a historian's eye.
In three words, how would you describe your bartending style? Unpretentious. Creative. Anthropologic.
Favorite drink to drink? Really expensive wine.
Favorite drink to make? Our Printer's Loft -- a drink that is technically a highball.
Drink you hate making? Anything-and-Red Bull. I think that's exactly what's wrong with drinking culture today. I mean, when you're drinking a drink for a purpose instead of a reason.
What makes you ignore a customer? I'm not allowed to ignore a customer at the bar. We do not condone that behavior here. But I have had occasion to give a customer a comeuppance.
Can you spot trouble when it walks through the door? I can here, because we have the shelter [New Life Evangelistic Center] across the street. You have to keep an eye on the shoes and the belts. Bless them for the work that they do, but it does make things challenging.
Best/worst song on the jukebox? We don't have a jukebox, so it's not really applicable. As a DJ myself, I tend to fill in on the evenings when business slows down and the music stops. I tend towards old-school rock & roll, like Ike Turner. And I like the Celtic rock of the day, like Flogging Molly and the Dropkick Murphys.
Worst/best thing you've ever seen happen in your bar? The best one happened in this bar; the worst did not -- I haven't had a worst here yet. The best: We have a band that plays here called Mo Eggleston and the Urban Groove Project -- they're a live house band with keyboards, horns, drums -- and one of the guys in the band is Lamar Harris. He plays trombone and keyboards. They're just all jamming around, and Lamar's up there and he's playing keyboards and trombone at the same time, and the crowd is going crazy, and it just hit me, like, "Whoa, this is just awesome!" Worst thing: We had a bum sneak through the back door at Tangerine and just blow up in the restroom. It was just shit floor to ceiling, like the guy had exploded.
How do you keep yourself occupied on a slow night? We like to watch vintage movies on our TV.
Who would you most like to have a drink with? Dead, definitely Karl Marx. I'm a socialist personally, and I think his take on religion -- that religion is the opiate of the masses -- is really interesting. I always thought the two were really compatible. Because if you look the teachings of Christ, he's such a socialist. He's all about the redistribution of wealth, and I find it really interesting that the proponent of socialism doesn't really like religion, and religion doesn't like socialism, but if you look at the actual teachings of Jesus, it's all about socialism. Living, that would be Elvis Presley.
Where are you most likely to be found when you're not in this bar? Either at Shady Jack's, one of the best biker bars I've been to in any state, or jogging on the Riverfront Trail. My two hobbies are marathons and motorcycles.
Best hangover cure? Huevos rancheros. If you can keep that down, you'll be fine.
Worst pickup line you've ever heard? Anything that winds up being consummated in a bathroom.
Most unusual liquor you've ever seen? We had one over at [defunct downtown bar] Lo. It was snake sake. It was a sake with an entire pickled viper inside the bottle. You'd do shots of it and the scales would come off in your shot.
If you could start a band, what kind of band would you start? I think it would be fun to have a techno Celtic band, with lots of bagpipes instead of synthesizers. I think it's an area that's unexplored.
Best/worst drinking holiday? St. Pat's, for both. I think it's a fun celebration, but everybody takes it so far for the wrong reasons.
Biggest tab you've ever seen? Like, $5,000, for a party.
Drunk food of choice? Del Taco.
Three adjectives that describe your bar: Diverse. Historic. Local. And I have to throw in "unpretentious" as a runner-up.
My bar is the only bar in St. Louis where _______. You can get a drink and listen to a full band at brunch. But as far as the rest of the bar goes, it's been indefinable so far.
Lola 500 North 14th Street 314-621-7277