Southern Efficiency, which opens Saturday on Seventh Street in Shaw, bills itself as a Southern-inspired restaurant and whiskey bar. Derek Brown, who also owns the neighboring Eat the Rich and Mockingbird Hill, hopes he confounds your expectations of what, exactly, a Southern restaurant and bar can be.
The mission, he says, is to "go beyond a caricature of the South. People think they know Southern food, like shrimp and grits, but that's not what people eat at home, or at lunch counters. … There are so many different kinds of food coming out of the South, whether you're in Oxford, Miss., or Atlanta. We're picking and choosing what we like." So yes, you'll find fried catfish and bourbon balls, but also peanut soup and a chocolate mayonnaise cake, "using Duke's [Mayonnaise], of course."
There are no Garden & Gun-worthy photos of back roads, hunting dogs or aging whiskey barrels framed on the wall. You won't find weathered "Bar-B-Q" or "Welcome to Natchez" signs, either. "We didn't want you to come in and say, 'Oh, this is the South,'" Brown explains. The clues are more subtle: The wall of soda siphons, since soda is such an important part of the South. The barstools made from old tractor seats. The slightly barrel-vaulted ceiling, to make it look more like the lunch counters Brown visited in the Carolinas, which provided the inspiration for restaurant.
And then there's the liquid gold on the shelves behind the bar: Around 30 different varieties of bourbon and Tennessee whiskey. Small-batch fiends can sample Buffalo Trace's single-oak project bottles or Wild Turkey's rye-and-bourbon blend Forgiven, but there's also Johnny Drum, Willett Pot Still and Four Roses. The list is small but well curated, and while Brown expects it to grow steadily, "We're a whiskey bar, not a whiskey library," like the massive collections at Jack Rose or Bourbon.
Likewise, the cocktail menu will be short and sweet, and "we favor brown and stirred," Brown says, meaning that Manhattan and Sazerac fans will be happier than those who favor a gin and tonic. "When someone comes in, they can just get a drink, or they can talk to the bartender and ask about the differences between small-batch whiskeys." Those who want to know more about bourbon will be able to take specialized classes on Saturdays, which will include plenty of tastings and cost $45.
As at Southern Efficiency's sister bars, there will be cocktails on tap, starting with a whiskey and smoked cola, developed by Southern Efficiency bar manager and bartender J.P. Fetherston. The menu will also offer jarred cocktails – from Mason jars, of course – such as the cider-and-whiskey Stone Fence. Even the beers lean Southern, with Terrapin and Full Steam featured on the taps; Brown also promises a focus on Virginia hard ciders.
Beyond the food and drink, "all my places have a musical identity," Brown says. "Joe Strummer and the Clash for Mockingbird Hill, Lemmy [Kilmister of Motorhead] for Eat the Rich. This one is Merle Haggard." He spent time assembling a playlist of old-school country and current alt-country favorites that ranges "from Merle to Ryan Adams to Hank Williams III."
With the opening of Southern Efficiency, Brown's trio of Seventh Street bars will be complete, and perfect for a mini-Shaw bar crawl. My suggested itinerary: Oysters and sparkling wine at Eat the Rich, then feasting on ham and sherry at Mockingbird Hill, followed by a nightcap of whiskey and dessert at Southern Efficiency.
Southern Efficiency, 1841 Seventh St. NW. Opens Saturday, Dec. 21.