Get ready for sticker shock at Bar Charley

August 30, 2013
Bar Charley Bar Charley's Orange Crush is made with a house-infused orange vodka because co-owner Gordon Banks says that "most of the orange vodka I've tried tastes like chemicals." (Photo by Fritz Hahn/The Washington Post)

Bar Charley, the new bar from the team behind Jackie's, Sidebar and El Chucho, opens at 1825 18th St. NW on Thursday, Sept. 5. Brace yourself for sticker shock.

Classic mai tai and Suffering Bastard cocktails will flow from the taps into colorful ceramic glasses. The price? $7 each. A section of rotating classic cocktails, including a Sazerac, an Old Fashioned and a Jack Rose, will set you back $8. There are other deals sprinkled throughout the menu, including a sweet and satisfying version of the classic Orange Crush, made with house-infused orange vodka and fresh-squeezed orange juice, for $8.

"I'm tired of spending $12-$13 on a cocktail at bars no matter what, whether the person making it knows what they're doing or not," explains co-owner Gordon Banks, the cocktail expert behind the drinks at Bar Charley and its sister restaurants.

So when he was designing the menu at Bar Charley, a bar and dining room carved out of the lower levels of two adjoining townhouses, he decided that the drink options would hit multiple price points without skimping on quality spirits.

"This is stuff we [the owners] want to drink," Banks says. "We love having fun with [bizarre] fancy cocktails, but an Orange Crush in Ocean City is one of the best drinks you can have."

He chose to put two tiki drinks on tap because "I love tiki drinks. I love drinking out of tiki mugs – especially on the patio." At the same time, some tiki drinks call for a lot of ingredients, which can really slow-down bar staff on a busy night. If drinks are mixed beforehand, Banks says, it's easier to serve them.


Tiki cocktails, which cost $7, will flow straight from taps into colorful ceramic glasses. (Photo by Fritz Hahn/The Washington Post)

That said, Banks loves a high-concept drink. He's planning to serve a daiquiri inside a hollow, fist-sized piece of ice carved to resemble a coconut. Guests can choose to stick a straw in the ice and drink it that way, or "crack" the ice, as they would the shell of a coconut, and pour the cocktail into a tumbler over the ice.

His "Rickey" consists of carbonated Old Tom gin poured over a single cylinder of "sweet lime ice" that's as long as its chimney shaped glass is tall. A first sip brings a lot of gin flavor. As the ice melts, it diffuses into the glass. By the end, it almost tastes like a daiquiri.

Bar Charley The Rickey is made with carbonated gin and one long cylindrical piece of frozen "sweet lime ice," which adds flavor as it melts. (Photo by Fritz Hahn/The Washington Post)

For the bar's pickleback, a shot of rye whiskey will be served in a "cup" made of pickle-flavored agar-agar, a gelatin-like solid. You're supposed to take the shot, and then eat the vessel. (I think this is something you'll have to see first-hand.)

The menu item that should create the biggest show, though, is called the Stepdad. It involves spraying a plank of cedar wood with a butane torch and capturing the smoke in a upside-down tumbler. He then adds cognac for a caramel flavor, house-made pipe tobacco bitters and an ice cube made of black tea. The result finds the sweetness of cognac balanced by a bitter finish and a lingering smokiness that's Scotch-like.

Novelty drinks may be fun, but there's far more on the menu. Banks is planning a seasonal "history lesson" that focuses on the evolution of a single cocktail. The gin martini is up first: Among the 16 variations are the classic version (a two-to-one ratio of gin to vermouth) and the Perfect Martini, which uses equal parts of sweet and dry vermouth. There's the Hi Ho, a classic 1920 recipe that swaps the vermouth for white port, and the World War I-era Allies cocktail, which combines English gin and French vermouth with kummel, a Russian liqueur made from caraway seeds, to represent the allies who fought on the same side during the Great War.

In terms of beer, Banks envisions three taps – one light, one bitter, one local – and then 15 to 20 different farmhouse ales, including a number of wild ales. "Rather than have one IPA, one sour beer, one pilsner … we'll have a small list of things that I'm into," he says.

The space itself, formerly home to the Cajun Experience, has been transformed into a low-key spot with a communal table, exposed brick walls and fancy chandeliers. I'm betting an enormous booth in the bay window, which can easily hold a group of six to eight, will be a popular gathering spot for birthdays. A back patio with room for about 30 people will open within a few weeks. In the meantime, the cowhide-topped stools lining the walls look like a good place to settle in, no matter your price point.


The former Cajun Experience has been transformed into a laidback space with a communal table, exposed brick walls and hammered copper tabletops. (Photo by Fritz Hahn/The Washington Post)

To make the Stepdad cocktail, bartender Gordon Banks burns a piece of cedar with a butane torch (left) and captures the resulting smoke in a glass. The drink also includes cognac, pipe tobacco bitters and an ice cube made of black tea. (Photo by Fritz Hahn/The Washington Post)
Fritz Hahn has covered bars, drinks and nightlife for the Washington Post Weekend Section since 2003, but he also writes about everything from Civil War battlefields to sailing classes. You can find him on Twitter and Instagram.
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