Derek Brown and his older brother Tom have almost 40 years of bartending experience between them: most recently, the two have won acclaim at the Gibson and Cork, respectively. But except for a few private events, they have never worked at the same bar.
Until mid-November, that is, when the Browns will transform the bar at the Warehouse Theater (1021 Seventh St. NW) into the Passenger, a neighborhood bar and lounge. "I think that Derek and I have always wanted to do something together -- it was just finding the right place," Tom says. "There have been fits and starts, and it took a while, but now it's not us working together for someone else."
The Warehouse Theater is undergoing a big transformation. The bigger-than-a-black-box theater is moving its entrance around the corner, Civilian Art Projects is moving onto the block and there are plans to turn the former Warehouse Next Door concert space into a jazz club and restaurant. But what's grabbing attention from local cocktail fiends is the Passenger, which will combine a laid-back saloon with an upscale, reservations-suggested cocktail sanctuary.
The Passenger will keep the Warehouse's Seventh Street entrance, so if you've been to a show there, you'll recognize the room -- a large, deep rectangle of a space with a prominent skylight. A bar with 15 stools runs down one wall. The space isn't finished yet, but plans call for large booths (for eight to 10 people each) in the pair of nooks by the front door, which should allow for great people-watching through the plate glass windows. There will be more diner-style booths hugging the walls, and "transportation-themed decor," including a display of photographs by local artists on the exposed brick walls, and a dining room styled after a train's dining car, with an arched ceiling and mirrors in gilt frames.
Tom Brown will be behind the bar most nights, serving up a variety of beers in cans (no bottles), four drafts and more than two dozen wines by the glass. Intriguingly, there won't be a cocktail list -- customers can just say "I like bitter-ish gin drinks" or "I'm in the mood for a bourbon drink" and get a made-to-taste drink. (Tom ran the bar at Cork without a drink menu for years, working from the same principle that giving people a list of a drink's ingredients is more likely to turn them off than get them excited.) He's also planning to sell pitchers of cocktails that will change seasonally.
But it's the Columbia Room that should generate the most interest among the cocktail lovers of D.C. when it opens in early 2010. Derek refers to the storage room-turned-bar as a "cocktail club and laboratory bar," where he'll lead small classes and offer a couple of seatings a night for customers who want "a different level" of interaction with a bartender as he makes their drinks. "I was really inspired by Japanese bars," he says. "I like that level of service for people who are really into their cocktails."
Also, he plans to keep the drinks relatively simple, using just five different spirits, a dozen mixers and a selection of homemade bitters and ingredients. "Instead of textures and foams, it's about using technique and flavors to see how you can make the best possible cocktail," he says.
It's a split that allows both brothers to show off their best sides. "We both want people to leave happy," Derek says. "We just have different approaches. Tom's happy slinging beers. I labor over cocktails. They're totally different worlds. At the main bar, it's beer and Motorhead. In the Columbia Room, it'll be about cocktails."
Or, as Tom puts it, "If you want an expensive cocktail, go see Derek. If you want to have a good time, hang out [at the main bar]."
Actually, some drinks shouldn't be too expensive -- the Browns say prices at the main bar will top out at $9 for cocktails and wines will be between $5 and $15. "They're not just cheap wines," Tom says. "They have to be legit, wines that I'd be proud to put in front of anyone."
There are plans for events like wine tastings and BYO nights, and every week, the main bar will host happy hour with a percentage of proceeds going to charity. (Derek also works for Share Our Strength, which provides food for needy children.)
Stay tuned for more news on the opening, which should happen within the next two weeks.
-- Fritz Hahn (Nov. 6, 2009)