Behind the Bar: Design Edition
June 2, 2019 @ 12:00am
In a city filled with bars touting the best craft cocktails, local beer programs or even late-night eats, what’s bound to make patrons stick around and even more importantly, come back time and time again? The atmosphere created by a bar can make or break its overall experience, no matter how good the drinks on hand.
Two new additions to DC’s ever-growing cocktail scene, however, prove that providing the best of both is possible. And while the overall style and décor of these locations is not similar at first glance, they share a common goal: unpretentious, enjoyable sips in atmospheres unlike anything else in the city.
Owner Devin Gong and Bartender // Partner Eli Schwarzschild
“I always rode trains when I was little, and I loved the dining car of the train where you had the bar in the middle and the seating on either end,” owner Devin Gong says of the narrow but inviting locomotives that inspired the look of his newest venture, Dupont Circle’s Astoria. “When I first walked in, it was a very long and narrow space, and it reminded me a lot of a train car.”
With the help of CORE architecture + design, Gong brought his childhood nostalgia to life. With nods to his flagship spot on H Street, Copycat Co., the space invokes the kind of intimate setting you’d perhaps get from a drink on a bustling train car in the midst of a grand adventure. A talented artist himself, Gong painted the three works of art that hang over large, cozy booths – they even look like train car windows at first glance.
It’s a subtle callout, however, and Gong was careful to make sure he didn’t “hit people over the head” with his interior inspirations. Similarly understated is the bar’s approach to food and drink. Astoria’s beverage director Eli Schwarzschild points out that while the concept is inherently creative, they aren’t trying to overthink things.
“It’s a combination of classics paying homage to drinks that have stood the test of time,” Schwarzschild explains. “If the drinks aren’t broken, don’t fix them is partially our philosophy. We want to respect the drinks. But on the other hand, there’s creativity in a sense. We have originals, but it’s not about us per se. We’re just trying to put out drinks that could perhaps be mistaken for a classic; not so many infusions, just going back to the basics and staying true to the ingredients, which is a very French idea.”
One thing that’s present at Astoria but not necessarily at other outposts serving classic cocktails is an array of doodles flanking the menu, hand-drawn by Schwarzschild himself. They’re incredibly detailed and time-consuming to produce, so why do it?
“Not many people notice it, but it’s the one person in a million who does that makes it worth it,” Schwarzschild says. “It’s just that characteristic of art that is almost existential. Whatever you decide and whatever matters to you, that’s what it is. It’s kind of meanderings – left-brain kind of thoughts. As long as there’s a feeling there, I let my brain go with it.”
The bar provides a welcome combination of outside-the-box elements with unpretentious but well-crafted drinks. At the end of the day, it’s clear Gong and Schwarzschild are able to incorporate personal passions into this endeavor, and the bar is even better for that energy.
“I don’t have lofty goals to change the scene or anything like that,” Gong concludes. “I know what I do, and for me this is more self-indulgent than anything else.”
Punt e Mes vermouth
Astoria: 1521 17th St. NW, DC; www.astoriadc.com
General Manager Kit Yarber
The second floor of The Passenger in Shaw was home to a sporadically used space, only opened on the rare occasion that the neighborhood bar was hosting a band. Kit Yarber saw an opportunity to transform the underutilized level into what he now describes as the “a little goth, a little kitschy” Hex.
As general manager of the newly minted space, Yarber decided the décor and menu would take cues from astrology, tarot and the occult. Numerology comes into play as well, as “hex” indicates the number six and the menu is broken up into six categories. All 12 astrological signs are represented on the menu, and Yarber says he based it off people he knew when deciding what sign to name the drinks after.
“It’s been funny because people come in and want to order their sign, of course, and they’re like, ‘How did you know?’” he explains. “I just tell them I based it off of someone who was that sign.”
If you’re feeling adventurous, you can draw a rune – or divinatory symbol – from a bag behind the bar, and you’ll be presented with a drink that corresponds to the symbol hidden on the menu. There are also runes flanking the wall to the right of the bar, along with a stuffed unicorn head, lovingly called Ophelia.
“I always loved the Victorian haunted mansion, pictures on pictures on pictures look,” Yarber says of the plethora of design elements that adorn the walls and tables. “We talked about having a curio aspect. Everything kind of mismatches but it ends up working out together. We just had fun with it.”
The resulting space is a nod to the supernatural and spiritual without feeling spooky. It’s overall feel is intimate and inviting. Since opening, it’s been a mix of lovers of the elements present at the bar and those who are completely unfamiliar that have stopped in for one of Yarber’s creations. The spot has even caught the attention of local pan-Pagan group The Firefly House, who plans on hosting a handful of regular happy hours at the spot. You can also catch occasional tarot readings.
Whether you’re the type to pull a daily tarot reading and analyze everything through the lens of the zodiac or just want to enjoy a drink in an inviting space, Yarber wants Hex to be a place where you can sit, relax and connect.
“I wanted Hex to have a different ambiance,” Yarber says. “I love the craft cocktail scene and craft cocktail bars, but I feel like they get stuck in a certain era. I don’t want it to feel pretentious. I just want it to be chill. I want to get people up here who love talking to people and [offer] a different ambience that can still be appreciated as something unique.”
Sacred Bond Brandy
Cocchi Vermouth di Torino
Punt e Mes vermouth
Hex Bar: 1539 7th St. NW, DC; www.hexbardc.com