It's finally official: The Passenger and the Columbia Room are closing to the public on Jan. 1. The two trailblazing cocktail bars will then take different paths: Derek Brown is moving the Columbia Room a few blocks north to Blagden Alley, where it will occupy the space above chef Jeremiah Langhorne's forthcoming restaurant, the Dabney. The Passenger, meanwhile, will go dark until Tom Brown, Derek's brother, is able to find the perfect place for it in Shaw.
"When we shook hands with [partner] Paul [Ruppert], we always knew there might be an end to the Passenger and the Columbia Room," Derek Brown said. The block of Seventh Street NW has long been slated for development by Douglas Development, but the developers were happy to let the buildings stay occupied while they finalized plans for an office building on the land. When the tiki bar Hogo closed in August, Tom speculated that the Passenger and Columbia Room could follow by the end of the year. Last week, the brothers got the official notice that construction is going to begin early next year. Both spaces must be emptied by Jan. 4.
Ironically, the bar is preparing to celebrate its fifth anniversary this weekend with a three-day party that will now become an Irish wake.
The Browns had been looking for new spaces in Shaw. In late October, Derek signed a lease for the new Columbia Room in a Blagden Alley building known as "The Gang of Three," because it cobbles together three existing rowhouses into one space. The first floor has been leased by the Dabney, though Brown stresses that "The only connection we have is that Jeremiah and I are friends. We respect the hell out of each other. We respect what they do. But we're not going to be the bar for the Dabney."
If all goes according to plan, the new Columbia Room is "about a year away, by the end of 2015." The new space will be about five times larger than the current setup, which has just 10 reservations-only seats. Brown anticipates having an area for walk-in customers, but hasn't quite nailed down the specifics of how an expanded Columbia Room will remain the same sort of intimate cocktail den that has garnered multiple "Outstanding Bar Program" nominations at the James Beard Awards. "We don't want to change this radically," Derek said. "We love what we do. We want to keep the core and expand around it."
Meanwhile, Tom has had less luck nailing down a new location for the Passenger. "I've been looking at spaces for a while," he said, "but it didn't work out, or it wasn't the right situation. You can't do the Passenger in a new buildout. Right now, unless someone comes up with the magic space in Shaw, I'm not ready to jump into anything."
Brown has other irons in the fire right now, though he's loathe to go into specifics about them before leases are signed. "I might do things in another neighborhood, but Passenger needs to stay in Shaw, even if it goes dark for a while … This neighborhood made the Passenger what it is – the juxtaposition of old and new. You have a lot of tourists in the area, but also a lot of people who live in the neighborhood. We focused on the people who live here, they're our regulars."
While the hunt continues, Tom has talked to other bar owners about hosting "Passenger in Exile" events after January 4. Before that happens, there are a few celebrations to hold.
This weekend, the Passenger marks five years with $5 kimchi dogs, $5 whiskey shots and $5 pints of 3 Stars beer from opening on Friday to closing on Sunday. The two bars also have big plans for New Year's Eve: The Columbia Room will have some "very special cocktails" at its New Year's Eve seatings; reservations will be available starting Dec. 1. The Passenger, meanwhile, is holding its traditional DJ dance party in the Warehouse Theatre space, with a $10 cover charge and no advance tickets.
There's plenty of nostalgia for what the Browns have accomplished over the last five years. Both bars have made it onto numerous "Best Bars in America" lists, and the Passenger has won legions of fans by having some of the area's best bartenders serving top-notch cocktails in an unpretentious atmosphere. "I think we're the first blue-collar cocktail bar," Tom said. "Before we opened, there were speakeasies [like PX and the Gibson] and there were restaurant bars and there were fancy hotel bars. But you could come in here and get a fancy cocktail, and your non-fancy cocktail friend could get a Schlitz. We're trying to appeal to everyone, to have them all come in and sit down and be friends."
"Even though we knew the Passenger only had five or ten years, I kind of always thought it would last," Derek said.
But, Tom added, the brothers realize that while the Passenger and Columbia Room were special, they're only a sliver of the neighborhood's history. Paul Ruppert's family has operated restaurants and stores on the block since the 19th century. "If the Rupperts' hardware store had stayed open, it would be 125 years old this week. We're waxing nostalgic about five years, but the Rupperts are leaving behind generations of memories in this place."