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Photos: Trent Johnson

Behind the Bar: Design Edition

In a city filled with bars touting the best craft cocktails, local beer programs or even late-night eats, what’s bound to make patrons stick around and even more importantly, come back time and time again? The atmosphere created by a bar can make or break its overall experience, no matter how good the drinks on hand.
Two new additions to DC’s ever-growing cocktail scene, however, prove that providing the best of both is possible. And while the overall style and décor of these locations is not similar at first glance, they share a common goal: unpretentious, enjoyable sips in atmospheres unlike anything else in the city.

Astoria

Eli Schwarzschild

Owner Devin Gong and Bartender // Partner Eli Schwarzschild

“I always rode trains when I was little, and I loved the dining car of the train where you had the bar in the middle and the seating on either end,” owner Devin Gong says of the narrow but inviting locomotives that inspired the look of his newest venture, Dupont Circle’s Astoria. “When I first walked in, it was a very long and narrow space, and it reminded me a lot of a train car.”

With the help of CORE architecture + design, Gong brought his childhood nostalgia to life. With nods to his flagship spot on H Street, Copycat Co., the space invokes the kind of intimate setting you’d perhaps get from a drink on a bustling train car in the midst of a grand adventure. A talented artist himself, Gong painted the three works of art that hang over large, cozy booths – they even look like train car windows at first glance.

It’s a subtle callout, however, and Gong was careful to make sure he didn’t “hit people over the head” with his interior inspirations. Similarly understated is the bar’s approach to food and drink. Astoria’s beverage director Eli Schwarzschild points out that while the concept is inherently creative, they aren’t trying to overthink things.

“It’s a combination of classics paying homage to drinks that have stood the test of time,” Schwarzschild explains. “If the drinks aren’t broken, don’t fix them is partially our philosophy. We want to respect the drinks. But on the other hand, there’s creativity in a sense. We have originals, but it’s not about us per se. We’re just trying to put out drinks that could perhaps be mistaken for a classic; not so many infusions, just going back to the basics and staying true to the ingredients, which is a very French idea.”

One thing that’s present at Astoria but not necessarily at other outposts serving classic cocktails is an array of doodles flanking the menu, hand-drawn by Schwarzschild himself. They’re incredibly detailed and time-consuming to produce, so why do it?

“Not many people notice it, but it’s the one person in a million who does that makes it worth it,” Schwarzschild says. “It’s just that characteristic of art that is almost existential. Whatever you decide and whatever matters to you, that’s what it is. It’s kind of meanderings – left-brain kind of thoughts. As long as there’s a feeling there, I let my brain go with it.”

The bar provides a welcome combination of outside-the-box elements with unpretentious but well-crafted drinks. At the end of the day, it’s clear Gong and Schwarzschild are able to incorporate personal passions into this endeavor, and the bar is even better for that energy.

“I don’t have lofty goals to change the scene or anything like that,” Gong concludes. “I know what I do, and for me this is more self-indulgent than anything else.”

Hummingbird

HUMMINGBIRD
St. Germain
Punt e Mes vermouth
Lemon
Honey
Cinnamon
GF

Astoria: 1521 17th St. NW, DC; www.astoriadc.com

Hex

Kit Yarber

General Manager Kit Yarber

The second floor of The Passenger in Shaw was home to a sporadically used space, only opened on the rare occasion that the neighborhood bar was hosting a band. Kit Yarber saw an opportunity to transform the underutilized level into what he now describes as the “a little goth, a little kitschy” Hex.

As general manager of the newly minted space, Yarber decided the décor and menu would take cues from astrology, tarot and the occult. Numerology comes into play as well, as “hex” indicates the number six and the menu is broken up into six categories. All 12 astrological signs are represented on the menu, and Yarber says he based it off people he knew when deciding what sign to name the drinks after.

“It’s been funny because people come in and want to order their sign, of course, and they’re like, ‘How did you know?’” he explains. “I just tell them I based it off of someone who was that sign.”

