When Derek Brown and Angie Salame had to close the award-winning Columbia Room cocktail bar, they knew things would be different at their new location in Blagden Alley. Instead of having a 10-seat inner sanctum at the Passenger, they'd be occupying a 2,400-square-foot space in one of the buzziest neighborhoods in Washington.
"We had a unique opportunity that was years and years in planning," Brown says. "The Columbia Room has always changed throughout its existence. I've always been plotting and now we had this chance to blow it up and start again."
The new Columbia Room, which reopens Feb. 9, will now consist of three spaces and four different experiences, depending on your mood or the thickness of your wallet. Here's a quick tour.
Stop #1: The Punch Garden
The most popular addition, I'm willing to bet, will be the "Punch Garden," which Brown says will open in the spring. It's a breezy rooftop deck with room for 30, shaded by a canopy and surrounded by planters filled with herbs that will eventually be used as cocktail ingredients. In the Columbia Room's final year, Brown says, it used seven different varieties of mint in its recipes. "We've experimented with flavored mints," Brown says, and they've settled on one called Kentucky Colonel for bourbon beverages. "It's the perfect fragrance and flavor for a mint julep – just that sweet fragrance and the right amount of bite." However, he adds, "We always have a hell of a time getting Kentucky Colonel mint from suppliers. We need a steady supply," and the new space will allow them to grow their own.
Stop #2: The Spirits Library and Bar
Inside, before you get to the Columbia Room itself, there's a lounge area with 20 seats and no barstools.
The marquee feature is what Brown calls a "spirits library," complete with "bookcases full of booze," overseen by former Rasika West End bar manager Dante Datta. Available for purchase: a Napoleon cognac from 1811, 1870 Russian vodka ("with caviar service"), 19th-century rhum agricole and Maryland rye from the 1860s through the 1930s. You can probably guess that these won't come cheap. "The reality is, we want people to have that rye, that piece of history, but most of us will not have the chance to taste these," Brown explains. "We have the opportunity to serve such rare spirits."
Beyond vintage spirits, though, there will be a menu of eight featured cocktails, which Brown expects to change four to six times a year. Some are drinks that were favorites at the Columbia Room, including the Getaway ($12), a "Cynar daiquiri" where a custom salt tincture is added to the blend of Black Strap rum, Cynar, cane sugar and lemon; and the Steady Cocktail ($14), a dry gin martini enlivened with green Chartreuse and "this citrusy, vegetal, beautiful translucent olive oil dripped in the top," Brown explains. "You can get this beautiful texture that's concordant with the martini."
Cocktails at Columbia Room used to change weekly, "but it was hard," Brown says. "We'd come up with a great cocktail and the next week it was gone, and we'd spend so much effort going into them. It was maddening. 'This drink is great and super successful. Okay, let's take it off.'"
Other sections of the menu will be devoted to highballs, including a shochu highball ($15), which he fell in love with in Japan. It's a mix of shochu, a lower-alcohol spirit made with grain, and house-made mineral water flavored with grapefruit, pineapple or citrus. "It's light and refreshing and lower in alcohol," Brown says. "Every now and then, it's nice to have a refreshing cocktail."
Also on the menu: five variations on an Old Fashioned ($15 each), each with a different base spirit. The Lost Boys, made with blended Scotch, honey, grapefruit bitters, mole bitters and a grapefruit peel, was one of the signature drinks at the old Columbia Room.
If none of these drinks appeal, the bartenders working the room will collaborate with customers to make classic cocktails or new drinks with a twist, even if the requests aren't fancy. "We're not out to prove we're cool kids," Brown says. "Hopefully they let us choose drinks for them because that's how their minds are going to get blown. But if someone comes in and orders a vodka tonic, I won't look at them sideways."
