The Columbia Room's Katie Nelson and Derek Brown with The Passenger's Alex Bookless and Tom Brown.
When Food & Wine
named The Passenger
to its most recent list of the “50 Best Bars in America”, it was just another feather in the cap for the District identity bar (hence the three stars and two stripes in the sign outside which mirrors the city’s official flag), which, along with the venue’s connecting cocktail club known as the Columbia Room
, has scored similar plaudits from the likes of GQ
, USA Today
, and Bon Appetit
in recent months.
The view from behind the counter at the intimately appointed Columbia Room.
Yet to truly appreciate the critical and commercial praise heaped on The Passenger/Columbia Room, one must first understand that the self-described “accessible, but off the beaten path” space is really a longstanding collaborative effort between brothers Tom Brown
and Derek Brown
-- two people who are the best of friends, but with nevertheless two very different takes on bartending.
The Passenger’s Tom Brown lights an ice cube on fire while preparing a cocktail.
When customers first step into the 7th Street location, they are very much in Tom’s domain (or that of fellow bartender Alex Bookless
) inside The Passenger. Rock music fills the sometimes raucous space and a recently installed bar made from the reclaimed wood of the building’s rafters commands attention.
The Passenger’s ‘train car’ room.
But turn the corner midway through the room (before you enter the “train car” section of the bar) and a nondescript door transports you into Derek’s portion of the venue. An intimate 10-seat cocktail lounge (it used to be 16 seats, but Derek insisted on providing each guest with even more personal attention), the Columbia Room is a model for sophisticated mixology and precision cocktail craftsmanship.
Scoring a reservation at one of the Columbia Room’s 10 seats can be a challenge given its popularity.
There, Derek and bartender Katie Nelson
(they first met over two years ago when he was still the master mixologist over at The Gibson
), toil for hours each day preparing creative cocktail blends using the highest quality spirits, hand-carved ice (seriously, we watched them), and a blend of self-made cordials and bitters (it’s what’s inside the oak barrels lining the walls).
The Columbia Room’s ‘Mezcal Sour’.
When asked the difference between a cocktail prepared at The Passenger versus one crafted inside the Columbia Room, Derek lightheartedly responded: “Nobody’s going to wait at The Passenger, when the bar’s three-deep, for me to take the temperature of a martini. It’s simply a matter of the time and ability that we have to focus exclusively on cocktails.”
The Passenger’s ‘Navy Cross’.
First opened in November of 2009, The Passenger/Columbia Room was conceived as a “true expression” of the Brown brothers and was intended for a distinctively local audience.
“The best way to be a neighborhood bar is to go into a neighborhood without a bar,” said Tom. A near instant hit among locals (its popularity has only grown as Shaw has become an increasingly more popular destination itself), the venue caters to the afterhours crowd from a variety of nearby D.C. companies, including the headquarters for NPR
The Columbia Room’s ‘On The Fence’ (rye whiskey, aquavit, Peychaud's bitters, and apple cider).
On weekends, like most of the city’s hospitality venues, The Passenger/Columbia Room receives a hefty influx of patrons from surrounding areas. However, ultimately, the space always remains grounded by its roots as a neighborhood refuge.
The bar’s self-made fig bitters.
Indeed, providing patrons with an escape from the pressures of daily work and life is very important to both brothers. Many of the city’s movers-and-shakers pass through the doors to The Passenger on a regular basis, with the weight of the world on their shoulders.
The Columbia Room’s Katie Nelson pours an ‘Apple-Chamomile Collins’.
“Our goal is to transport them out of that experience so they can just enjoy,” said Derek. “Because nothing really ever happens without a little, you know, lubrication in Washington, D.C.”
While the formula for their success (“always striving to make a better place, make a better cocktail, to be better bartenders”) isn’t likely to change anytime soon, 2012 will bring a few new changes to the bars. An expanded food menu is already on the horizon, for example, and Bookless is excited about adding an array of self-brewed sodas to the mix by summer as well.
The Passenger’s ‘Golden Gate’ (cognac, Carpano antica sweet vermouth, Fernet mint, celery bitters).
As for the Food & Wine
honor, while appreciative, Derek modestly downplays such praise, instead preferring to let The Passenger and the Columbia Room rest on their own intrinsic merits:
“This is a warning to anybody who wants to get into the bar business… You’re not going to get rich… But that’s not what’s entirely important to us… To us, having a place where people can gather and have great drinks and turn people onto something new; that’s part of that escape, that experience, that… being a passenger.”
Book your ride today.