If you’re feeling adventurous, you can draw a rune – or divinatory symbol – from a bag behind the bar, and you’ll be presented with a drink that corresponds to the symbol hidden on the menu. There are also runes flanking the wall to the right of the bar, along with a stuffed unicorn head, lovingly called Ophelia.

“I always loved the Victorian haunted mansion, pictures on pictures on pictures look,” Yarber says of the plethora of design elements that adorn the walls and tables. “We talked about having a curio aspect. Everything kind of mismatches but it ends up working out together. We just had fun with it.”

The resulting space is a nod to the supernatural and spiritual without feeling spooky. It’s overall feel is intimate and inviting. Since opening, it’s been a mix of lovers of the elements present at the bar and those who are completely unfamiliar that have stopped in for one of Yarber’s creations. The spot has even caught the attention of local pan-Pagan group The Firefly House, who plans on hosting a handful of regular happy hours at the spot. You can also catch occasional tarot readings.

Whether you’re the type to pull a daily tarot reading and analyze everything through the lens of the zodiac or just want to enjoy a drink in an inviting space, Yarber wants Hex to be a place where you can sit, relax and connect.

“I wanted Hex to have a different ambiance,” Yarber says. “I love the craft cocktail scene and craft cocktail bars, but I feel like they get stuck in a certain era. I don’t want it to feel pretentious. I just want it to be chill. I want to get people up here who love talking to people and [offer] a different ambience that can still be appreciated as something unique.”

The Incantation

THE INCANTATION
Rittenhouse Rye
Sacred Bond Brandy
Averna
Cocchi Vermouth di Torino
Punt e Mes vermouth
Orange bitters
Angostura bitters

Hex Bar: 1539 7th St. NW, DC; www.hexbardc.com

Photo: Courtesy of 2 Birds 1 Stone

Drink In Style: 10 Instaworthy Bar Designs

Most people judge a bar based on the quality of its drinks and selection of liquors. But that is just one aspect of the experience. Design plays an influential role in making a bar memorable, with an impact rivaling that of the taste and service. DC’s list of visually stunning bar spaces includes everything from restored Irish architecture direct from Dublin to Wes Anderson-inspired cocktail lounges. Here are 10 of our favorites across town.


Photo: Courtesy of 2 Birds 1 Stone

Photo: Courtesy of 2 Birds 1 Stone

2 Birds 1 Stone
Mismatched glassware and hand-drawn menus welcome thirsty customers at 2 Birds 1 Stone. The underground cocktail haunt features a brick-backed bar accented with white cabinetry and chairs. White brick walls line the rest of the space, which has various seating nooks and benches for groups large and small. It feels lively and intimate all at once, as if you’re hanging out with a drink at your best laid-back friend’s house. 1800 14th St. NW, DC; www.2birds1stonedc.com


Photo: Courtesy of Chicken + Whiskey

Photo: Courtesy of Chicken + Whiskey

Chicken + Whiskey’s Speakeasy
There’s whiskey – lots of it – behind the decoy refrigerator door at this Latin American kitchen on 14th Street. Swing open the door and you’ll be met with dozens upon dozens of bottles of brown liquor from around the word, all lined up behind the long wooden bar. Another wooden ledge for perching drinks encompasses the cozy space and makes for easy, hands-free conversation. A chalkboard displays the selection of cocktails, beer and wine while vinyl on the speakers completes the lowkey experience. 1738 14th St. NW, DC; www.chickenandwhiskey.com


Photo: Farrah Skeiky

Photo: Farrah Skeiky

Cotton & Reed
The team at CORE architecture and design used industrial elements like exposed pipes, a large garage door window and baby blue metal shelving to make Cotton & Reed fit right in as a modern member of the Union Market neighborhood. The big design feature is the bar top, which is covered in wooden hexagon tiles featuring realistic sketch-style artwork of all types of flora and fauna. That artwork alone is Instagram worthy – and it pops even more when paired with one of the bar’s signature rum cocktails. Guest can also gaze back into the distillery and production space. 1330 5th St. NE, DC; www.cottonandreed.com


