While growing up in Transylvania, Aliz Meszesi, 30, thought she was going to become a surgeon. A restaurant job after high school introduced her to the world of cocktails. Entranced, she ditched the medical route in favor of providing a different type of balm: creative drinks. Later, in Budapest, she trained under cocktail impresario Zoltán Nagy, known for that city’s acclaimed Boutiq Bar and London’s LAB.
Today, Meszesi is the spirit guide behind the bar at the Back Bay’s Hecate, a moody 24-seat lair beneath meze parlor Krasi, where phones aren’t allowed and standing is discouraged. The theme is mystical: Hecate is the ancient Greek goddess of magic and witchcraft, and Meszesi’s cocktail list comprises 10 drinks called Rites & Rituals. (Non-drinkers can try her “Dry Spells.”) According to Hecate’s website, “Theft of property, including our menu, will be met with human torture.”
How’s it going so far?
I can’t complain. I’ve opened quite a few places, and this was very smooth. There were lines standing outside very early on. It’s 24 seats, and it’s very small. So we’re full from start to finish — because, obviously, you fill up 24 quite fast.
Why is this the right place at the right time?
We were supposed to open right after Krasi opened [in February 2020]. That was a few weeks before COVID hit. I’m so glad that we didn’t even though, obviously, it was devastating at that point.
Hecate had to wait. We talk about her all the time as an actual presence at the bar, the whole psyche of it. It’s very fitting. Hecate was the goddess of the underworld, so being in a basement makes a lot of sense. Upstairs, you have the realm of wine; downstairs, you cross into the realm of cocktails. Even though it’s obviously treated as different entities, it’s still sort of piggybacking on each other.
What’s the role of a cocktail bar in Boston right now, at this moment in time? Do people want to let loose? Are they cautious?
Everyone is almost like: [COVID] is not around. Which is great, because obviously it’s a very small space. If someone is afraid of that, don’t come, because obviously we’re very small. It’s like it never happened. Everyone is thirsty for something new, and something good.
What makes it good? Why are these cocktails different?
It’s winding back to the whole COVID thing. Everyone learned how to make their perfect cocktails at home, martinis and old-fashioneds. It means we have to step up the game. Why would you come out and spend $30 on a martini that you can make at home?
It’s always been in my mind to actually open a full-on cocktail bar in Boston because we don’t have many, or any, that are fully cocktail-oriented, where it’s not about a restaurant.
I did a lot of research over the past few years using ingredients and spirits and liquors that are not so known, not necessarily just because it proves to people that we know something different, but just the fact that you condition them to new things, just like I conditioned myself. I did a lot of research until I found Ethiopian cardamom and how to use it and how it’s completely different from green cardamom and things like that; it’s very interesting. We’re creating flavor combinations and ingredients and spirits that are a tad unlikely. It’s definitely bold, and it’s sometimes weird.
I have a cocktail with mustard cordial in it that I created. I love that. I’ve always been a savory girl. And we traveled a lot before, in general, because that’s the best way to see what’s happening in the trends and not just from Instagram. Savory cocktails are where it’s at in Europe, and we created a European-style cocktail bar.
Let’s talk about you. How did you get involved in the industry? What was your first job?
I’m 30 years old now. When I was 18, I started a job at a café. This was back home in Transylvania, Romania. That’s where I’m from. I was about to finish high school and go to med school. I was already pre-accepted. I was a very good [student].
Even during that summer, I just felt like: I really do like this. I felt very alive. Obviously, I couldn’t put a finger on it because I was 18. I just knew that I liked running around and feeling the things. And that’s how it started. And then, I was serving and bartending. I moved to Budapest; I have two nationalities. I am also Hungarian; Transylvanians are in general Hungarian. I moved to the capital to study hotel management and started working at a bar, and Demetri [Tsolakis, who runs Hecate and Krasi] was there.
And, in the meantime, I noticed that school is really not where it’s at, even though obviously, that’s what we’re conditioned to: ‘OK, high school is over; let’s go to college.’
I came here in 2015 when Committee was opening, and they asked me to help out. I got promoted about two years ago, more than that, but then COVID hit.
What did you do during COVID?
For the first time, absolutely nothing, which was horrifying. For someone who thrives in this industry, suddenly putting them on the bench is not easy. Slowing down your brain and body that hard after the adrenaline it goes through on a daily basis is almost impossible. For example, I came up with the mustard cocktail during lockdown. I was having a pretzel with Philadelphia cream cheese and spicy mustard. It tastes like a McDonald’s cheeseburger. I love McDonald’s. No shame! I was just sitting in a kitchen and I was eating something; that’s how creativity is.
How would you describe Boston as a city to someone who’s not from here?
I would say that, one, Boston doesn’t have a cocktail culture. It’s a drinking culture. And that’s what we are trying to change here. It’s very interesting how Boston is built up so differently industry-wise, because there’s such emphasis on sports, which I understand.
I always think of Boston as a destination and not somewhere that you just happen to go through; it’s either family or school or work. You can sense that the whole city is conditioned to approach things a little bit differently in the sense that they have to, and they want to, get used to new things. We don’t have many cocktail bars that don’t have TVs. They’re open to it, though.
I was a little bit afraid. … We have to be educational without making [people] feel like they’re stupid. And that’s a huge part of this, because there’s a lot of pride in Boston, and in general people have a very strong mentality. You cannot sound condescending, even though we are dealing with things that they definitely don’t know about, you know? I was afraid that they’re not open to it and it won’t work, but my mustard cocktail is a top-five seller. They’re thirsty for it. You just need to put the effort into it, and then they’re coming.
Where do you hang out when you’re not working?
I’m a huge fan of the Baldwin [Bar] situation, everything they do. They’re absolutely wonderful. I’d say they are the ones that truly know what truly creative cocktail bars [are]. It’s not necessarily in Boston; I have to go to Brookline or Woburn. Other than that, to be honest, I don’t go out.
What about takeout?
I live on UberEATS. I don’t cook at all. I miss the food from home, obviously, and the fact that I can just have any type of cuisine in a day — anything I want, a few minutes away — I absolutely enjoy that. Felipe’s Taqueria is my favorite Mexican place.
Is this your forever path?
I knew it very fast, that this is a career and not just a job. I knew it right away.
Do you make cocktails for yourself?
I do not. I specifically don’t even keep any booze in my house. I don’t drink in general at all. It’s more of a shot at work, here and there, with the adrenaline. That’s pretty much it. If I go out, I’m fully a Negroni girl.
What’s your favorite thing to binge-watch?
Really, really dark series. I thrive on “Breaking Bad” and “Shameless”: these dark and humanly awful things.
Kara Baskin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @kcbaskin.