Washington’s a town of uptight worker bees, and perhaps not coincidentally, also a town of drinker bees.
We have cigar bars, bars for bocce leagues and bars for whiskey-heads. Neo-retro dives and mold-ridden actual dives. But the one haunt that no one had thought to build may have been the one we needed most: a bar for “bookish” people.
At least that’s what Elizabeth Nosal had traveled from Bristow, Va., to find at the back of Petworth Citizen, in a diminutive black box known as the Reading Room.
She’d heard rumblings about the Reading Room on various websites — sites for bookish types, she said.
Until a few months ago, the Reading Room was just a free library, filled mostly with half-read novels, ego-stroking memoirs and law-school assigned reading that neighborhood residents had donated by the crateful. Now, on Friday and Saturday nights, it’s a singular, civilized place where you can sip a cocktail and decompress from a week of the cerebral hustle. A 20-seat nerd speakeasy, bow ties welcome.
What has made this space a salon not quite on the level of New York’s Algonquin Hotel and its famed round table (but good enough) are its Literary Cocktails nights. They began in October (and continue indefinitely), complete with prose-inspired menus paying homage to the Sherlock Holmes series (guests tossed back a green chartreuse and Scotch number dubbed “The Boscombe Valley Mystery”); Oscar Wilde (drinks infused with rose water, spiked with eau de vie and garnished with flowers, naturally); and Ian Fleming (what else but champagne and vodka for the James Bond creator?).
Cocktail fans have come, but so, recalls craft bartender Chantal Tseng, has a woman working on a doctoral thesis around Franz Kafka and a gentleman who had analyzed “The Arabian Nights.”
Each weekend brings new cocktail lists, which look curiously like elegant bookmarks, and new drinks, which often make obscure references to tomes by Wilde, Robert Burns and Jules Verne or the experimental Japanese author Haruki Murakami.
The dusty old books — more than 3,000, shelved according to color, from black (“Twilight”) to white to dark blue (Amy Tan’s “The Kitchen God’s Wife”) — are both an accidental design element and something to pass the time with between sips.
Pairing cocktails and books “makes perfect sense,” Nosal muses.
Well, it does if you’re fairly well-read. In that case, you know that authors and booze go together like, well, Hemingway and daiquiris.
On a recent Saturday, the Reading Room was a scene straight out of “A Moveable Feast.” A woman dolled up in a voluminous-shouldered, cream-color vintage dress and salmon-hued kitten heels played cards with a silver fox as jazz played quietly in the background. Strewn across their table were tiny tiki umbrellas, a pristine copy of the book “1001 Things to Love About Military Life” and Murakami-inspired vodka-sake cocktails garnished with tiny hearts cut from orange peel.
“I wish I read more,” a tall, pink-cheeked woman whispered to her friend as they slipped in from Petworth Citizen to survey the scene and just as quickly slipped out.
On the other hand, Ari Attar, a pretty, dark-haired Logan Circle dweller, was convinced to stay just a little longer on her date with Austin Pierce of Petworth. He had brought her to the Reading Room to “look at books and have a quiet moment.” (The volume of the banter in the Reading Room is unusually subdued.)
He hadn’t expected that she’d be familiar with Murakami’s work. (Score!)
“It was almost like a Murakami book,” Attar said of the evening as the duo made their exit.
“There’s something sort of confusing.”
But what could be confusing about a bar where people tend to work at NPR or, in the waning hours of a Saturday night, enjoy — like anyone might! — hunching over a good cocktail to discuss what they’d heard on NPR earlier that day?
What is so unusual about that?
There’s quite a bit that’s unusual, considering that most bars seem to exist for drinking and that this one seems to foster thinking. That may have been an unintended outcome for Tseng, who mostly was looking for an excuse to indulge her own bookishness. “It is my own personal book club,” she says. “And anyone else is invited to join by reading and stopping by.”
For a time, she’d been part of a real book club, which read the works of Jane Austen, some F. Scott Fitzgerald, some noir-ish short stories. She proposed the literature-inspired nights at the bar in hopes of keeping up her reading and capitalizing on the books that fill the Reading Room. Now, she spends a week delving into an author’s oeuvre, then each weekend unveils the drinks her reading has inspired. For the staff, she dispatches a kind of Cliff’s Notes to explain both the readings and how they inspire her concoctions.
Take this one, from her recent Robert Burns night: “The poem,” she wrote, “is about the dichotomy of man.
“The drink is an equal parts dry take on a classic aromatic whisky cocktail. . . . It’s the kind of cocktail a man or woman of very dry humor would sip while observing and musing about the folly of mankind.”
And this place, in the company of true people of letters, is precisely the kind of place where they’d do it.
Reading Room at Petworth Citizen, 829 Upshur St. NW. Literary Cocktails events are held each Friday and Saturday from 7 p.m. to midnight.