Photo: Andrew Cebulka

Photo: Andrew Cebulka

Dabney Cellar
This underground hangout – an offshoot of James Beard Award-winning chef Jeremiah Langhorne’s The Dabney – is an ideal spot for sipping wine with seasonal, local food. Edit Lab at Streetsense oversaw the design, which includes a spiral staircase and large chalkboard used for writing the day’s menu. Additional touches like the reclaimed wood bar and shelves and custom-made iron racks for wine and firewood add to the space’s intimate and rustic feel. 122 Blagden Alley, NW, DC; www.thedabney.com


Photo: Courtesy of the Left Door

Photo: Courtesy of the Left Door

Left Door
Each Left Door experience starts by entering its unmarked door off the corner of 14th and S and ascending the narrow staircase that leads to the bar. Drinking at Tom Brown’s speakeasy is a close-quarters affair, whether you’re chatting under vintage lighting at the bar or nestled in velvet arm chairs in the corner. It’s a fitting ambiance for the menu of both innovative and classic cocktails. 1345 S St. NW, DC; www.dcleftdoor.com


Photo: Courtesy of Morris Bar

Photo: Courtesy of Morris Bar

Morris American Bar
This airy cocktail bar from David Strauss is worlds away from dimly-lit speakeasies and underground hangouts, as you won’t find any leather couches or Edison bulbs here. Morris Bar’s two-level space was designed by Swatchroom with inspiration from director Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel. Those visual cues come in the form of pastel shades of blues and greens throughout the room and local DC artwork from Dana Ellyn and Nicolette Capuano. The bar is seated only, leaving plenty of breathing room for enjoying a cocktail and the whimsical décor. 1020 7th St. NW, DC; www.morrisbardc.com


Photo: The Watergate Hotel

Photo: The Watergate Hotel

The Next Whisky Bar
Retro Washington vibes and modern styling come together at the Watergate Hotel’s Next Whisky Bar. The centerpiece here is a curving wall of shimmering liquor bottles that wraps around the lounge area and glass bar top. The gold color pops against the red chairs and area rugs, giving a contemporary touch to one of DC’s most notable addresses. 2650 Virginia Ave. NW, DC;
www.thewatergatehotel.com/the-next-whisky-bar


Photo: Courtesy of Nocturne

Photo: Courtesy of Nocturne

Nocturne
Shades of dark indigo, pink and blue join pops of vibrant neon in the dimly-lit Nocturne, the 17-seat basement spot hidden beneath Sugar Shack Donuts in Shaw. The bar concept was inspired by “The Abandoned Night in Paris,” which was one of the original cocktails at Nocturne’s Alexandria-based sister bar, Captain Gregory’s. Fittingly, Nocturne’s entrance is themed as a Parisienne salon, with the main bar designed as a garden under the night sky. Nocturne’s table and bar tops shine bright white, illuminating the flight-style cocktails. It’s a stark contrast with the rest of the room, which feels like stepping into a sleek, futuristic party after dark. 1932 9th St. NW, DC; www.nocturnebar.com


Photo: Courtesy of Delucchi Plus

Photo: Courtesy of Delucchi Plus

Rí Rá Georgetown
It’s more than just the beer and whiskey that are Irish at this Georgetown pub. Many aspects of the Victorian-style main bar – including the back bar – originated at Gerry Nangles Pub from Summer Hill, Dublin. Upstairs, the cozy whiskey room features bars and cabinets that were restored from Maddigans Watchmaker and Jeweler on Ellis Quay, Dublin and paneling from the Dublin branch of the Royal Bank of Ireland. 3125 M St. NW, DC; www.rira.com/georgetown


Photo: Courtesy of Tilt Bar

Photo: Courtesy of Tilt Bar

Tilt at Black Jack
Pass through the doors at the rear of Black Jack to find the colorful, graphic bar top and walls of the pinball-themed Tilt. There aren’t any physical pinball games here, but the feel is evoked through the pinball artwork on the bar taken from actual machines. The rest of the space is similarly vibrant and features nearly wall-to-wall posters and artwork, including the “Tilt” name illuminated in large-scale letters. 1612 14th St. NW, DC; www.tiltdc.com