Bartenders are a mobile bunch, so it’s rare that a name becomes as synonymous as a place as Kyle Hilla’s did at Bolsa.
Friday was Hilla’s last day at the Oak Cliff restaurant, marking the end of a seven-year run that saw him rise from server to bartender to manager of Bolsa’s vaunted bar program, among the pioneering establishments of DFW’s craft-cocktail scene.
“I don’t think it’s hit me yet,” Hilla said at the end of his busy final night, after the place had pretty much emptied out.
The talented barman is on his way to NorthPark Center, where he’ll be heading up the bar at The Theodore, the new venture from the owners of Bolsa, nearby Bolsa Mercado, Chicken Scratch and The Foundry. In his stead, the gifted Spencer Shelton will be assuming Bolsa’s bar reins.
Like many a bartender, Hilla didn’t set out to pour drinks. Instead, he tired of a retail manager position (“To this day, I’m still the youngest store manager in Dollar General history,” he said) and aimed to head back to school. In the meantime, he figured, he’d be a server. That eventually brought him to Bolsa, where then-bar-managers Eddie “Lucky” Campbell and Dub Davis kept prodding the Boy Wonder to get behind the bar. He resisted – until the night Campbell asked him to help make drinks at an art gallery special event.
“I had the time of my life,” he said. Two days later, he was walking the aisles of a Kroger store with now-wife Jessica and realized he’d been transformed. “Everything I saw in the store, I was like, `Hmm, what can I make a cocktail with?’ “
Hilla embraced the jigger and shaker, and in the ensuing years, as the cocktail scene began to grow, both Davis and Campbell (and Jason Kosmas, who had left New York’s Employees Only to raise a family in Texas) departed for other projects. In 2010, Hilla took over the bar.
He further streamlined the program, making his cheerful, quip-smart presence a Bolsa mainstay, along with attentive service and creative mixology. “People before me laid an amazing foundation,” he said. “I just focused it.”
Campbell and Kosmas had created one of the bar’s best-known features, the weekly cocktail challenge on Wednesdays in which two bartenders would face off, creating cocktails based on a pair of customer-chosen ingredients and let the night’s sales dictate a winner. Those ingredients occasionally verged on the ridiculous, stretching bartenders’ talents and imaginations to extremes – for instance, banana ketchup. “Think about that, buddy,” he nodded with a wry smile. (He made a Bloody Mary.) “There was a time when I hated Wednesdays.”
Others included oysters, black garlic or Pop Rocks. “Pop Rocks were terrible,” he said.
Eventually, Hilla rescheduled the challenges to just the first Wednesday of each month, and his final match – against bartender Marcos Hernandez – took place on September 3. Hilla drew saffron and tangerines, Hernandez got plums and blood orange. It was Hernandez who late last year conceived a drink that paired the bitter Italian liqueur Cynar’s artichoke flavor notes with the smokiness of toasted mesquite chips. But it was Hilla who eventually named it, calling it the Imenta.
“When we first came out with it,” Hernandez said, “it was the Oaky Smoky Arthichoke-y.”
“And that’s why we started requiring drug tests at work,” Hilla cracked.
In his seven years at Bolsa, Hilla has gotten to know a few people. “I know 99 percent of the people who come in here,” he said as the minutes ticked down on Friday night’s last shift, and he hopes some of his regulars follow him to The Theodore, set to open late next month at NorthPark. He told one pair of retiree regulars, “Y’all just need to become mall walkers. I’ll tell you what – I’ll invent a drink called the Mall Walker just for you.”
Moving on and up is the next logical step for Hilla, but it’s hard to see familiar traditions end. Bolsa was among my first cocktail finds when I moved to Dallas five years ago, so for my last Hilla-made drink there, I asked for something bitter/sweet to commemorate the moment. He produced a blend of bourbon and Cynar goodness and made clear that in spite of the change, he and Jessica won’t be forgetting Oak Cliff anytime soon.
“We just closed on a house here,” he said. “I’ll always be a part of this community.”