With its bold mix of power, politics and deal-making, symbolic domes and mighty façades of government, Washington, D.C., grabs national attention every four years when elections roll around. But now that elections are over, let the spotlight linger. Not on statues of statesmen, but on the city’s neighborhoods and places DC insiders know—on the not-so-well-kept secret that Washington (you know how secrets go in this city) has become one of the best destination bar towns in the country.
Their names haven’t appeared on any ballots, but mixologists Derek Brown, Gina Chersevani and Adam Bernbach, all nationally recognized. They lead the craft cocktail field—each with his or her own style and following.
Derek Brown and his brother Tom opened The Passenger, a favorite industry hangout, in late 2009. Derek a few months later installed the 16-seat Columbia Room within, a romantic setting for serving up drinks and cocktail history that has become a perennial on best U.S. bar round-ups.
When chef/owner Jamie Leeds opened a Hank’s Oyster Bar location on Capital Hill a few months ago, she tapped Gina Chersevani to run the gleaming white Eddy Bar there.
Chersevani had already made her name elsewhere with drinks inspired by a fertile imagination (cotton candy garnishes) and daring combinations of flavors and textures. She thinks like a chemist and works with a butcher’s precision, hand-cutting and hand-shaving ice.
Bernbach, who manages bars at Proof—an eclectic restaurant popular for the depth of its wine list—and the Spanish-influenced Estadio, mixes and matches with food in mind. “This is a great culinary town—and cocktails are the crossover,” he says, having concocted Estadio’s slushitos, fruity, spirits-infused slushees, and flavor-doused gintonics.
Bar stars work together
“Derek, Gina, Adam have kept it core,” with appreciation for the bar community and the way it has developed professionally, says Duane Sylvestre, head bartender at Bourbon Steak. “We all work together, follow each other and share information,” he says.
Sylvestre is the classic bartender, knowing when to chat with the lobbyists, politicians, foreign dignitaries and Georgetown shoppers—all of whom are his clientele—and when to tune out.
Sylvestre has developed a deep list of classics, balanced with house creations. He muddles fresh mint in his palm, with a hand smack to maximize the flavor in mojitos. He forms ice spheres.
“My style of mixing drinks focuses on mechanics,” Sylvestre says. “Whatever I do is for the drink, not for the attention.” That’s a shared attitude.
“We study each other’s cocktail lists,” says bar master Jeff Faile, a self-described nerd, who has just added a page of negronis and another of amari to his list at Fiola. The Italian restaurant is also home to a great international wine cellar, where Barolo can be had by the glass.
“We’re not trying to steal each other’s customers. We’re all friends,” Faile says of the DC bar community. Most are DC Craft Bartenders Guild members.
Success has come to the industry, he and others believe, because professionals as a group have embraced the best of cocktail culture heritage and have a desire to enlighten others. That and the work hard, play hard ethic of DC.
A vibrant bar scene
In a city far less scathed than others by a lingering bad economy, young professionals became majors drivers in neighborhood rejuvenation and new commerce, including the bar scene. Brian Collins, supervisor of the sprawling Bar Dupont in the Dupont Circle Hotel, says that he serves “way more neighborhood regulars than hotel guests.”
As such, the bar is “one of the highest revenue producers for the whole property—more than the catering department.” That’s even with $6 Happy Hour craft cocktails and the general trend toward early closing hours on work nights. Collins also follows the farm-to-table movement, styling cocktails on Sundays with whatever is fresh from the corner farmers’ market.
Poste, situated at the Hotel Monaco in the spacious courtyard of an historic Penn Quarter post-office building, offers a menu that approaches organic. Herbs, vegetables, fruit and berries are plucked from the house garden. “Talking points for servers are garden-fresh (thyme, mint, basil, chilies, etc.), organic and handcrafted,” says restaurant manager Katie Miller.
Weekend brunches at Poste feature a build-your-own Bloody Mary spread: Customers start with a shot and ice scoop from the bar, then add their own house-made mixers (mild to spicy), and house-pickled garnishes. Kimpton Hotels’s long-running evening wine program has recently expanded at the Hotel Monaco to include cocktail samples and crafting demonstrations in the lobby.
Name your preference
Distinctive drink programs all over have evolved from proprietary choices, staff personality and strengths, and sometimes from history and tradition. Name a preference, there’s a bar. Looking for flights of Madeiras? Visit Quill at the Jefferson Hotel, with the nostalgic elegance of house pianist Peter Robinson playing Hoagy Carmichael, has a major Madeira cellar.
Single-malt Scotch? There are two bars with seriously deep whisky lists—Jack Rose and the Round Robin in the Willard Hotel (where Mark Twain and Walt Whitman tossed down a few). Small-batch mezcals? There’s a bar for that—Oyamel, which also has dozens of margarita versions and other tequila drinks, including bar chef Joe Cleveland’s latest liquid inventions. These may include a combination of tequila and roast turkey thigh or an updated Martinez.
For sake cocktails paired with small plates, visit Zentan. If you want beer, ChurchKey and its downstairs sibling Birch & Barley offer 555 artisanal choices. Ripple features biodynamic wines, while at Black Jack you can enjoy a Bocce game with your drinks. Or if you seek just a quiet homey corner for the usual (or anything but) and a chat, visit The Tabard Inn.
Part of the recent redo of the Madison Hotel has transformed its street-front bar, PostScript, into an all-day affair, after the bar fashion of Italy. Mornings baristas pull some of the city’s finest espressos and cappuccinos, and at prices lower than national chains.
By mid-afternoon beverage manager Rob Yealu and the mixologists take over at PostScript. With a location just across from The Washington Post, they have been shaking, stirring and pouring late into the night this past election season. But there are plenty of reasons other than the election to raise a glass in this town, and plenty of places to do it.