Derek Brown’s influence on the DC bar scene can only be described as mammoth. Chances are The Passenger was your gateway to cocktail appreciation (and lots of dates), and the original Columbia Room set a standard many are still trying to reach across the whole damn country. Now he’s behind “the DB-3” in Shaw: Mockingbird Hill, Eat The Rich, and Southern Efficiency, with a new iteration of the Columbia Room on the way. When Derek’s not mixing and mingling at one of his own spots, where does DC’s bar tsar toss one back? We found out.
This magic little dive didn’t swagger jack any other bar -- it’s original as funk and also devoid of d-bags (probably because the bar’s not afraid to playfully mock people). That's why it was the first bar to leave Derek’s lips like a secret he couldn't keep. “Without hesitation, Showtime. It’s such a great bar. That jukebox is impossible to beat because of its amazing, curated selection of music that’s free,” he says. You don’t have to dance, but others will. Adding to Derek’s Showtime love sonnet: great bartenders, and beer & shot combos. That’s what he drinks, and you should, too.
Bieber, Beyoncé, Broderick. What do these three have in common with Room 11? They’re triple threats. While the celebs can entertain on screen AND on stage, Room 11 has the holy trinity of inebriation covered, according to Derek. “They’re a triple threat -- they have beer, wine, and cocktails, and everything is well-curated,” he says. “Then you add food and the fact it’s a comfortable place to sit and eat and you have it all.” That’s where he brings out-of-towners. “Everyone is charmed by Room 11.” The 11th St standby doesn’t need more than four cocktails because they’re done right. We dig the burnt sugar old fashioned.
“My strategy is to try my best to get through as many whiskies as possible,” Derek says. He admits Jack Rose Dining Saloon can be a destination bar to some because of its staggering selection of brown liquor (2,390 bottles), but his frequent visits dictate neighborhood bar status. “I’ll happily order a cocktail, too, especially if Arleigh is the one making it,” he says of his favorite bartender. If you’re going to adopt Derek’s exploratory strategy, pad your stomach with fried chicken skins and jalapeño hushpuppies.
In a time of all things artisanal, handcrafted, and overdone, it’s refreshing to encounter a bar that aspires to be nothing more than a hang out. The cocktails are given numbers instead of never-ending names a mixologist thought of in the shower, and the snacks are simple. “The owner is an old hat at bartending and beverage programs and his selection is great,” Derek says of the unpretentious David Batista. “All Souls has a great jukebox, comfortable seating, and the special of sparkling rosé and Maker’s Mark is hard to find.” You read that right. “The All Souls” is an $11 expert pairing of pink bubbly and bourbon served neat.
Derek digs the brewpub around the corner from his three bars in Shaw. “They make their beer on the spot, the food’s good, the bartending’s good, and they have a raccoon with lasers coming out of its eyes,” he says. It’s a panda, Derek. Two actually, and the mural makes one hell of a photo backdrop. When at Right Proper, Derek swigs on one of Nathan Zeender’s originals -- Ornette. The rustic farmhouse wheat ale is named for jazz musician Ornette Coleman (RIP). Good news for Derek and other fans, there’s now a second place to fill up. The Right Proper Brookland Production House just opened in an old car repair shop on Girard St NE.
“Boundary Stone is the very definition of this in some ways,” Derek says of the quintessential neighborhood bar. “Sit down any day of the week and drink some whiskey. They can make a cocktail, and you can get a good beer there, too, making it a well-rounded bar. Its aspirations are to be what it is, a really good bar, so they win.” Don’t be surprised if you lose track of time as you sink into a booth and work your way through the whiskey list with 100 lines. Find old favorites or have a fling with something foreign. As an added bonus, Boundary Stone just pimped out its kitchen, so expect top-notch honey hot wings and chili cheese half-smokes when all is said and done.
