Retro Red Derby Sports a Can-Do Spirit
By Fritz Hahn
Washington Post Weekend Section
Friday, November 2, 2007
The Red Derby, a new bar in Columbia Heights, has a bunch of fun gimmicks. All beers are served in cans -- no bottles, no drafts. A beer-and-a-shot combo costs $5 all day, every day. Customers can bring their MP3 players, plug them into the bar's sound system and play a few songs while hanging out or shooting pool in a small back room.
From the pub grub to the stripped-down decor, which is just a few black-framed mirrors on blood-red walls, everything about the place feels right. It's not surprising that the homey little tavern was opened by two former bartenders. Sasha Carter and David Leventry spent years slinging drinks around town, in meat markets such as Sign of the Whale (Leventry) and Third Edition (Carter) and in the more upscale Local 16 and Blue Gin, before opening their own place in Adams Morgan last summer. Problems with the landlord meant the bar closed barely two months later, but the Red Derby is back.
You would expect to find the so-blue-collar-they're-hip Schlitz, Pabst Blue Ribbon and Natty Boh for $2 a pop, but the Red Derby's selection (scrawled on chalkboards above the bar) contains a few serious finds. Belgium's Bavik pilsner shows up in aluminum, as does the refreshing Flemish wheat beer Wittekerke. Beer lovers rave about crisp Dale's Pale Ale and rich, malty Scottish-style Old Chub, both from the Oskar Blues brewing company. Also on the menu: Brooklyn Lager, Young's Double Chocolate Stout and New England Brewing's Seahag IPA. Carter says that aside from just being "a cool idea," serving beer in cans keeps prices down; most cost $3 or $4.
The chalkboard also features a rotating $2 shot special, which, as I write, is the Woo Woo, a "classic" party mix of peach schnapps, cranberry juice and vodka. The owners love classic cocktails, so they've come up with daily specials, including Sidecar Sunday and Tom Collins Tuesday.
The throwback spirit pervades the menu: Burgers and sweet potato fries meet veggie platters and what could be my new favorite bar snack: macaroni and cheese in a fried triangle shell.
One non-retro move: Anyone can program 10 to 15 minutes' worth of songs on their MP3 player and hand it to the bartender, who plugs it into the stereo behind the bar. (If no one has a playlist, the tunes come from the owners' laptop.) As the songs play, classic films are silently projected onto a wall.
Open for just a few weeks, the Red Derby is becoming a neighborhood fixture: Denim-clad hipsters, older couples and families jostle for space at small tables, which were picked up at a diner's going-out-of-business sale. Many greet the staff by name. Some people may be unnerved by children in bars, but I've seen babies in parents' arms on almost every visit.
The Red Derby is certainly worth a visit. Look for the building near 14th and Spring streets NW with a red derby painted over its door.