There’s something about having a high-profile drink in a low-profile spot.
Despite what’s on its front door, Ivy and Coney’s low-key speakeasy offers a small but well-curated list of spirits, beer, and snacks inspired by the owners’ Chicago and Detroit origins.
Area bars like the Gibson, PX, and the Columbia Room set the precedent years ago for the modern-age speakeasy, characterized by a discreet location, specific entry procedures, and an environment suitable for dates as well as important business meetings. Now, a new crop of lounges are creating even more sultry, intimate environments for sipping labor-intensive craft cocktails and ratcheting up the city’s drinking standards.
“There is a certain art to what we’re doing down here,” says the vest-and-tie-clad Trevor Frye, beverage director for Dram & Grain under the Jack Rose Dining Saloon. “And if I were down here wearing what I wear on my motorcycle, it wouldn’t be the same.”
Customers text Frye on a “burner” phone to snag hard-to-get Friday and Saturday night reservations—made for 7, 9, and 11 pm and organized in a Google document. Here, guests can try cocktails with exclusive ingredients not available at Jack Rose, like the Maiden Voyage, which uses a large ice cube—made of bitters, Benedictine, and vermouth—in a glass of rye and cognac.
Benedictine, and vermouth—in a glass of rye and cognac. “We want to make enjoying good drinks and food sexy and fun again,” says VinodaBasnayake, co-owner of The Sheppard, a new Dupont Circle cocktail lounge named after the Senator who spearheaded DC’s drinking ban in 1917. “The point of the place is to have incredible drinks and let people enjoy the experience. We don’t want to be overly serious.” The Sheppard, which features a unique bar-food menu designed by Top Chef alum Spike Mendelsohn, signals it is open with a green light outside. Once inside, patrons take an elevator to the second floor of an office building to get there.
Discreet cocktail dens also come with a set of rules. Dram & Grain does not permit loud talking, cell-phone calls, or standing at the bar. Guests should also exit quietly and have patience while bartenders make involved concoctions.
“Speakeasies are supposed to be dark, secretive, sexy, mysterious, a bit scandalous,” adds Basnayake. “We have that covered—it’s why we have a strict ‘no pictures’ policy.”
Despite all the guidelines, these cocktail lounges want to balance customization with unpretentiousness. Harold Black’s beverage director and GM MaroStanicic once named a cocktail after a regular for the patron’s 30th birthday. The speakeasy is one where everyone is welcome, but bartenders know their styles might not suit everyone.
“We never want to be exclusive. But we only seat 28 at any given time,” says Stanicic. “We’re hitting a good balance of neighborhood folks who sneak in during the week and others on the weekend who make a night out of it.”