As the weather gets warmer and we all begin to feel a pull toward open spaces, rooftops and sweeping views, one can’t help but look to the Navy Yard neighborhood to scratch that itch. Anchored by the Department of Transportation and Nationals Ballpark, it seems Navy Yard rivals any other neighborhood in terms of new, fancy construction and there’s always some new spot opening in this area.
The newest jewel on the D.C. high-rise tiara is Smoke & Mirrors, the 11th floor oasis of the Navy Yard AC Hotel just across from Whole Foods. A simple sign at street level points the way and those unfamiliar might not know what lies a hundred feet above. All it takes to see the space is a quick elevator ride in the hotel’s clean and austere lift.
Smoke & Mirrors is huge. Calling it a rooftop bar doesn’t do it justice — it’s really a restaurant, rooftop space and two bars all in one with room for 150 guests on the terrace and another 200 inside. Smoke & Mirrors’ design and layout is exquisite: The elevator opens to the main dining room, two expansive spaces bisected by the stainless steel and marble bar. Custom couches and chairs cluster around small, intimate tables in the dining space.
The color palette reminds me a little of the inside of tall ships, with white boarded ceilings, crosshatched wooden flooring imported from Italy and navy blue accents alongside brass and gold fittings apt for the Navy Yard aesthetic. My friend Adam noted the rounded corners and gentle curves of the furniture gives one a feeling of being on a luxury yacht — not something I’ve experienced, but it seems fitting. The outdoor terrace is ringed with heat lamps and gas fireplaces and glass walls allow an unimpeded view of the Capitol, Library of Congress, the House office buildings and the surrounding Capitol Hill neighborhood.
The culinary side of the house is led by executive chef Raymond Melendez and guests can order food to be served in any of the spaces: I witnessed a plate of duck wings delivered to an adjacent table and I’m still kicking myself for not ordering any. I caught sight of small plates drizzled with sauce and trays piled high with greens and vegetables, and also overheard someone order some Jamón ibérico. It’s clear the menu elevates the typical bar food menu to match the upscale surroundings.
As always, the cocktail program warrants an investigation. Zach Wendel, beverage director for Smoke & Mirrors, developed a menu unique and built a team to realize his vision: create high-end cocktails and use top-quality ingredients and spirits. This doesn’t just mean they make their own ice or grow their own herbs (they do, though), it means using expensive juice and pushing the limit, so to speak, on what goes into beverages. And that’s refreshing to me — if I’m spending $20 per cocktail, I want there to be a justifiable reason.
Stainless steel cages terraced behind the bar, house a respectable range of distilled spirits. I noticed cognacs like Martell Blue Swift; whiskies like the aged-at-sea Jefferson’s Ocean, higher-end WhistlePigs and a broad selection of single-malts. They’re also working on sourcing some extremely rare bottles, including one Macallan that would sell for $1000 per ounce.
I’m not in the right tax bracket to try the Macallan, I’m afraid, but I can try the rest: Major standouts from their cocktail program are a peated Boulevardier (made with Lagavulin 16 single-malt, a pricy dram for a cocktail), a smoked Paloma rimmed with imported black lava salt and a “cold toddy,” served in a pewter-colored mug. The bar staff are efficient, quick and are clearly used to making nice drinks at a rapid pace.
Smoke & Mirrors has great potential — the space is vast, the view unparalleled and there’s some serious mixology going on here. Wendel believes the venue’s location, just a few blocks from Capitol Hill, could draw the trendy, young crowd who populates Navy Yard (and perhaps more open to experimentation and fancy presentation), as well as a more traditional group seeking classic mixology fares like gin and tonics, Manhattans, and Old Fashioneds. Some bars rely on gimmicks but here, it’s not just smoke and mirrors: They’ve put extensive thought into their space, their food and beverages and their staff — and it’s well worth a visit.
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