“They root for teams I don’t care about; they serve spirits that aren’t really my thing; they don’t really make cocktails; and it’s a dive; yet I feel perfectly at home there,” Derek says about the Chicago and Detroit-themed bar unafraid to serve Malört. So what does he like about it? “The bartenders, the bartenders, and the bartenders. They’re a little surly and a little fun. They make the best classic cocktails, no, just kidding.” Mega kidding. While they have bartenders who could probably sling a solid cocktail, they won’t, so don’t ask. “It’s pretty bare bones, but somehow I always have the best time.” Order a Stoh's or a Goose Island 312 to fit in.
Book worms who double as booze hounds should make a beeline to the Reading Room tucked in the back of Petworth Citizen. That’s where bar stars Dan Searing, Carlie Steiner, and Chantal Tseng can be found. “If you catch a night with them, you’re lucky,” Derek says. Chantal is especially crushing it with her literary-themed nights. She picks a new author every weekend and creates a five-cocktail menu based on their work that she serves up Friday and Saturday nights. Shakespeare, Poe, and Hemingway have been checked off and the next few weeks will usher in Jules Verne, Hans Christian Andersen, and others.
If you haven’t caught on yet, the king of cocktails actually prefers to drink things neat. That’s why he hearts Black Whiskey. “I’ve never asked for a cocktail there, but maybe they make awesome cocktails,” he says. “But if you have a place that has whiskey and it’s pretty simple, you win my affection. That’s what I want.” While Derek says he appreciates that the bar is “paired down,” they actually have a mini-arsenal of options: 95 bourbons/American whiskies, 30 ryes, 15 Irish whiskeys, 50 Scotches, and 13(!) Japanese whiskys. Bar manager Marc Zahorchak says he’s trying to get a whiskey from every state, but there are also plenty of options for those who haven’t boarded the whiskey bandwagon.
H Street NE
If Derek is fixing for a bender, he goes to The Pug. It’s in his neighborhood, so he can just roll home, but that’s not the only reason he fancies it. “I love The Pug. It’s just a good drinking place. You know when you walk in there that you’re going to do some serious drinking, so you prepare for it. I like that. No bullshit.” Who wouldn’t love a bar whose motto is: “No idiots. No bombs. No shooters. No specials. No politics.” Oh, and, “Relax. Drink. Be cool. Behave.” You’re drinking can beer forked over by tattooed bartenders and playing Connect Four in the dark while making out.
This one’s a bit sentimental, especially in a city where a new bar opens every time CNN switches into Breaking News-mode. “I started going there 10 years ago; they’ve had some really great bartenders in there, and they always have a good wine selection,” Derek says. Indeed, Cashion’s Eat Place is the only neighborhood bar where Derek might sub whiskey for wine because Justin Abad does such a great job putting a list together. But, if that’s not your thing, go for one of their simple cocktails like the Kentucky Sparkler with sparking wine, bourbon, and vanilla syrup, or the French Riviera with rye, apricot brandy, and lemon.
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Laura Hayes is a DC-based food, drink & travel writer who also contributes to Washington City Paper, Food Network, Arlington Magazine, and others. She’d follow Derek to any bar with whiskey and has already gotten caught peeking into the new Columbia Room. Follow her on Twitter @BTMenu.
1. Showtime113 Rhode Island Ave NW, Washington
2. Room 113234 11th St NW, Washington
3. Jack Rose Dining Saloon2007 18th St NW, Washington
4. All Souls Bar725 T St NW, Washington
5. Right Proper Brewing Company624 T St NW, Washington
6. Boundary Stone116 Rhode Island Ave NW, Washington
7. Ivy and Coney1523 7th St NW, Washington
8. Petworth Citizen and Reading Room829 Upshur St NW, Washington
9. Black Whiskey1410 14th St NW, Washington, DC
10. The Pug1234 H St NE, Washington
11. Cashion's Eat Place1819 Columbia Rd NW, Washington
This Bloomingdale spot is one of DC's most beloved dives, thanks to its funk & soul jukebox, weekly live music, and dirt-cheap beer. Painstakingly curated by owner & DJ Paul Vivari, the jukebox contains more than 2,000 tracks of soul, R&B, jazz, and ‘60s pop. As for the booze, the selection isn't quite as extensive: the converted barbershop offers just four draft lines and a compact liquor selection, and fuses them with its $5 shot-and-beer combos, which are ideal if you’re looking to loosen up before getting down to some funk music.
