Q&A With Speakeasy Bartender J Mattingly

Illustrations by Lucy Engelman
Illustrations by Lucy Engelman

J Mattingly is the bartender at Blind Pig, the 18-seat speakeasy at Saint Marc in Huntington Beach. Here is what he has to say about being hidden behind a bookcase…

As the lone employee in the speakeasy, you help set the tone.  
† To me, helping to create that (positive) feeling for customers can sometimes be more important than anything else I do. It almost feels like my own space. Essentially, it is. Anytime you’re in a restaurant environment, I feel the customer is going to be left with a feeling. To me that can sometimes be more important than anything else I do. People will forget (the details of a night) but they won’t forget how they felt. Because it’s such a small space, I feel I can do that for every single person who comes in here.

You are hidden away in this enclosed space. How is that different from your previous bartending jobs?
I’ve been bartending for about 10 years and my first real bartending was in Northern California at a road house, which was hard to land and tough to get to, as well. It’s pretty remote. This is almost a more natural fit for me than working out in that area. I really enjoy it. It makes such a different and unique environment.

Do you get any breaks?
I can run out for three or five minutes and not have it be disruptive. You get a sense when somebody will probably need something. You follow what their habits are.

You offer lockers for folks to keep a stash of booze. Are your customers that serious about their drinks?
Sometimes. There are certainly some who, as much as they tend to have a little more experience with cocktails and specific types of spirits, I think they are also seeking out the ambiance. That sort of private space where if they have a question about bourbon versus rye they can ask and hear the answer (because it’s quieter).

How does being hidden away affect the overall vibe do you think?
It certainly is very striking and people seem surprised when they come in and when they go out. The environment outside (Blind Big) changes without customers really seeing in. They’ll come in 7 p.m. and leave at 9:30 p.m. and the bar outside will be crowded. Friday and Saturday nights it (the outside bar) can be two or three deep. I have nights where I get up, and then I’ve jumped out to help out front. That’s fun, too, to work with the rest of the staff. Despite that it’s a private space, I think the physical proximity of the tables to each other creates a sort of energy among different tables. You can see customers interacting with each other. It’s nice to be able to play in that realm.

And the entry into Blind Pig, opening a false book shelf to get inside, further adds to that sense of play.
Who didn’t have that sort of fantasy as a child of being able to walk behind a moving bookshelf? I don’t know anyone who hasn’t encountered that in their reading or on television.

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