AS THE temperature rises, bar and club-goers begin to divide into two groups: Those who try to escape the heat and stifling humidity by seeking venues where the air conditioning is set on arctic blast, and those who make the best of the season by heading outside, usually for one of the numerous nightspots with patios or rooftop decks.
I'm firmly in the latter camp, but sometimes it's nice to go see a band, sip a cold beer and enjoy an evening without ever setting foot in a crowded bar.
Last summer, the Columbia Island Marina (off the George Washington Memorial Parkway, just north of the Pentagon; 202-347-0173) started hosting themed outdoor parties for its slip holders and the public. A reggae night featured live music and a Caribbean menu, for example, while Beach Party USA offered a surf band, volleyball, a bathing suit contest, limbo and barbecue.
The events were so successful, says marina manager Renee Sanders, that Guest Services, the company that runs the marina, decided to host concerts and cookouts on the second Saturday of every month during the summer.
Admission is $15, and although that may sound steep, it includes an all-you-can-eat buffet with a different theme for each event. May's jazz and blues concert with the Moonlighters offered a Jamaican menu with jerk pork chops, turnip greens with bacon, cornbread, and rice and beans. (The usual all-American hot dogs and hamburgers were also available, fresh off the grill with all the fixin's.) We're not talking gourmet fare, but the food was good.
For me, though, it's the setting that makes the trip worthwhile. Nestled in the National Park Service's Lyndon B. Johnson Memorial Grove, between the Boundary Channel and the Potomac River, Columbia Island Marina is surrounded by trees and flowers. Cool breezes blow off the Pentagon Lagoon, and ducks waddle across the lawn near the building that houses the office and cafe.
It doesn't feel like you're in Washington -- until you turn and notice the massive facade of the Pentagon looming over the lagoon, just beyond the slips.
Events at the marina are reminiscent of a family reunion or neighborhood block party: Bands perform on a concrete patio, under a large wedding-reception-style tent. (Not included in the admission fee: 32-ounce cups of beer and jello shooters, served at the tiny indoor bar counter.) Grassy areas next to the pavilion allow for throwing a Frisbee, playing volleyball or just letting children run. Plastic tables and chairs serve as temporary picnic spots.
The informal atmosphere carries over to the unfussy crowd. Last month, it seemed like most of the audience had just gotten off their boats -- or were going aboard later -- so the dress code didn't go beyond bathing suits, T-shirts, flip-flops and sunglasses. It's worth pointing out that many were there to eat while socializing with friends or fellow boat-owners, not necessarily to see the band, and talked over the music. (That's not the only problem hampering the sound. Jets flying into nearby Reagan National Airport can drown out songs.) This weekend's band is the Top 40 cover group Swiftkick; the grills are going from 4 to 8, and the band plays from 6 to 10. There are two chances to hit the marina next month: A day-long July 4 celebration features veteran reggae singer Englishman from noon to 4, followed by rock band Release from 6 to 10. The Qleenkut Band -- often seen playing reggae and soca at Adams Morgan's Bukom Cafe -- plays the regular second-Saturday slot July 9.
ALL ABOUT EVE
Some bartenders create new beverages by playing around with different liquors, juices and garnishes until they come up with a certain taste. Restaurant Eve's Todd Thrasher takes what you might call the mad scientist approach.
One recent Saturday afternoon found him behind the bar at Eve (110 S. Pitt St., Alexandria; 703-706-0450) surrounded by pots and beakers, straining dark, viscous liquids through napkins. He was brewing his own tonic water -- the secret ingredient for Jose's Gin and Tonic.
Read that again: He was making his own tonic water. From scratch.
Thrasher doesn't work as a bartender -- his official titles include general manager and sommelier -- but in his spare time, he invents some of the most quirky and delicious cocktails in the area.
"I worked at Cafe Atlantico for about six years," Thrasher says, "and [chef] Jose Andres always . . . complains and moans about how Americans make gin and tonics -- we use too much water, we use too many ice cubes, we mess it up completely every time. So I said one day I'm going to make you a gin and tonic."