Stop #3: The Columbia Room
As nice as the other spaces are, the Columbia Room itself is obviously going to be the main attraction. This is a gorgeous upgrade on the somewhat drab and cramped previous space: Fourteen barstools are spaced along the gently arching bar that runs the length of the room. Behind the bar is an elaborate mural designed by John DeNapoli of Edit Lab at Streetsense and made of tiles hand-cut in Italy. "In a way, this mural tells the story of the Columbia Room," Derek says, cryptically. Some parts are obvious: The names running along the bottom include alchemists (Aristotle, Kenelm Digby) and 19th-century Washington bartenders, such as George Williamson, the creator of the rickey, and Dick Francis, an African American who became the head bartender at the U.S. Senate after the Civil War. Clusters of plants show ingredients used in the Columbia Room's cocktails, including saffron, bergamot and gentian. The main figures in the mural represent the Columbia Room's founders and bartenders. Derek Brown, for instance is the Tiger, because it's his astrological sign, and because the Columbia Room originally opened in 2010, which was the Year of the Tiger. The rest, Brown says, are up to guests to figure out.
As before, the Columbia Room remains a prix-fixe experience: $75 for three cocktails paired with snacks, or $100 for five courses. (Tax and gratuity are included.) The old Columbia Room only offered a three-course menu for $69, but, Brown says, "people would do the three-course [tasting] and then they'd inevitably order two more drinks," so he wanted to give them the option of ordering an amuse cocktail and a special nightcap. (Regardless of the number of courses, all reservations are guaranteed for two hours.)
Courses from the winter menu include the sherry-based Doubting Duck (Manzanilla Pasada, dry vermouth, yellow Chartreuse, orange bitters, seawater and oyster leaf) paired with a pickled oyster and uni butter on toast; and the Robert Frost Cocktail (bourbon, amontillado sherry, white port and orange bitters filtered through sugar-maple charcoal to smooth out the drink, similar the Lincoln County process used in Tennessee whiskey) with venison carpaccio, radishes and horseradish "snow."
The biggest change involves reservations: The Columbia Room is now using Tock, the ticket-style reservation system founded by Nick Kokonas, the Chicago restaurateur whose properties include the Aviary and Alinea. Instead of calling to see if seats are available (as at the old Columbia Room), or texting an anonymous cell phone (a la Dram & Grain), Tock allows guests to check availability for days and times on its website and pay for their food and drinks in advance. "It's like theater tickets: You buy for the 7 p.m. seating or the 10 p.m. seating," Brown says. "I don't want to stress anybody out. From the moment you start thinking about [going to the Columbia Room]: I wonder if they have seats this weekend, I have to call someone – it makes everyone's life easier" to use an online system. The comparison to theater tickets is apt: Once you've paid your seats and cocktails, there are no refunds or exchanges. Tickets are transferrable, so you could give them to a friend, or sell them on Craigslist. This could theoretically lead to guests making prime reservations on Valentine's Day or New Year's Eve and then scalping the tickets, but, Brown says, "We've talked to other people who used Tock and it wasn't an issue. We don't have a policy on that yet."
But what won't change is the Columbia Room's scientific and sometimes overly precious approach to cocktails, overseen by head bartender J.P. Fetherston. Take the mixers: Brown says that he's having limestone-rich branch water shipped in from Kentucky, and Speyside mineral water shipped from Scotland. (There will also be a house-made mineral water available.) "I know people are going to roll their eyes at specialty water," Brown says. "I understand that. But if people will fight and die over the fact that water changes the flavor of pizza in New York, why won't they consider that the mineral water in Kentucky changes the flavor of your drink? The water from Kentucky and the bourbon from Kentucky taste great together. No surprise there."
Despite all the changes, Brown says, the overall vibe of the Columbia Room shouldn't change. "My hope is that people leave and think that this is how a bar should be. We want this to be an incredible experience for everyone who walks through that door. Bring your high expectations. We want to meet them. If we don't, tell us and we'll make it better. I don't think it's a secret that we want to be one of the best bars in the world."
The Columbia Room, 124 Blagden Alley NW. 202-316-9396. columbiaroomdc.com. Open at 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday.