East Somerville’s Oscar Simoza is an eminently quotable bar manager. The charismatic 37-year-old came from Venezuela to the United States to visit his brother and never left, instead taking a bartending job at Johnny D’s in Davis Square — “shaking hands, kissing babies” — before moving on to Downtown Crossing’s Silvertone. Here, he was part bouncer and part bartender, even saving a patron from choking in a dramatic rescue. (More on that later.) Now he’s the bar manager at jm Curley, Bogie’s Place, and the brand-new Wig Shop, also downtown. The name honors its roots: For many years, the cocktail lair sold wigs, not hair of the dog. But despite his fast-paced professional life, Simoza prefers being at home with his wife, playing video games.
What’s the philosophy behind The Wig Shop? What makes it special?
That’s a loaded question. What sets it apart a little bit is the heritage. It was an actual wig shop for 55 years. Our owner [Babak Bina] and fearless leader [Kevin Mabry] had this dream of turning it into a bar, of connecting jm Curley, Bogie’s Place, and The Wig Shop, and the vision came true. It became something like a Disney World. We have like three different concepts in same building. You can go from being in a loud bar at jm Curley, to a nice big dinner at Bogie’s Place, and then you have a cocktail lounge at The Wig Shop.
Tell me about the cocktails.
I was lucky enough that they trust my wacky vision of a lot of things I like, a lot of the flavors I grew up with. I’m from Venezuela, so they let me make my citrus, cinnamon, coffee, and not-too-sweet cocktails. Some of them are sweet. I’m a sucker for sweet drinks, so I have to be sure I don’t overdo it on the menu. But most of the cocktails are based on things I like. It’s very unusual that a place will let you do that. They told me: “Hey, do you what you want to do.” I do what I grew up with and try to balance it with new trends in the mixologist world.
On our menu, each wig represents a different vibe, a different style, while honoring the classics. There’s an old-school poster that has wigs on it. You can order an Amaretto sour; you can order your classic Manhattan with a little riff on it. It’s an homage to the classics with a look into the future.
What’s your favorite drink on the menu?
Cinemax After Dark. It’s sherry with mango, lemon, and demerara. It’s a very simple drink. I think it represents the best of me on the menu.
What sort of bizarre things do you overhear at the bar? I remember you told me that one woman refused to pay because she was too beautiful.
I have a new one. A couple days ago, I witnessed a breakup because somebody listened to Joe Rogan’s podcast. She was not having it. It escalated out of control, and they broke up on the spot.
In that situation, what do you do next? Do you stay out of the way? Get them more drinks?
You’re like the referee in a boxing match. When things get really ugly, that’s when you intervene, right? If there’s some yelling, screaming, some crying, we’ll deal with that. Then we’ll apologize to the crowd at the bar. But when things get really ugly — like a physical fight or shoving — that’s when we have to intervene and ask them to leave the establishment.
Has that happened to you before?
Oh, God. Yes. It’s Downtown Crossing. And I’m a big guy. I’m 6-foot-3, 260, and I play rugby. I’m a big dude. So sometimes people try to test that and see what they can do, what they can get away with. I call myself a gentle giant. I hate when things get ugly, but it happens, and I have to deal with it. I have to be the manager, bouncer, bartender, bar back, chef, cook, all at the same time.
And you once saved someone from choking.
It was a usual shift at Silvertone. We were just setting out the bar. It got busy; it was pre-show. There was this couple, and funny enough, it was their first date. They were having a great time. They had their dinners in front of them. I saw the gentleman had a bright red face, and I thought he was laughing at first.
Then, in a split second, something triggered: Oh, he’s not laughing. He’s choking. So I just sprinted. My legs just reacted, and I just moved. It’s just me sprinting across the bar. I performed the Heimlich maneuver, something I’ve never done before. I always say, I learned it from “Baywatch.” I’d never trained to be a lifesaver or anything. He gave me the best tip I ever had. The whole restaurant started clapping.
What brought you to the United States?
I told my mom that I was moving to the United States to be like Tom Cruise. And she said, ‘Like ‘Top Gun,’ to be a pilot?’ And I said, ‘No, mom. Cocktails. The other movie.’ She didn’t think I was funny, but I think it was funny. I came up about 16 years ago. I was here on vacation, just visiting my brother who was here at the time playing basketball. He was going to MassBay Community College. Then things started happening down in Venezuela, and my dad told me to stay. It was very bad in there. And I don’t regret it.
What was Somerville like 15 years ago?
Gentrification is a real thing. The streets are different, but the places that we used to love and eat and hang out at, they’re still there. … Most of the people I used to know in Somerville are still in Somerville. It’s still very homey. Trina’s Starlite Lounge is still the home base for most of the industry people in Somerville.
Where do you go when you’re not working?
It depends on the mood, right? We’re very lucky to have so many different concepts and ideas being infused into the city. Blossom Bar is hands-down my favorite spot. It’s my favorite place in Boston right now. And, of course, Mahaniyom. You can barely get in there now.
Quick questions: What drink can you not stand?
Blood and Sand is a cocktail that, no matter who makes it, it’s always off. The OJ is never right. The cocktail is never shaken properly or it’s a mess. It’s just a convoluted mess.
Favorite drink of all time?
I want to say a twisted tea with a side of Montenegro. Just kidding. I would like an Oaxacan old-fashioned, which is a mezcal old-fashioned.
The Brazilian burger with a Pedialyte from Pastelaria Vitoria here on Broadway in East Somerville.
How would you describe the drinking culture in Boston?
The pandemic kind of helped a lot of the education of guests. The guests now have a better, more educated idea of what a cocktail looks like or what it tastes like. People stayed home so much and became bakers and carpenters and started drinking professionally.
What’s the weirdest request you’ve ever gotten for a drink?
It’s usually: ‘Take your shirt off.’ Once, somebody actually brought their own bottle. It was the most bizarre thing: The bottle was not alcohol. It was kind of like a home-brew mixture or something they made. I was like: ‘I am absolutely not serving that.’ It was a green thing. I was like, ‘You can drink that outside, if you want, and get arrested.’
Describe Downtown Crossing.
What do you drink at home?
Agave-based drinks. High Noons spiked with tequila.
Your [partner] works at Nautilus. Do you gossip about work?
Yes. Like, last night was really, really bad. We had the Tedeschi Trucks in town. It caused a complete madhouse in Downtown Crossing. We had to kick people out, and they’re like: ‘We’re with the band.’ I was like, ‘You cannot be with the band. There’s like 17 of you guys already here.’ It was just a nightmare. But I was able to go home and tell my [partner] about it, and she was like: ‘I hear you. It’s bad.’
What should people order at jm Curley?
Burger, tater tots, a High Life, and a shot of Fernet. That would be a perfect evening.
Speaking of perfect evenings: What do you do in your spare time?
I catch up on the hottest new TV shows — and a lot of video games. We play video games together, and we have a whole crew from the restaurant industry. It’s like a clan or guild of Boston bartenders who are pretty much nerds in the closet. They don’t speak about it too much, but yeah. We play video games. Destiny 2 is the game that brings it all together.