Matt Amann arrived in Boston three weeks ago and has since been behind the bar at Citizen Public House a couple nights a week. Matt has stops at Grant Achatz's The Aviary and Graham Elliot's Bistro on his resume and has lived around Chicago for most of his life. He sat with Eater Boston to talk about the differences in cocktail and restaurant culture between the two cities, what surprised him about coming to Boston, and what he misses from his hometown.
So tell us about how you ended up here in Boston.
When I first moved to [Chicago] after college, I decided I wanted to keep working at restaurants instead of getting a day job because it was fun and I was getting good money, so I just took the first job that came my way. I was living in the city and I started trying cocktails from places like The Violet Hour and The Drawing Room and started to immerse myself in the culture there.
I applied to work for Grant [Achatz] at Alinea. It was probably almost a week later, and I got a call about working for The Aviary, because it was right about the time they were supposed to open that. I was there from the very, very beginning. The first few days, we had to meet at Alinea because all the licensing wasn't done. I started out at the bottom of the totem pole as a food runner, and I was just so interested in cocktails and the history behind it. I eventually moved my way up to where I was a captain on the floor, and I was also the expediter in the kitchen.
I just got to the point where I really wanted to be behind a bar and create my own drink. Put things on the menu that represented who I am and what I think about cocktails. When I got the opportunity to get behind the bar at Graham Elliot Bistro, I jumped and I worked there until I left the city. Eventually, I took care of the liquor and beer programs. It was a fun job. I was on Randolph Street, which is Chicago's restaurant row. There are upwards of thirty restaurants in a six-block stretch. It was the kind of place where you would go out and put your name in three different places, and whoever texted first, that's where you would have dinner.
And then a lot of things started changing in Chicago, and I felt like it was time for a change. I had been living in the city for almost three and a half years, and I grew up in suburban Chicago, so I had been seeing the Sears Tower and Lake Michigan for as long as I've been alive. I needed to do something different, be part of a different culture, and I had a few contacts out here. So I helped a friend move and did the tourist thing, but also went to Trina's brunch, and I fell in love with the city. I started to think this would be a great transition for me. It would be a good way to do something new. I met Joy Richard at Trina's, who said they may need someone in October, and I just kept in contact via email.
How would you describe Chicago's cocktail and restaurant scene? What's unique about it?
The thing that's really cool about Chicago is that patio licenses are extremely easy to come by, and there are tons and tons of places where you can just go and drink beer outside. The drinking and day-drinking culture during the summer is huge. Everybody has a patio. You can get a license for $1400 indefinitely and it goes from March until November. Also, the late-night availability — there are many places with licenses to stay open until 4AM, and every bar gets an extra hour on Saturdays. And the city is concentrated.
The thing about Boston versus Chicago is everything is more spread out in Boston. Trendy restaurants are all over the place. From places like Bronwyn all the way up in Union Square, down to Toro in the South End, Drink way out, god knows where. Trying to ride my bike home from Drink, in the middle of the night? Not fun. Chicago is massive, but you don't want to go to most of it. I think a lot of people take Chicago seriously because the Michelin guide is there, and the Michelin Guide is there because of Grant Achatz.
Speaking of Achatz, can you tell us a little more about The Aviary and what it's trying to do?
Well, The Aviary was built out of the concept of creating a five-star bar, a bar that would have an atmosphere and a service standard and cocktail creations that would rival any Michelin-starred restaurant. It was born out of a pet project at Alinea — doing edible cocktails. It is a fine-dining restaurant that serves drinks. The bartenders do not interact with the customers, so it was very important as a server there to know the ins and outs of every drink there. That's how I learned so much there.
Do you think something like that would be viable in Boston?
I think there's definitely a market for it. People are certainly willing to pay for what they are getting. The Aviary is a very expensive place, but I don't think if it was done correctly it would have any problem opening here. The people at Drink are doing something I have never seen; I was completely blown away when I went there. The fact that there's nothing behind the bar, the way they interact with you, is a completely different concept, and so is The Aviary. I was in Drink at 8:30 on a Tuesday and it was jam-packed.
Before you started visiting Boston, what places or people had you heard about?
Drink, and that was it. People in Chicago didn't really have the best opinion of Boston, regardless if they had been here.
Well, how has it been? Now that you are here, what are your impressions?
The entire city, with the exception of the "big ticket" restaurants, which I haven't tried yet — everything is on par with Chicago. The standard of food and beverages on menus everywhere is up to snuff with everything that's going on in Chicago, and I'm really happy about that. There are some things that I do miss. I haven't been able to figure out a good day-drinking place yet. A place that is the Boston equivalent to Big Star is what I would want. Big Star was a place in a very busy trendy neighborhood in Chicago with a huge patio that opened at 11:30AM, and there were always people in there until 2AM, having tacos and $3 shots of whiskey.
The thing I kind of have been disappointed with across the board has been service and friendliness, just in general. I kind of expected something like that, but I didn't expect from my contemporaries, people I've been working amongst, that people would be so aloof when you are in a position to serve someone. So I have made a special effort to be more outgoing and friendly with my guests at the bar. It's hard at a busy place like Citizen to just be able to offer a little something extra, but hopefully, it's just me.
Any cocktails you've been working on?
For the past few months I have been messing around with the Martinez cocktail. I've been doing different builds and rinses and using different modifiers with different gins. I am trying to figure out what's the best way to make that drink. And I think that the Martinez build is very under-appreciated and also unbelievably delicious. It's light, without having the weight of the Manhattan, because it's a base with gin, but the extra complexity from the bitters and whatever Vermouth and additional modifiers you use can add so many layers of flavor into that simple drink. You can sip it for an hour or you can drink it in one gulp; it's awesome.
— Gabe Bellegard Bastos
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