By Fritz Hahn
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, January 30, 2009
T he buzz: How many hoops are you willing to jump through to get a good cocktail? Thanks to the new pseudo-speakeasy trend, it has to be a lot.
These temples of cocktails typically have unmarked doors, unlisted phone numbers or no Web site to create a Prohibition-era secrecy that is in keeping with the classic drinks crafted inside.
But if you love cocktails, make tracks for the Gibson, which opened in November on 14th Street NW and is pouring the best drinks in the city. The cozy, romantic space, with its dark, candlelit decor, evokes the glamour of the '20s and '30s, as do such vintage drinks as the Sazerac (strong rye whiskey and bitters in a glass washed with absinthe) or the rich Japanese Cocktail (brandy, orgeat syrup and bitters).
I've yet to find something that doesn't please. In fact, it's hard to say which I'd rather have set in front of me on the embossed leather bar: the Salad Days Sour, which starts with celery-infused pisco and celery bitters, is shaken until frothy, then topped with a streak of burnt cinnamon and goes down like a sweet milkshake, or the Malt and Hops, a strong, earthy beverage with Bols Genever gin and house-made hops syrup. And the martinis come out perfect every time.
The scene: Beyond the cocktails, the atmosphere makes this a special night out. The Gibson seats 48 at the bar, tables and booths. The lights are low, and candles flicker on every table. No standing is allowed, so the room never feels crowded. And the soundtrack, which seamlessly mixes '60s rocksteady and roots reggae with the Clash, creates the perfect vibe. No surprise there, since it was created by the Gibson's owner: Eric Hilton of Thievery Corporation, the Eighteenth Street Lounge and neighboring Marvin.
Crafting each cocktail is a time-consuming task: Fruit is sliced and muddled, peels are touched with flame to add a smoky flavor, and most mixed drinks are shaken within an inch of their lives using a theatrical above-the-shoulder style that the bartenders assure us is far more effective than the usual way. Whatever they're doing, it works.
The Gibson is not the kind of place where you can just drop in on a whim. Since no standing is allowed, many who show up without reservations Thursday through Saturday find themselves wait-listed.
The doorman takes your cellphone number and sends you a text message when space becomes available. In the meantime, you can head to Cafe Saint-Ex or another nearby watering hole to wait. Just don't go too far: Once the message arrives, you have 15 minutes to make it back to the Gibson. There have been times when it has taken me 50 minutes to get a response (11 p.m. on a Friday) or never receive one at all (just before midnight on a Saturday), but on other days, it took only 20 minutes (10 p.m. on a Thursday). I've never encountered a wait Sunday through Tuesday.
In your glass: The Gibson has the most interesting cocktail menu in Washington right now, but its bartenders love a challenge. It's okay to say, "I'm in the mood for something with gin" or "something sweet and floral" though I'd recommend doing that at the bar, where it's easier to interact with the person concocting your drink.
Need to know: Half of the seats can be reserved in advance. Tables can be booked in two-hour blocks at the top of the hour from 6 to 11 p.m.
Once at a table, it's yours for two hours, unless you have one of the last two time slots, in which case you can stay as long as you want. When your time's up, the table goes to the next party.
Nice to know: A large, tree-shaded back patio will add dozens more seats and make it easier to get in. Right now, it's a heated smoker's patio.
Getting in: If you show up and don't see anyone lingering on the sidewalk outside, try the doorknob. If it turns, that probably means there's room inside, so walk in; the bar is the first door on the left. If you try the door and it's locked, that generally means the Gibson is full. Press the doorbell to summon one of the doormen, who will show you to a table if you have a reservation or take your cellphone number if you don't.
Price points: Cocktails start at $8, and most are $10 or $12, though one or two (generally champagne cocktail) can go as high as $16.
What people are saying: At the bar on a recent night, Jeff and Danielle Lockwood of Washington are sharing cocktails with two friends. "My wife and I always order different drinks and try them," says Jeff, an architect. "I've never had a cocktail here I didn't like." Adds Danielle, a lawyer: "It's intimate, but it's not small. It's nice to go somewhere and know you can sit down and not have to fight through crowds."
The Gibson 2009 14th St. NW Phone: 202-232-2156 Hours: 6 p.m. to last call (2 a.m. Sunday through Thursday, 3 a.m. Friday and Saturday)