Nothing But a Good Time: The Gospel of Alcohol-Optional Disco Mary
February 1, 2022 @ 8:00am
There’s no place quite like Disco Mary. Swathed in millennial pink with mirrored surfaces at every angle, “Viva La Mujer” prints stand alongside whimsical mushroom sculptures and prayer candles. Presiding over the patio space is its shimmering namesake, a mirror-bedazzled Virgin Mary offering a spiritualized, selfie-ready moment for guests. Since opening at the end of last October, the pop-up inside the Columbia Room has been exuding groovy futurism and come-as-you-are vibes with a menu of alcohol-optional, herbalism-inspired cocktails and plant-based Central and South American food.
The unconventional no-buzz-required boîte is the creation of Maria Bastasch, a one-time heavy drinking wine director. Her path to opening Disco Mary is predictably unpredictable. The West Coaster moved to D.C. eight years ago in the aftermath of a divorce. The city’s hospitality industry made a life-changing first impression.
“I was really impressed by the sense of community,” she says. “I hadn’t experienced that in California. Everyone here, it was their career. I was impressed by their dedication and level of education both in and outside their field.”
She joined the staff at Compass Rose a month after it opened. Looking for a distraction from her personal life, she threw herself into the work. Ultimately, she also became the wine director and manager at its sister spot Maydan. Learning about Georgian wines, working to import new varietals to the States and educating customers was revelatory.
“I saw it as a foil for a greater narrative about hegemony,” she says. “It’s a way for us to understand geopolitics and how we have superiority complexes within cultures.”
Along with the job came a lot of drinking.
“It was great at the time,” she says. “But there was a part of it — for me and a lot of people around me — that’s self-medication because you’re working so much.”
When she was diagnosed with lupus, she realized seismic changes were necessary in her life and lifestyle. She cut her drinking down drastically. Now alcohol is a rarity, though she occasionally indulges in champagne and agave-based spirits.
Over that time, an idea began coalescing for a bar that didn’t just serve booze. Instead, it would showcase a wide array of herbalist ingredients.
“My true love is plant medicine and has been since I was a child,” says Bastasch, who grew up in an herbalist household and considered becoming an herbalist doctor.
“I’ve always been trying to find my way back to that and I saw there was an opportunity to converge my love of herbalism with expanding our definition of what it means to relax, engage with others [and] socialize.”
She told her evolving idea to anyone who would listen, but most failed to see the value of her vision. Her boyfriend Derek Brown was the hardest sell of all. But then he underwent his own transformative relationship with alcohol while confronting his bipolar depression.
Now the award-winning cocktail connoisseur rarely drinks, recently published the book “Mindful Mixology: A Comprehensive Guide to No- and Low-Alcohol Cocktails with 60 Recipes” and is a full-blown supporter of the bar.
“Disco Mary is the future,” he says. “It’s planting a flag. It is exactly where we have to go with bars. The experience is greater than just alcohol.”
An Evolving Vision
But when Bastasch left Maydan in the summer of 2020, Disco Mary was a still-changing idea. Not working 70 hours a week gave her the time, headspace and clarity of thought to fully articulate her vision. Her idea evolved further, taking on a stronger structure.
Ultimately, her elevator pitch clarified: “People don’t want alcohol-free drinks. People want drinks that make them feel good. I want to offer those drinks with a no-alcohol option.”
After running the numbers and getting the buy-in from Brown to use the Columbia Room as the testing ground, a long-term pop-up was within reach. She doesn’t believe it would have happened if it weren’t for the pandemic.
“There was so much fluctuation that came in the last two years for small businesses,” she says. “With that fluctuation came so much hardship, but also came these pockets of space to try new things. Like, ‘Why not? We’ve done weirder shit this year. Let’s paint the room pink.’”
They had three weeks to flip the Columbia Room space, which was previously hosting sandwich pop-up Your Only Friend. There was a paint job; décor and furniture were bought; vibey tchotchkes were artfully placed throughout. The crowning component was its namesake, inspired by a disco ball-style Guadalupe statue owned by her uncle.
