Red Booths, Maypole Dances, and Cyndi Lauper: Saying Goodbye To The Gibson

And why this is a wakeup call for more government aid.

The Gibson

I remember first walking past the dilapidated garage door on 14th Street NW in a black button up—what we jokingly called the magician’s uniform at the time. By this point, I had made cocktails for restaurants, gotten a few accolades, and co-created a pop-up called Hummingbird to Mars. But this was my first foray into a proper craft bar. And I had no idea how much it would end up meaning to me. 

Like so many independent bars and restaurants facing imminent closure, The Gibson in Washington DC will shutter on November 1 after 12 years of operation, another victim of the COVID-19 pandemic that has hushed and rerouted food and dining throughout the city. While so many bars I admire have closed, this one has left a particular sting. 

Opened in 2008 by Eric Hilton (half of DJ duo Thievery Corporation), The Gibson was known for its design, drinks, bartenders, and events—and oozed a particular sense of cool. The bar was born at a time in DC when craft cocktails were mostly associated with restaurants and took a backseat to the food. Besides the now defunct speakeasy PX in Alexandria, there wasn’t really a standalone craft cocktail bar in DC, at least not one that joined a nationwide conversation that had taken hold in the early 2000s alongside Death & Co. in New York City and Violet Hour in Chicago. 

“We had no idea what we were about to get into, definitely no idea what it’d become,” says fellow inaugural bartender, Jon Harris. “I think it’s safe to say The Gibson became a great bar, a second home to many, a place of comfort, refuge, and lively conversation.”  

When I first saw the dark interior hovering over a black leather bar top and plush red booths, I was in awe. With the flickering candles and translucent bottles, the back bar reminded me of endless votive candles at a cathedral. The owners saw promise in me and asked me to join the opening team as a bar consultant and I ended up bartending, training, and creating the first cocktail menu.

The Gibson
Photo Courtesy of The Gibson

Hilton compiled all the playlists at The Gibson in the beginning, and would hold court with musicians and celebrities. I remember once closing the bar down as Cyndi Lauper left, and belting out her song, “True Colors,” not realizing one of her entourage was still in the bathroom. Fortunately, the straggler swore never to tell. Many candid moments followed. The Gibson was a scene, albeit a relaxed scene where Owen Wilson could sit in the back sipping his drink without being approached by anyone or Christina Hendricks could chum with the staff.

One of The Gibson’s most popular events, Maypole, came every spring and was founded by former bartender, and current president of the DC Craft Bartenders Guild, Adrea “Drea” Tateosian. She remembers her fellow bartenders dressed in flowers, spinning around a pole. 

“It was a really special place, where staff was empowered to make their ideas and dreams a reality,” she says. “The May Day celebration that was held for a few years on the patio was just a thought I had that management let me run with. Friends and strangers alike were sharing punch and raising glasses. It was goofy and whimsical and perfect.”
The Gibson cycled through some of the best bartenders in DC and has become a setting for so many seminal events for its patrons and staff. Harris recalls meeting his wife there, and current head bartender, Jewel Murray, says she developed lasting friendships with core staff. “The Gibson is my home,” she says. “These people are my family. I don’t know how to properly express the hole its closure is leaving in my heart and in my life.”

Bars inevitably close and all of these memories, along with talent that The Gibson cultivated, will continue. But the passing of this institution feels premature and preventable.

Bars aren’t just places to drink—they are people’s livelihoods.

In fact, independent bars and restaurants contribute nearly 4% to the U.S. GDP and employ 11 million workers nationwide. And while organizations like Thirst Group have formed to hold insurance companies accountable, more work needs to be done on a national level. Recently, the House passed an updated HEROES act that, if passed in the Senate, provides $120 billion in grants to restaurants and bars. But negotiations are stalled due to disagreements between Democratic and Republican leadership—specifically when it comes to the aid amount—and the upcoming presidential election

While many bars and restaurants have found stop-gap measures to continue a limited degree of operation, most are wondering if they’ll make it to the end of the year. The winter will be challenging to say the least, when so many establishments have become dependent on takeout and outdoor seating. As Gibson co-owner Ian Hilton tweeted in early October: “You can’t operate a business without income.”

For now, I say farewell to a bar that has brought so many people joy and has left a considerable mark on the bar scene in the District—to its employees and owners, to its regulars and guests passing through. I plan to toast The Gibson before its final shift. And, while I know I’ll feel the rush of memories at the bar that helped me launch my career, I also know that it’s just one of the many blows we’ll have to endure. Unless we see an end to the divisions in the halls of Congress or the demise of this terrible virus, this won’t be the last last call. 

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Derek Brown is a writer and expert on spirits and cocktails who is based in Washington, D.C. He is the author of Spirits, Sugar, Water, Bitters: How the Cocktail Conquered the World. Follow him on Twitter @ideasimprove.