February 25th, 2010

I sipped D.C.


It’s true. I really only took a sip of D.C. compared to other cities of which I’ve drunk deeply, e.g. Portland and Seattle, Miami Beach, San Francisco and L.A. But what a fine sip it was.

There was a dual purpose to my short trip to our nation’s capitol: booze and poetry (not an unheard-of combination). My drinking buddy Jill McDonough is a poet who received the prestigious Witter Bynner Fellowship, which the U.S. Poet Laureate bestows each year upon two unsuspecting, rising talents. That’s right, you don’t apply for it; you’re just chosen. Being chosen means that you get to read your poetry in front of an audience at the Library of Congress, make a recording for posterity, and meet the poet laureate, who is currently Kay Ryan.

mcdonough-witter-bynnerSo, I gathered with Jill’s family and friends at the LoC and listened to her read poems about legal executions, car accidents, and captured terrorists. (“There’s no money in that,” a cab driver helpfully pointed out to one of Jill’s friends on the ride in from the airport.) Her work is not as dark as it sounds — she writes and reads in a compelling, frank, non-polemical way. After the reading, we cheered Jill on and, that night and the next, celebrated in some of D.C.’s best restaurants and bars.

The Tabard Inn. A real, old inn whose cozy dining areas serve deliciously executed homestyle fare like goat ragu bolognese, lump crab cakes and seafood gumbo. Bartender Chantal Tseng, who is married to another D.C. bar celeb, Derek Brown (see below), started us off with a round of perfect Sazeracs.

The Gibson. A great-looking, speakeasy-style bar that occupies what looks to have been an early-20th-century, second-floor apartment. The bar itself is in a narrow room at one end of the space, and a hallway leads to two separate rooms with vintage chairs and couches. Jill and the other Witter Bynner fellow, Atsuro Riley, and their entourages (it’s true, poets have entourages) took over one of those rooms and ordered a few rounds of well-made cocktails. Jill’s missus, Josey Packard, and I decided on Seelbachs and were not disappointed. I know we’re all supposed to be sick of speakeasies, but I live in Boston, where we don’t really have those, and I thought it was cool.

josey-jill-roundrobinThe Round Robin. Have I ever told you how much I love historic hotel bars? Sure they can be touristy and stuffy, and the quality of the drinks is often lacking, but their sheer character makes up for all that. The Round Robin resides in the Willard Hotel, a stone’s throw from the White House and the site of the 1861 Peace Congress that failed to defuse the Civil War. Abe Lincoln, Mark Twain, Charles Dickens — they all drank there. And so did we. In the afternoon, naturally. Mint Juleps, Bloody Marys and Hearsts, the last being an obscure classic which Josey cleverly ordered as “gin Manhattans.”

PS7’s. Named after its accomplished chef, Peter Smith, and the restaurant’s address, 777 I St., PS7’s is a chic restaurant with a bar to match, a space serving craft cocktails to the D.C. smart set. Jill ordered a Gina’s Gibson with a pickled ciopollini onion the size of a quail egg, and I had a Master & the Margarita (presumably named after Bulgakov’s book) with Milagro tequila, lime, apricot, marigold tea and citrus salt. Very tasty. I capped dinner with a glass of Madeira, which paired like a honeymooner with a pungent, taleggio-like cheese from Vermont.

The Passenger. We wound up at Derek and Tom Brown’s spare, dark, crowded, hip-but-not-too-hip bar, which serves a well-crafted cocktail if you want it but quietly suggests that straight spirits and beer are the cooler choices. We introduced ourselves to Derek, who helped launch the Gibson and writes a regular cocktail column for the Atlantic Monthly (which, as you may remember, moved from Boston to D.C. a few years back).


While Tom runs the raucous main bar, Derek, who admits to not totally cringing if you call him a mixologist, teaches cocktail classes, hosts small groups and concocts vermouth, bitters, etc. in a small bar in the back called the Columbia Room. He stowed Jill, Josey and me back there with a bottle of Yamazaki scotch from Japan, a bottle of Weller bourbon and a few cans of Oskar Blues beer while he stood in for the doorman out front. Occasionally, he’d check in on us, and we’d prod him to tell tales of making drinks at White House cocktail parties. Later, Tom joined us and offered us a taste of some funky, citrusy rum he bootlegged out of Guatemala. A fun pair, those Brown brothers.