“That was the first time I saw iconography depicted in a playful manner; it blew my mind,” says Bastasch, who commissioned L.A.-based mirror artist Lina Shamoon to craft a similar one.
A Space to Feel Seen
She and Brown began devising a menu along with bartender Yaki Udoumoh. (Udoumoh is no longer with the company, now a part of Catoctin Creek Distillery’s newly founded year-long, fully paid internship program giving budding distillers educational and entrepreneurial experience.)
Each of the nonalcoholic drinks — dubbed “immaculate concoctions” — is boosted with components designed to produce longer-term benefits. The Influencer in the Wild, a bright pink drink, features antioxidant-packed dragon fruit, schisandra berry (an adaptogen) and lemon balm for a calming effect. Stress reducing apoptogenic mushrooms take lead in a riff on the espresso martini; the pumpkin-spiced Dope Kaleidoscope is laced with hemp oil, which has myriad positive properties including inflammation reduction, pain relief and heart health; and the Evolutionary’s main flavor component is wild lettuce, which proponents claim works as an aphrodisiac and energy booster.
All the cocktails can be supplemented with liquor for an additional fee (a variety of alcoholic and nonalcoholic wines, beers and “spritzy and interesting” options are also available), which fits with Bastasch’s vision for an inclusive environment.
“I’m not here to convert people, that’s not my mission,” she says. “I’m just here to offer a space where everyone feels seen. The whole point isn’t to showcase the drinks, it’s to make people feel seen and beautiful and special.”
It also helps the bottom line. Approximately 70 percent of sales come from alcoholic beverages. Drinks are paired with a menu of plant-based South and Central American-inspired cuisine.
“I selfishly wanted it for myself, and I know there are other people out there that want it as well,” she says.
A Greater Intention
The kitchen is overseen by Bastasch’s longtime family friend, Elena Venegas, who immigrated from Mexico two decades ago. The women collaborated with chef Christian Irabién of Muchas Gracias, who also helms Hospitality Humans, an initiative helping immigrants advance their careers in the restaurant industry. Dishes include miso-laced black beans based on a recipe from Bastasch’s Colombian mother; tostadas stuffed with mole-sauced oyster mushrooms; hearts of palm ceviche tossed in aji amarillo leche de tigre; and shiitake mushrooms and hominy packed pozole.
Putting together the right team for the project was paramount (all staffers earn a minimum $20 wage, a foundational element of Bastasch’s business plan). Manager Chloé Dorsey was a key hire. A plant-based eater who doesn’t drink socially, she felt aligned with Bastasch’s greater intention for the project.
“The heart of it was her vision for how she could change the nightlife and the concept of what it means to go out for cocktails,” she says.
Umarah Mughnee had never been a bartender, having spent her career as a marketing strategist in the health and wellness industry and as a freelance writer for the cannabis website Leafly. She was drawn to Bastasch’s leadership and the safe space Disco Mary would provide for guests.
She doesn’t just make drinks. Through her floral design business Open Tabs Studio, she contributed the standout dried arrangement of palm leaves, pampas grass and baby’s breath popping with pinks, blues and purples installed in a ceiling corner of the bar.
Bastasch envisions the pop-up space as just the beginning of a grander, farther-reaching operation. A website is in the works, where she plans to share resources and information with others who want to build immersive inclusive environments. Though the pop-up hasn’t gotten into the merch game yet, Bastasch intends to change that by selling miniature versions of the Disco Mary statue in the not-so-distant future. The bar itself could grow bigger or become a standalone venture.
“More spaces like this are needed and desired,” she says. “I absolutely see the potential for this to expand.”
In the meantime, she’s simply going to enjoy the experiences Disco Mary is creating for patrons.
“My favorite is people on dates,” Bastasch says. “They’re each ordering something different, something that fulfills them; and they’re both having an amazing time. And I see that every night.”
Disco Mary: 124 Blagden Alley NW, DC; discomary.com // @discomarycollective
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