Washington DC

What Bars Look Like When They Can’t Be Gathering Places

“In the past, we were able to be together when tragedy struck.”

Columbia Room
Photo: Columbia Room; Illustration: Emily Carpenter/Thrillist

The first night we closed Columbia Room for regular service, I sat there for a while. Though I’ve spent many days and nights at the bar, I realized it had been a long time since I sat there alone. And though I knew we faced a wall of hardship in the coming months, my mind went to the little imperfections that I’ve neglected over the past year. A friend had pointed out a few months ago that a table in the back of the bar had worn into the wall and scraped all the royal blue paint in its path. I kept meaning to stop by Home Depot. And then there’s a leather chair that’s torn. That model is no longer being made, so replacing it means we’d have to buy a new set.
It seems like a luxury to ponder in this way now, to have a minute to yourself free of anxiety. More than a month after DC Mayor Muriel Bowser declared a health emergency, I have trouble concentrating, find myself quick to anger, and occasionally feel a sense of dread. I fear for my friends, my employees, and my family. And I’m one of the lucky ones. I retain my job, my house, and have food on the table. Many people in the hospitality industry who once leaned over the mahogany -- pouring drinks, chatting with guests, and listening to their stories -- are now wondering how they’ll pay for groceries, make rent, and find work.

At Columbia Room, we’ve opted to do takeout and delivery, selling cocktail kits and encouraging gift card sales. The staff I’ve been able to retain walk around in homemade masks and latex gloves, carefully sidestepping each other. My hands are chapped and I hold meetings with my staff of four at a semi-circle six feet apart. I used to call my bar an intimate cocktail spot, but now it’s better described as a medical field station. We’ve tried to keep afloat on cocktails and snacks, though our sales are down 80 percent. More recently, we decided to pivot to do some community work by donating food.

That, if nothing else, feels familiar. We’ve always done community work. Before the pandemic, there wasn’t a day that went by without a request for a raffle item from a church, school, or nonprofit. There were fundraisers for DC Public Library Foundation, Washington Nationals Dream Foundation, Chefs for Equality, and Share Our Strength. Nearly every bar and restaurant in the city has done as much. And now we’re seeing that work multiply with efforts by chef José Andrés and World Central Kitchen, Friends & Family Meal grocery pickup, and chef Erik Bruner-Yang’s Power of 10 initiative -- just to name very few.

Derek Brown
Derek Brown

But, through the good, it all just seems so uncertain. How long will this last, will we make it financially, should we change our model when people do come back, what exactly is this “new normal” everyone keeps mentioning? There is no insurance money forthcoming and every grant and loan is somewhere lost in the ether. Of the more than $200,000 we’ve applied for, which will likely not cover all of our losses, we’ve received only a confirmation of an application and accompanying note saying they’re overwhelmed.

You miss your friends and the particular role they play in grieving. In the past, we were able to be together when tragedy struck. Whether during September 11, earthquakes, wars, or the death of a mutual friend, there was always a familial gathering of people. At the end of the night, I’d hang my arm around my friend’s neck. We’d tell a joke to cheer ourselves up. It wasn’t all that bad, or so we’d tell ourselves. Now, as long as we’re apart, it takes a toll on our collective healing. The bars sit empty, and drinkers drink with their closest companion or alone, on porches or across balconies, in a tiny square box on a computer screen. 
Of course, these sacrifices aren’t unwarranted. We must think about others during this time, especially those most vulnerable to infection, and take every reasonable precaution we can. We’ll make due and try for some closeness, even in being apart. I believe in the resilience of people and I know this will one day end. When that time comes, it’s hard to say what I’ll do first. But as writer Jeff Gordinier pointed out: “Suddenly the idea of walking into a bar and sitting and ordering a cocktail seems like the most luxurious thing in the world.” The same goes for the other side.

In the meantime, I won’t worry about the wall and I’ll keep those chairs. Not just because it’s expensive, but also because it reminds me of better times. I’m beginning to relish in the imperfections. They bring me comfort on more difficult days. Looking a little longer at those scratches and the tears, I realize what they really represent. The table was pulled in and out to seat guests as a matter of courtesy. The chair ripped from people sitting in it, sharing their thoughts, laughing with each other, and mourning their losses. The imperfections are not just markers of wear and tear, but of time -- time we spent together.

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Derek Brown is a writer and expert on spirits and cocktails based in Washington DC. He is the owner of bar group Drink Company and the author of Spirits, Sugar, Water, Bitters: How the Cocktail Conquered the World. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @ideasimprove.
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