10/17/2012 04:11:00 PM

Q&A: Barman Steve Livigni Talks Anti-Trends, Pop-Ups and New Projects

Dapper Livigni/Dylan James Ho
Some of LA's top bars and lounges have the Steve Livigni stamp on them. He concocted the drink programs for the Houston brothers' rum wonderland La Descarga, Hollywood's Harvard & Stone and the French-focused Pour Vous. With Pablo Moix, he consults at Blue Cow Kitchen (where he made barrel-aged cocktails a thing), Plan Check and fancy Melisse in Santa Monica. And the two are also managing partners at Black Market in Studio City, which pairs simple, affordable cocktails with food from Top Chef-fer Antonio Lafaso, a concept they're looking to replicate on the Westside. That's a lot of cocktails shaking all at once.

Livigni doesn't exactly despise the word mixology: it's what he does. He no longer works behind a bar per se, but instead comes up with drinks and menus that fit a concept and space. Whether he's at one of his own places or out and about, he's a huge supporter of the craft cocktail movement here in LA and beyond, and even created the R&D Bar at Harvard & Stone where local and visiting bartenders pop-up nightly with new drink menus. Here's his take on the LA scene and more. Make sure to let us know your thoughts in the comments or on Google+ and Twitter using #drinksweek.

We've had some clever and often hilariously named drinks in the R&D Bar. Why the name?
It stands for research and development.

So it's really like a lab of sorts. How’d you come up with the idea for it? Why?
When we were building out Harvard & Stone, there was this room in the back of the bar but it was only big enough for a bar with one person running it, and we had to think of a way to use it differently than the front bar. We obviously couldn't have all the spirits, sinks, all the things you need in there, and we realized we had to do an abbreviated menu. We also had all of these super creative bartenders on staff who were always coming up with new ideas. So we figured, instead of offering less of what was available in the front bar, we wanted to offer something different. Not only for our customers, but also for our existing bartenders to work out their ideas and have fun with it, to come up with conceptual cocktails.

How often does the menu change?
Every night it’s different. Unless someone calls in sick or an emergency. Over the course of the week there may be two guest bartenders, but the other five nights will be someone from our staff doing five or four new drinks.

How do you select bartenders?
It varies. Sometimes it's huge people coming in for guest bartending and sometimes it's our staff. Like last Monday, we had Simon Ford and Dushan Zaric come in, who are some of the biggest names in the cocktail world right now. Some of our bartenders have done like 70 or 80 menus back there. The idea is that they try to not repeat a cocktail, and some have made 300 or 400 new cocktails in the time they've worked with us. There aren't a lot of bars where you can work for a year and a half and say that. It’s a good idea to keep working with new products and staying fresh and new as bartenders.

Do they come up with the drinks, spirits, names? Some of the cocktail names are hilarious.
There are theme nights, like Arrested Development night. We had a western night. Some combine chefs and menus, where the drinks were really food-driven. [Ed. note: Chef Luke Reyes from Corner Door has had a Monday night residency.] One night there was sushi with cocktails made with sake and Japanese whiskey. Sometimes it’s really serious when it’s all about the drinks. Other times the drinks play second to the fun or the concept for that night. We have some witty, clever bartenders. I'd say eight out of 10 times, the drink name or the pun is developed first, and they build the drink around it. Pablo did a night where it was just Jell-O shots. I mean, they were molecular thinking, but they were different types of really interesting cocktails in Jell-O shot form. Or syringes. It was like a college party with molecular cocktails.

Do you still bartend yourself?
I almost never pull shifts as a bartender anymore. Pablo and I, we put a lot of time in beforehand with the menus, really flush them out, and really train people on them, so we really shouldn’t have to. I started working in restaurants in high school and bartending when I turned 21. The more operationally I got involved, which is now my primary job, it’s less time behind the bar. And it’s hard bartending four or five nights a week. I don’t think I'd last eight hours behind the bar now. I’d probably have to physically train for a week just to run the bar for night.

Any new trends you’re seeing or would like to?
I think there’s an anti-trend happening right now, and it’s a good thing. Everything goes through these cycles. Everyone took themselves really seriously with the mixology stuff a few years ago. You know, it was era-specific stuff, or it was saloony or western. Very costumey. It went away after a couple of years. I think the cool trend is that bartenders are getting passed the nerdiness of the whole thing, and just being like, hey, whatever the customer wants, they should get, and if we can help them along the way, then that is our job as bartenders and operators. It’s not about lecturing people like it was three years ago. It’s going back to just being great bartenders and hosts, but also having this knowledge base that people have been growing for the last few years.

Outside of your own spots, where are you drinking these days?
I like going to cocktail bars and stuff, and Pour Vous has a special place in my heart. But I like going to Three of Clubs and Thirsty Crow. I like shitty places as much as cocktail bars. The Frolic Room is great. I just went to the Liquid Kitty for the first time and that was awesome. One bartender, 150 people in the palce, basically soft-core porn on a projector in the back. And there are tons fo great restaurants making great drinks. Tasting Kitchen is one of my favorite, The Parish downtown is making great cocktails. The new bar at Café Stella. And Sassafras is pretty cool.

If you're somewhere without good cocktails, what do you drink?
It’s usually just whiskey or tequila, just straight. I know how my night will go with that.

Everyone’s ready to retire the word “mixologist.” What can we replace it with?
We’re messing around with ideas for this new bar, and we’re trying to come up with words. We thought maybe cocksmen might have a second meaning, but no, it really just turns out to be a gigolo. I don’t know. Dave Fernie, who runs the bar at Pour Vous, calls himself an "intoxicologist." I think he even has it on his cards.

Oh, and about that new bar...
We are 99% sure we have a space on the Westside for something similar to Black Market. It's a medium-size space in Venice - can't tell you exactly where yet - but it will either be a Black Market or similar. Antonia will be there, and we'll have really nice approachable, affordable cocktails.


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