Cathal and Meshelle Armstrong are staples on the Washington, D.C. culinary scene. Their EatGoodFood group operates six popular restaurants and bars in Old Town Alexandria, Virginia, including the upscale bistro and award-winning tasting room of Restaurant Eve; and the glamorous speakeasy PX, where a few years ago mixologist Todd Thrasher introduced the well-made cocktail to the District.
The group’s latest venture is turn of the century circus meets vaudeville. But Society Fair’s culinary amalgamation is decidedly more than a three-ring spectacle; it’s part wine bar, restaurant, bakery, butcher, gourmet market, coffee shop, cheese shop and spice bar. Crystal chandeliers hanging from the ceiling are joined by exposed track lighting; marble from an old church was reclaimed and used as countertops; and studded leather low stools, velvet couches and Parisian café chairs make up the venue’s forty seats.
Society Fair’s wine bar and restaurant offers twenty-five wines by the glass, as well as the opportunity to purchase bottles in the retail section to sip at your table (guests pay a $15 corkage fee). It also boasts an ever-evolving menu of seven or so innovative wine-based cocktails called “Tales from the Vine,” created by partner and mixologist Thrasher.
He and his team of bartenders utilize both the corkscrew and the cocktail tin to serve what he refers to as “artisanal, wine-influenced libations.” “I Want to Eat an Onion Tart” blends Dr. Loosen ‘Blue Slate‘ Riesling, sweet white onions, Dolin Blanc Vermouth, Flor de Cana 4 Year Extra Dry Rum and house made-lemon bitters, garnished with a bacon cracker; “A Pleasantly Bitter Beginning” mixes Bastianich Colli Orientali del Friuli Sauvignon Blanc, Bay Leaves, citrus vinegar, grapefruit, 42 Below Vodka and Bittermens Hopped Grapefruit Bitters. All wine-cocktails are priced at $13, and change periodically depending on the availability of seasonal ingredients (and the whim of Thrasher and his co-collaborator, chef turned wine director John Wabeck).
“Rather than using water as a base for cocktails, I decided to use wine since it already has flavor in it,” explains Thrasher, who goes on to add that he really doesn’t pay that much attention to drink trends and just does “what feels right.” One rule he does adhere to, however, is to utilize the kitchen and take ingredients from there—like chef-created gastriques.
Dine In or Take Out
Budding home cocktailians can head to the refrigerated shelves of Society Fair’s market to purchase jars of Thrasher’s house-made bar ingredients, including tonic, Dirty Martini Mix, ginger beer syrup and cocktail onions, priced $4 to $12. Customers can also take home his preferred drinking vessels—Society Fair also sells glassware from Schott Zwiesel.
Tuesday through Saturday, diners can reserve one of the ten seats overlooking Society Fair’s Demo Kitchen for an interactive three-course meal whose theme depends on the day (ethnic, chef’s choice, comfort, fish or luxe.) Trey Massey serves as chef, ringleader and teacher to guests who pay $45 during the week and $55 on weekends (when ingredients tend to be higher end); an extra $30 gets Wabeck’s inspired wine pairings. A recent chef’s choice menu included Lamb Tartare with White Sauce, Crispy Skate Meunière and Lemon Curd.
There is also a place at Society Fair for the romantically focused yet culinary-challenged, who can order a Friday Night take-out “Date Night Bag:” a complete meal for two and a bottle of wine, for $40. A recent theme included a Thai-inspired Green Papaya Salad, Amish Chicken Green Curry with Jasmine rice and Lime Panna Cotta, paired with a crisp white wine. Armstrong even encourages patrons to pass off the meal as homemade.
And serious cocktail lovers can belly up to the bar for one of Thrasher’s two-hour beverage classes. For $100, guests are treated to a “hop-tail” (a beer-based cocktail), wine cocktail, classic sip, local-inspired libation, a plate of house-made charcuterie, sausages, pâtés and artisanal cheeses. The talented, award-winning Thrasher is no snake oil salesman; he promises graduates of his classes will possess “wit, lore, instruction and bragging rights.”