A night of ad-lib libations
By Fritz Hahn
Friday, September 7, 2012
Every new restaurant, it seems, is required to have a drink menu featuring obscure Italian liqueurs, house-made bitters and fat-washed whiskeys, be it a fancy spot like the Columbia Room or a neighborhood joint like Green Pig Bistro in Arlington. Some of the bars advancing this trend are helmed by alumni of the Gibson, a 48-seat neo-speakeasy that was impossible to get into when it opened in 2008. Despite staff turnover, it has remained a favorite date spot. The Gibson is dark, makes you feel instantly classier and plays a ’60s-rooted soundtrack that isn’t too loud to preclude conversation.
What’s drawing me back is the brightly lit, no-reservations-taken bar on the second floor that on Friday nights becomes a rollicking spot full of imaginative and unexpected cocktails.
“Do What I Want Fridays” is the creation of two bartenders: Frank Jones, formerly of PS 7’s, and Duane Sylvester, a Bourbon Steak mixologist who created its cocktail list and bartends at the Gibson only on Fridays. Earlier this year, the two decided they would rather flex their mental muscles than make drinks from the Gibson’s regular menu. So, cocktails at the second-floor bar are totally bespoke: Come in, suggest a spirit and let them do what they want.
Sometimes, Jones may have a new rum that he wants to show off. (The man is fond of pirate drinks.) A few weeks ago, Sylvester decided to bring in a blender, so the pair featured frozen drinks for that night only.
“People expect us to change things up,” Jones says. “They may have a favorite rum drink or a favorite gin drink, but they want us to play around and give them something different that they can’t find everywhere.”
Case in point: I asked for an after-dinner drink. I got a lush, herbal cocktail with absinthe, aquavit, Cointreau and a bit of rose water. (Tell the bartender if there’s something you do or don’t like.)
The second floor has only a few dozen seats at the marble bar and two-top tables along the walls. Overflow seating is available at couches and mid-century chairs in the two rooms called “apartments,” which can be reserved for private parties. The staff won’t allow more people than there are seats, so you need to ask about sitting upstairs to take part in the Friday fun.
The best way to visit the downstairs bar without a reservation is to drop by early in the week, either just after happy hour or late. Ask to sit at the bar so you can talk to your bartender about what you’re about to drink. One of the disappointments with the Gibson’s menu is that too many of the 16 options seem like riffs on the same flavors. On a recent visit, my bartender steered me away from the Cardinal O’Connor (a Manhattan variation with Benedictine) in favor of the Belvedere Weather Station (a Perfect Manhattan variation with both sweet and dry vermouths, Benedictine and a bit of Campari). A subsequent visit demonstrated that she was right on the money.
No matter where you sit at the Gibson, you should always trust your bartender.