Patrick Sullivan’s appointment to lead Legal Sea Foods cocktail program could raise the chain’s esteem in the eyes of Boston’s mixology enthusiasts. Sullivan, former owner of B-Side Lounge and mentor to Hub mixology luminaries like Eastern Standard’s Jackson Cannon, is at the forefront of Boston’s cocktail renaissance. “Legal Sea Foods has a strong desire to really catch up with the bartending scene,” says Sullivan told us. So how exactly will he do that? “Fresh-squeezed juices,” for starters.
Legal Sea Foods is a big change from the B-Side. What made you decide to sign on with the chain?
The sound of it was very exciting. Legal Sea Foods has a strong desire to really catch up with the bartending scene, which has changed dramatically over the past ten years. They were really looking to get their bar staff across the board trained at that level. I had trained a lot of really exciting bartenders at the B-Side and the thought of doing that over a semi-national level seemed very, very exciting for me.
What’s different about a chain from a single-location restaurant?
First of all, everything. Legal Sea Foods is a huge organization. It’s very corporate in some ways, but it’s also very entrepreneurial. People are given a lot of leeway to do their own thing, but you still have to work within the corporate structure. The biggest change for me to get used to is just the pace of change. When you own your own restaurant and you decide you want six new cocktails on the menu that night, you can be downstairs and print the menu and go upstairs and inform the waitstaff and the bartender and it’s done. You have six new cocktails.
That just doesn’t happen at Legal Sea Foods, where you’re dealing with hundreds and hundreds of bartenders spread over nine states. It just takes a long time to get things going, so months can go by between the moment you have the idea and when you execute it. That’s been the biggest thing for me to get used to.
What can we expect from the new cocktail menu you’re implementing in October?
Fresh-squeezed juices and an adherence to time-honored techniques, in terms of following recipes and using jiggers for precise measurement and paying really close attention to the balance of the cocktail. I’m starting at ground zero here and I’m putting an emphasis on simple, well-made cocktails using fresh ingredients. This will form the foundation for something else. I’m trying to teach bartending in a certain style and build a cocktail list all in the same breath.
Will the cocktail menu be seasonal?
Yes, definitely. The menu we’re working on now certainly has a lot of fall flavors.
What are some of the specific challenges of creating cocktails to be paired with seafood?
One thing I have to be very aware of is making sure things aren’t too sweet. Sweetness can be very cloying and the last thing we want to do is gunk up someone’s palate before their plate of oysters arrives. That’s what I’m most aware of. That’s not so much of a challenge for me, because I don’t particularly have a sweet tooth, but in the past, there’s been some sweetness to the Legal Sea Foods cocktail menu. What I’m trying to do is make everyone aware of the fact that our cocktails need to be well-balanced and on the dryer side. You’ll see a lot of fresh lemon juice and bitters, which dry things out.
One of your biggest projects will be designing the cocktail list at the forthcoming Legal’s Harborside. What are your early thoughts on the cocktail program there?
There’s big plans over there. It’s a huge, amazing, exciting plan. It’s three floors, three totally different concepts. It’s definitely going to be the flagship Legal Sea Foods. Right now, we’re moving toward educating our bartenders, moving them toward a higher standard, and developing a cocktail list and by the time we end up down there in the Seaport, which is probably at least a year away, that’s going to be not only our flagship restaurant, but our flagship bar. We will have even a higher standard there. Over the next year, we’re going to identify a bunch of bartenders through our organization who will elevate our bartending to new heights down there. I anticipate that the bars at Legal’s Harborside will be a reflection of its status as a destination restaurant with classic cocktails and a strict adherence to tradition.
Why do you think people have become so interested in cocktails in recent years?
When I realized I was going to open a bar, this was right at the beginning of the Internet. I would sit in front of my early Macintosh computer on the Internet when I came home from bartending shifts and read all this cocktail lore. If you’re going to be standing behind a bar every night, it’s so much more exciting to be educating yourself and your fellow bartenders and your customers than to just open a Bud Light.
I think the restaurants drove it. For me, I was coming out of East Coast Grill. You know, you work for a James Beard award winning chef and you operate on a daily basis in that sort of rigorous environment, and at the end of it, you feel like you can do anything. I think that’s what’s going on across the board. People decided “we can just do what we want” and the guests love it. The guests don’t just want to drink Bud Light.
Who else is doing good cocktails in Boston?
I was out last night at The Independent, this hole-in-the-wall Irish bar in Somerville and it’s managed by a young kid who used to sit at the B-Side Lounge every night. This isn’t some rinky-dink Irish bar — they’ve always had a good bar list. But now, they’ve got real well-made cocktails on there. Here I am in Union Square in Somerville and this 22-year-old kid with tattoos on his neck is telling me “we have the best Pimm’s cup in the city.” There’s another one over there in Allston: right in the middle of college frat boy city, you’ve got Deep Ellum. Ten years ago, it would have been a hole in the wall, but now they’ve got hipsters with tattoos all over them making really well-made cocktails. It’s fascinating to see how it’s spread out. Even the college kids love it. This is a college kid’s bar, and they’ve got, like, nine different variations on Manhattans on the menu. I don’t know how it happened, but it sure did happen.
What’s your favorite classic cocktail?
Anything with gin. Gin makes you smarter. You know what, I love a Manhattan. A well-made Manhattan, my goodness. You just can’t beat it. A Manhattan might be the consummate cocktail.