Julia Child’s kitchen at the Smithsonian. OK, it’s not a bar. I mention it not only because it’s a piece of Americana from Cambridge, MA, but because its fridge has a sticker from one of Somerville’s most famous restaurants: eat. The scene of my dirty Bombay Sapphire martini years, eat is long gone, and so is Julia. But she liked the place, and dined there in the early 2000s before leaving Cambridge for California in her sunset years.

Thanks, D.C., for wetting my whistle. I’ll be back.

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7 Responses to “I sipped D.C.”

  1. William Murray

    As a Bostonian in DC, it sounds like you hit several of the places that I would recommend on a short visit, like The Gibson and The Passenger. Next time you’re in town you should try ChurchKey or Granville Moore’s. Of course, you’d still just be scratching the surface, as DC has a burgeoning bar scene and it seems like new places are opening on a weekly basis, from gastropubs to cocktail bars.

  2. Jill

    It was an honor reading at the Library of Congress, but it was also an honor to be in the secret back room at Passenger with Lauren Clark, Josey Packard, and Derek Brown. Passenger had better service.

  3. ljclark

    William: yeah, I missed a LOT. Thanks for the tips. Hopefully I’ll visit again before too long. Jill: “Passenger had better service.” Than the LoC? Oh my, yes.

  4. Adam

    Wow, so cool to see the “eat” sticker on Julia Child’s fridge. Thanks for sharing that.

  5. Arnold

    As a one time DC resident, and frequent business visitor, I would agree with Mr. Murray that you probably hit some of the top cocktail spots in this trip. Especially Passenger (I’m jealous as the Columbia Room wasn’t yet open on my last visit), Gibson, and PS7.

    Personally, while I appreciate the history associated with the Round Robin, it was not unlike Locke Ober in that their version of the drink historically associated with the establishment was sub-par. In this case, much better Mint Juleps could be found elsewhere in town rather than where they were supposedly introduced to the “North.” But perhaps they’ve improved in the couple of years since I’ve given them a try at Round Robin.

    On your next trip, if you find yourself in Georgetown, the bar at Bourbon Steak (in the Four Seasons Hotel) is surprisingly good. Apparently the bar manager recently arrived from either the Alembic or Bourbon & Branch in San Francisco.

    Rasika, an Indian restaurant in Penn Quarter, used to have great cocktails. However, the head bartender Gina Chersevani left for PS7, so I’m not sure if the quality has been maintained. In the same neighborhood, Proof has an interesting cocktail list as well.

    On Capitol Hill, Wisdom is a little jem. Though the skills of the bartenders may not be considered top notch (everything is shaken, and the first time I’ve seen the bitters always added after pouring the drink), the atmosphere may be the closest I’ve seen to the B-Side. A bit smaller, but a laid back neighborhood bar that plays cool music. The night I went everyone else at the bar were drinking cocktails and were from the neighborhood. It’s on the less popular side of the Hill, but worth a trip (and next door to another great dive bar Trusty’s).

    Not to go on too long, but if you get down to Old Town Alexandria, definitely try PX. Another speakeasy, but worth the trip. If you can’t get in on a particular night, check out the bar at Restaurant Eve in the same neighborhood, as they are run by the same bar manager.

    Many other places around town have traditional/non-vodka heavy cocktail lists, more than Boston. But I think DC is where others have pointed out Boston is heading–too much ambition without the talent or supervision to match. Many establishments shoot high but end up crashing and burning in their results. But at least they are trying…

  6. Brian

    Cool Eat sticker!

  7. Chris

    Heading down to DC in a few weeks, glad I read this post. The Passenger looks like a great place, gonna check it out. Intrigued by The Gibson as well. Why are we supposed to be sick of Speakeasys?

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