Checking out new hotel bars in Washington
By Fritz Hahn,
Washington’s hotel bar scene has never been more eclectic. The plush-but-staid lounges such as Off the Record at the Hay-Adams and the Round Robin Bar at the Willard remain, but at new places, you’re likely to find rooftop pools or on-trend cocktails. Three hotels have recently given their bars complete overhauls.
Edgar Bar and Kitchen
Edgar, the Mayflower Hotel’s replacement for the vaunted Town and Country Lounge, is a world away from that dark, clubby watering hole. Opened in December, it’s decorated with shining green subway tiles, mirrored columns and a veritable museum of old bourbon bottles and crates. The huge circular booths can easily hold eight to 12 people.
The bar itself straddles two rooms, and the side closest to the door always seems busiest. If you go around to the other side, you’ll find more stools, first-come, first-seated booths, and a long, broad communal table that’s big enough to be a second bar counter. The space is wide open, but if you get stuck standing next to one of the columns at the corners of the bar, it’s tough to catch a bartender’s eye.
It’s hard to be at the Mayflower without thinking of much-loved bartender Sambonn Lek, who spent three decades there, wrote its menu of 101 cocktails and performed magic tricks to get strangers to chat with each other. Lek retired to Cambodia after Town and Country’s January 2011 closing, and although none of the remaining bartenders have his personality, they’ve worked there for 10 to 25 years. This makes it twice as frustrating when service goes missing, but it also means that if you’re yearning for Lek’s signature Sam I Am (Citron vodka, amaretto and cranberry), someone should be able to whip it up.
Asking for it isn’t a bad way to go, because Edgar’s new cocktail menu is pleasant but not really remarkable. The Pom-Blackberry Balsamic Bourbon is sweet and tangy, thanks to agave nectar and blackberry balsamic vinegar, but the bourbon gets lost. Better is the Pear Sidecar, where the combination of bourbon and rhubarb bitters keeps pear liqueur from being too sweet. Someone on staff must love the combination of gin and Chambord raspberry liqueur, because two of the nine drinks are built around it. Beyond cocktails, it’s nice to see a focus on local draft beers, including Flying Dog, Port City and 3 Stars.
To build buzz, Edgar is sponsoring a raft of happy hours: Free flatbread pizza and $3 drafts from 5 to 7 p.m. on Fridays, a free bottle of sparkling wine for groups larger than five after 5 p.m. on Thursdays, and half-off the whole bar menu from 8 p.m. to close on Sundays. I’d aim to make one of those on your first visit.
About the name: Former FBI director J. Edgar Hoover ate lunch at the Mayflower nearly every day. But since he doesn’t quite fit the younger, hipper image the Mayflower is going for, he’s not part of the design theme. But, there are busts of Thomas Jefferson and George Washington in the dining room.
1127 Connecticut Ave. NW. 202-347-2233. www.edgarbarandkitchen.com. Open from 11 a.m. to midnight.
Trademark Drink & Eat
Wrapped with giant windows that extend to the soaring ceiling, the spacious Trademark Drink & Eat feels more like a restaurant anchoring a suburban town center than a bar at a Westin hotel just outside of Old Town Alexandria. Taking its name and theme from the nearby Patent and Trademark Office, it is decorated with images of Thomas Edison, Eli Whitney and other famous inventors. A semi-private dining area is separated by shelves crammed with books, birds’ nests, trophies and bell jars. It’s a shame that this decorating scheme doesn’t extend far beyond that one corner.
Trademark replaced the ho-hum Jamieson bar in November, and it has become quite a hit. The din is deafening at happy hour and the vibe is lively. There are few seats to be found at the long, curving bar or the long, curving communal tables parallel to it.
One reason for its popularity might be the cocktails crafted by Christopher Bassett, a former manager at Old Town’s well-known PX. His menu doesn’t have the Wonka-esque ingredients you’d expect from PX creator Todd Thrasher, but it’s dotted with clever flavor combinations. The Commonwealth Cocktail might have been inspired by a Dark and Stormy, but Bassett dispenses with the rum and ginger beer. Instead, the light and easy-sipping drink is made with sweet-and-spicy Wasmund’s Single Malt whiskey, ginger and maraschino liqueurs and a brightening bit of lemon.
Much of the drink menu consists of ubiquitous but well-made classics, such as the Vesper and Pisco Punch, and it would be nice to see something different. A local spirit runs throughout: Legend, Devils Backbone and the nearby Port City are among the dozen drafts, and wines from Barboursville and White Hall are sold by the glass.
Filling pub food comes from the kitchen. Chilly days are made warmer by skillets of velvety mac and cheese stuffed with ham and topped with deep-fried pickles (the Cuban) or filled with crab and lobster (the Eastern Shore). Warm pretzel bites, baskets of sweet potato fries and creamy spinach and artichoke dip are better for sharing with the happy hour crew. Watch chalkboards behind the bar for specials, and keep an eye on the hockey game on the flatscreen televisions: Some specials, such as $5 appetizers, are offered only when the Capitals are winning.
2080 Jamieson Ave., Alexandria. 703-253-8640. www.trade
markdrinkandeat.com. Open from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Sunday through Thursday; 11 a.m. to midnight Friday and Saturday.
The Bar at the St. Regis
While other bars are trying to get younger and cooler, the St. Regis Hotel is going the opposite direction with its St. Regis Bar. The country house-style Library Lounge was tarted up in 2008 for the opening of adjoining restaurant Adour: Think black walls, purple sectionals and a drink menu focused on “molecular mixology.” For those of us who went there to drink the best Sidecar in the District, it was like watching a longtime friend try to dress 20 years younger after a tough divorce. But the modern edge was mostly removed — sorry, “redesigned” — right before the inauguration. The new look draws its inspiration from the hotel’s origins in 1926: The curve of the marble bartop is echoed in the high-backed bar stools, and a reopened doorway allows views of the lobby’s colorful carved wood ceiling. It’s not all retro — check out the extended gas-burning fireplace or the chandelier decorated with a rough pyramid of Swarovski crystals — but overall effect is timeless.
Surprise, surprise: There’s a pre-Prohibition cocktail menu starring a Sidecar, an Old-Fashioned and a French 75. Everything is simple, delicious and made with higher-end spirits. As at many cocktail bars these days, these cocktails are served with giant, crystal-clear blocks of ice. The staff boasts that it’ll take an hour for that rock to melt into my Manhattan.
The St. Regis remains one of the priciest cocktail destinations in town: Drinks start at $15, and a flight of three Irish whiskeys, including the 38-year-old Knappogue Castle, costs $32. But sitting at one of the Chesterfield chairs, with sunlight streaming through the domed windows, a $15 Sidecar feels like an affordable luxury.
923 16th St. NW. 202-638-2626. www.stregis.com/
WashingtonDC. Open from
11:30 a.m. to midnight Sunday through Thursday; 11:30 a.m. to
1 a.m. Friday and Saturday.