Industry Insiders: Matt Levine, Native Son

New York entrepreneur Matt Levine is busier than ever these days. Not only is Sons of Essex, the upscale American restaurant he co-owns with Michael Shah, one of the hottest tables on the Lower East Side, he’s also staying on top of the duo’s just-opened drink spot, Cocktail Bodega. We caught up with Levine to ask him about his background, his hospitality ideas, his favorite hangouts, and what exactly goes into a “Gin Hulk” cocktail. 

Where are you from and how did you get into the hospitality business?
I was born and raised in Brooklyn, then grew up right by the JFK airport, in the Five Towns area. You could say I grew up in the hospitality business, bar-backing and serving while in high school and then bartending during college, and eventually bartending in the city every summer.  From my later teen years and early twenties, I started throwing parties and special events throughout the city. Working within the fashion and nightlife world, I started a clothing line in 2004.  Besides giving me an opportunity to travel, the clothing line gave me a creative outlet and the resources to eventually invest in my real passion-hospitality. At the age of 26 I opened The Eldridge.
 
What was the Eldridge like?
The Eldridge provided another creative outlet, and in that 1,000 square foot space, we did some amazing things.  The Eldridge had a great run, was a learning experience from an operational standpoint, and gave me the opportunity to operate F & B on a hotel level, as well as open up satellite locations and management deals. And then when 133 Essex Street came into discussion, I had an asset with The Eldridge, and an opportunity to sell the liquor license and the lease for 247 Eldridge Street, so I did so, and started building out what is now Sons of Essex.
 
What is an average day like for you, if there is such a thing as an average day?
I generally wake up at 7:00 am every morning, check emails, watch a little ESPN, walk my extremely lazy and stubborn English bulldog, Boss, and get to my office by 8:30 am.  I’ll head to Sons of Essex in the afternoon for meetings, and to our new project-Cocktail Bodega.  I generally get home around 8:00 pm, walk Boss again (or should I say he walks me) – then head back to Sons of Essex for dinner with friends and then … it starts all over the next day. Exciting, right?
 
What’s the greatest challenge of running a successful restaurant?
The greatest challenge is keeping consistency levels to the standards we expect. It’s always someone’s first experience at Sons of Essex, always someone’s first Asian calamari salad, someone’s first truffle mushroom pizza and so on – so it’s important to have the customer service and quality of product perfected. You don’t get a second chance to make a first impression.
 
What kind of place is Sons of Essex? Where did the name come from?
We named the restaurant after the Sons of Liberty, who were a movement of shopkeepers, artisans, workers, and tradesmen who held down places like the Lower East Side when the British tried to take it over.  The Sons of Liberty were the voice of the people, the voice of the streets (organizing the Boston Tea Party, taking down the Stamp Act) and with us being located on Essex Street, we wanted to pay homage to those who looked out for our rights, the people’s rights. Sons of Liberty + Essex Street = Sons of Essex
 
What’s the menu like?
The Sons of Essex menu is a reflection of the diverse melting pot of cultures that have helped develop the Lower East Side to what we know of it today.  The old-school scene has been described as a Bowery Boys atmosphere and Gangs of New York vibe that pays homage to the history of the Lower East Side. We fuse a traditional American comfort food menu with the spices of Lower East Side immigrants and the use of local ingredients and Essex Street Market fruits and vegetables.
 
Tell me about Cocktail Bodega. 
Cocktail Bodega serves liquor-blended smoothies and spiked fresh-squeezed juices, with a creative and innovative take on traditional street food by my dude, Chef Roblé.
 
Where does the Bodega part come in?
Bodegas represent a strong sense of community within the Lower East Side, and with the use of fresh fruits and fresh vegetables in the cocktail program at Cocktail Bodega, the name Bodega seemed like a natural fit.
 
Will cocktail bodega specialize in any particular spirits or cocktails?
Throw a little vodka into your strawberry-mango smoothie, or have some rum with fresh vegetable juice, that’s what Cocktail Bodega is all about.
 
What’s your favorite cocktail to get there?
My favorite cocktail is the Gin Hulk: Hendrick’s Gin, freshly juiced apple, freshly juiced cucumber, freshly juiced spinach, lemon squeeze, and a cucumber garnish.
 
Other than your own venues, where do you like to go out in New York?
When not at Sons of Essex, I have my Lower East Side comfort zone. Barrio Chino, Les Enfants Terribles, Fat Radish for dinner, 169 Bar, Epstein’s, and Motor City for cocktails.  Throw me anywhere with my friends, a beer, and I am good.
 
To what do you attribute your success? Any secrets you can share?
I think it’s important to put your staff and team first, and lead by example.  When you walk into Sons of Essex, you aren’t coming because of the owners, you are coming because of the atmosphere and vibe, the customer service, and of course, most important – the food itself. All of this is a shared vision. I laid out the foundation and the operations, but the staff executes all the deliverables for the customer experience.
 
What do you like to do in your spare time to relax and recharge?
Bikram yoga is my relax & recharge time, checking out Hester Street Fair on Saturdays for good grub, hanging at Tompkins Square Park to chill, checking out an indie film at the Angelica or Sunshine … all help me balance the work week.
 
[Photo: The Lo-Down]
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