Room 11 is a neighborhood restaurant, bakery, coffee shop, and wine bar in Columbia Heights. The small den has an ultra-relaxed atmosphere, with end-grain wood flooring cut from 80-year-old yellow pine, a pearl-colored zinc bar, and walls with inlaid wine racks. The American menu consists of cheese and charcuterie boards and large plates, like miso pork belly and grilled strip steak. Here, you can order both standard cocktails and inventive house recipes with exciting twists and flavors, like “When Rails Fall,” with Jamaican rum, Punt e Mes, fig, lime, and burlesque bitters.
With over 2,400 kinds of whiskey lining the brick walls of this high-end saloon, Jack Rose has one of the largest whiskey libraries in the country. The spacious, bi-level Adams Morgan establishment offers a relaxed dining experience downstairs, and a spot to enjoy drinks and watch sports upstairs. Food-wise, the fried chicken skins are a fan favorite, and more adventurous items like rabbit & beans, wild Atlantic rockfish, or Broken Arrow Ranch venison make the staff's expert cocktail pairings an absolute pleasure.
Across the street from a school, All Souls Bar isn't a mad-house, but rather a low-key, 33-seat retreat offering just three classic cocktails (negroni, Manhattan, and a cava-kissed sidecar), and just a handful of beers and wines. It's not about limitless options, but rather curation. Jukebox tunes float inside, while guests snack on olives, cheeses and nuts. An early closing time, and a table-service-only patio (no standing or smoking) prohibits any shenanigans.
Right Proper Brewing Company brews an eclectic range of house-made ales alongside American comfort food. Beers are inexpensive, so you can save that extra cash to fill your stomach with dishes like home-style cornbread with whipped citrus butter or wood-grilled bratwurst, with honey mustard, pretzel bread, peppers, and onions. Eccentric art on the exposed brick wall, like taxidermy and spray-painted murals, will occupy you as your tummy grumbles before the plates arrive.
Named for the mile markers that once shaped the city, Boundary Stone encapsulates DC style with exposed brick, original tin ceilings, oak bars, and even a stained glass DC flag. The Bloomingdale American restaurant boasts a menu of snacks, appetizers, sandwiches, and entrees, with favorites including daily changing deviled eggs and the honey hot chicken with honey hot sauce, bleu cheese, lettuce, and fries. Try one of the eight drafts on tap as you slide into one of the rustic, charcoal-colored wooden booths.
Come here for some beer and Chicago style hot dogs. They also give you peanuts (in shell) that you can just throw on the floor when done with.
This Petworth neighborhood namesake is a classy destination for S'mores Waffles, classic cocktails, and a mini-public library. With a seasoned mixologist and a world-class Mandarin Oriental chef at the helm, you'll be happy to become a citizen yourself.
Black Whiskey's here to change 14th street, injecting it with two levels of weathered, rough 'n raw barrage that include savage cocktails, a huge whiskey selection, and a meat carving station.
Much like the dog it’s named after, this H Street dive is small, friendly and ugly in a cute way. A regular cast of characters come in to check the list of draft beers on a chalkboard above the bar, and settle in to a seat surrounded by walls littered with vintage photos of boxers and posters from the 80s. Whatever you do, don’t ask for a craft cocktail, as you might be denied and then shamed: it’s not that kind of place. Though, while it may not look like a typical brunch spot (and the kitchen amounts to a few hot plates behind the bar), unlimited mimosas are dirt cheap and ‘The All American Special’ (a plate of eggs, sausage, hash and gravy on a biscuit) does satisfy.