And what's the most important part of this quintessential summer beverage? The tonic, of course.
"So I started messing around and looking for quinine. My grandmother told me that when she was a kid, they had quinine pills for everything, so I started looking for them. I thought what I'd find would be a refined white power."
He pulls out a large brown bag. "Unfortunately," he says, laughing harder, "what I got is dirt." Opening the bag, he shows me the raw quinine -- a grainy brown powder. "It looks like dirt, it tastes like dirt, it's absolutely horrific."
Thrasher offers a taste, and I put a couple of grains in my mouth -- which is quickly filled with a foul, bitter, medicinal flavor.
"I couldn't believe you could make a cocktail out of something that tastes as bad as that. Then I just started messing around with it. I had this lime simple syrup that I'd made upstairs, so I put that with it. It tasted okay. Then chef [Cathal Armstrong] said, 'You know what? Yuzu [an Asian citrus fruit] tastes like tonic.' " So Thrasher added some to the base, along with honey and sugar, and kept working at it, trying different measures, boiling it down, constantly straining the mixture through napkins to try to remove the excess grains of quinine from the mixture. He added more yuzu, more simple syrup and kept adding more designer Voss water. It took weeks -- but he finally got it right.
The resulting tonic isn't as sharp as what comes out of the soda guns at most bars -- it's darker, earthy, a little malty, but its complex flavor is somehow more refreshing. Little brown dregs of quinine lie like silt at the bottom of the glass. With Citadelle, a sweet French gin, and a narrow ribbon of lime peel, the concoction is perfect for sipping on Eve's patio on a summer night.
"One of my favorite things is when people say, 'Oh, I don't like gin,' and I say, 'But you can't even taste the gin,' " Thrasher says. "The art of making a cocktail is that you shouldn't taste the alcohol. . . . It's like making wine. If you make wine and all you taste is oak, then your wine's not in balance. If you make a cocktail and all you taste is alcohol, it's not in balance. . . . [Even if it's made with just spirits], the tastes should blend together and mesh."
Thrasher makes enough tonic to last a week on a Saturday afternoon, but that's only part of a day's work. He's working on a number of other recipes, including a tequila-based blend with thyme simple syrup, lemons and foaming Emergen-C tablets (for the right amount of fizz) that he hopes will taste like limoncello and foam like a science-fair volcano; and a pina colada-style drink made from coconut water, two different rums and his homemade Mexican Tepache, a traditional mix of pineapple rinds, brown sugar and herbs that's fermenting in a large plastic bucket in a backroom somewhere.
If everything goes as planned, these cocktails may make their way onto Eve's short list, alongside Eamonn's Cocktail, a bracing rickey made with Irish whiskey and a red lemonade that chef Armstrong used to drink as a boy in Dublin, and the stunning pickled martini, "based on my grandmother's pickle recipe," which contains sweet pickle juice, vodka infused with fennel (to balance the tartness) and topped with a frothy mountain of whipped pickle juice that's almost sudsy in texture.
Thrasher's mojito may even top his old recipe at Atlantico, thanks to a harmonious mix of rum and mint-infused simple syrup -- "No salad," he smirks, referring to the mint leaves that clog glasses at other bars -- and a very mild hint of lime.
The short menu at Eve usually stays at 10 cocktails or less, and while the printed version changes "about twice a month" -- far more frequently than anywhere in town -- because Thrasher is such a stickler about using the freshest and most seasonal ingredients, he offers "verbal specials" nightly for customers who care to ask. (For the record, almost every cocktail is less than $10.) Some of Thrasher's creations sound like they belong at a cocktail aficionado's version of Cafe Atlantico's vaunted Minibar. Take the foie gras cocktail, a mixture of vodka, grappa and Spanish Licor 43 that was served alongside -- and meant to be consumed with -- a sliver of fatty goose liver on star anise. A new version of this infamous libation is on its way back later this summer.
"It sounds funny and cliche, but I dream about [cocktails]," he says with a smile. "I'll go to sleep thinking about a cocktail, and when I wake up, I've got the base of it down."