Washington’s nightlife scene has more options than ever, which leads new bars to try to separate themselves from the pack with the widest draft beer lineup, the coolest selection of small-batch bourbons or the craziest list of house-infused cocktails. Two of the city’s most respected bartenders, however, are asking customers to take a step back.
Jeff Faile, known for his expertise with Italian aperitifs at Fiola, created a stripped-down menu of cocktails for sister restaurant Casa Luca. “If you’re going out to have a good time, you don’t want to get stressed looking at the menu,” Faile says. “It should be a no-brainer.”
Meanwhile, Adam Bernbach, who attracts fans to Proof and Estadio with inventive cocktails based on hard-to-find ingredients, has taken the reins at 2 Birds 1 Stone, a basement lounge under Doi Moi on 14th Street. Walk through the (not-very-well-marked) doors and you’ll find a hand-drawn menu featuring six cocktails, most of which have three ingredients or fewer, and a stereo blasting indie rock or old-school hip-hop. “I just want to be able to go into a bar and get a well-made Tom Collins or a Mamie Taylor,” Bernbach says. “How revolutionary would that be?”
1099 New York Ave. NW (entrance on 11th Street). 202-628-1099.
Jeff Faile loves a well-made Negroni. He loves making them, too: The bar menu at Fiola has six variations made with different gins and bitter Italian amaros. But when you take a seat on the wide leather stools at Casa Luca’s bar, there’s only one option. “We’ve simplified things,” he explains. “We want people to be comfortable.”
The Negroni is a classic, but I gravitate to Il Palio, a Boulevardier variation (Maker’s Mark, Cocchi Vermouth, orange bitters) that’s served over a large block of orange ice. On closer inspection, it’s a giant hunk of frozen “Campari ice” that melts into the drink over time, subtly changing the taste of the cocktail as you sip. It may be the best $13 drink in town. (That’s how much you pay for any one of the seven cocktails on the Casa Luca menu.)
Cocktails may be the draw, but don’t overlook the wine program. There are 14 wines available by the glass, plus seven other varieties on tap (“We thought it would be fun,” Faile says of the $10-12 pours). When I wanted something to go with a rich smoked pork terrine, the bartender was happy to recommend a nice Nebbiolo — “It cuts through the fat” — and pointed out that while a glass costs $12, my date and I could have the whole bottle for $28. It’s enough to make you want to linger.
Casual and well-lit, with a wide bar counter and three small, unobtrusive televisions, Casa Luca is welcoming whether you drop in for happy hour (including $5 Americanos or Aperol spritzes) or hang out while sipping one of the seven American or Italian craft beers on tap.
2 Birds 1 stone
1800 14th St. NW (entrance on S Street). www.2birds1stonedc.com.
“At this stage in my life or my career, I’m interested in making good drinks, not necessarily inventing new drinks,” says Adam Bernbach, who first wowed Washington cocktail drinkers in 2008 by creating five new drinks every week at Bar Pilar.
The selection of six cocktails at 2 Birds 1 Stone changes weekly, but you’re more likely to see such familiar names as gin gimlet, old pal or pina colada. “The menu is what I’m drinking right now, which is mostly classic,” Bernbach says. Every drink is pared down to three or four ingredients, but they’re far from mundane — he makes his own deeply spicy ginger beer and puts the pina colada ingredients in a soda siphon to froth them up. Want a draft beer? There’s one choice: Stillwater’s Cellar Door.
Bernbach talks up the “homeyness” of 2 Birds 1 Stone, which opened in late August and is reached only by the relatively unmarked stairs around the corner from Doi Moi, on S Street. It’s dim, and the walls are lined with private nooks that hold benches for two to four people. There’s plenty of room to sit at the long bar, or for groups to stand. The glassware, which was picked up at antique stores throughout the Midwest, is quirky and mismatched. The indie-slacker soundtrack is all Bernbach’s: “I’ve always wanted a bar where I could play Pavement,” he says. “There’s a certain informality to having a bar that plays Jon Spencer Blues Explosion or Sleigh Bells.”
The bar feels like a cool underground rock club, albeit one with a hand-drawn cartoon-style menu that Bernbach takes two or three hours to complete each week. Cocktails rotate regularly; the Savory Boulevardier and Mamie Taylor lasted about three weeks. The Punch of the Day, which costs $8, is always the freshest thing in the house, featuring seasonal flavors.
2 Birds is a work in progress. The bar- bites menu, with Vietnamese spring rolls and dumplings from Doi Moi’s kitchen, went live only last week. Its location on 14th Street means it gets too crowded on weekends. But it’s a comfortable place to savor a cocktail while catching up with friends, and that’s all you really need.