When I first landed in D.C., during another decade (don’t ask), there were a couple super-swank rooftop bars and a handful of teeming decks perched above neighborhood dives. Select a lofty destination to match your mood? Not a thing.
So much has changed in this city, not least of which is the burgeoning population of actual rooftop (not roof deck) bars — and the District’s latest addition might be the most beautiful: Lady Bird is perched atop the Kimpton Banneker Hotel and is named for Claudia Alta “Lady Bird” Johnson, First Lady to President Lyndon Baines Johnson.
“I don’t remember a hotel on that block.” My friend wracks her brain as we walk over, as well she might – tucked between an art-deco apartment tower and the Kazakh Embassy, the building used to be easy to miss. No longer.
The entire hotel, formerly known as the Kimpton Rouge Hotel, has emerged from a $20 million overhaul, and it gleams. The ground floor restaurant/bar, Le Sel, now has floor-to-ceiling windows that open to the sidewalk, making it a charming hang-out in its own right.
But the crown jewel of the makeover is Lady Bird. Given the rooftop had never been put to use, it required a build-out from scratch. And unlike so many rooftop bars, which have narrow terrace spaces crammed with too much furniture, Lady Bird’s movable glass walls, mid-century modern décor and well-spaced seating have been carefully designed to impart an unhurried, meandering sophistication. Every seat in the house has a beautiful view of the entire DMV. And with lots of firepits and retractable glass, Lady Bird is set to be a year-round drinking destination.
The rooftop décor riffs on the first lady’s famous commitment to conservation and celebrates the Wood Thrush, the District’s official bird. Whooshes of mottling, inspired by the Wood Thrush, race across the green walls, and the indoor fans are reminiscent of wings. And the bar’s aesthetic continues into the menu.
“All of the cocktails have an airy, ethereal feeling to them to match the space itself,” says head bartender Josh Phuse. “The moment I stepped into the space, I was inspired.”
Their best-seller so far is the Hummingbird, made with gin, yellow chartreuse, lemon, pineapple and vanilla syrup.
The Wood Thrush is the menu’s specific ode to the District’s bird, and features an eclectic combination of dark rum, cinnamon and fernet. That last ingredient — a notoriously bitter liquor first marketed as a cure for cholera and menstrual cramps — gave me pause.
“It is definitely an acquired taste,” Phuse laughs. “But I wanted to introduce people to these flavors — and we’ll bring lots of other unique liquors — like chartreuse — and introduce them to a wider audience.”
Phuse started his cocktail career as a busser at Georgetown’s Fishers Farmers Bakers before working his way to become a server and then bartender, going through the restaurant group’s rigorous cocktail program. With honed skills, Phuse spent time at Michelin-starred Bresca and cocktail darling Left Door, among others.
Now, at Lady Bird, the sky’s the limit.
“I’m building experiences — things that people will remember and come back for — while also keeping things refreshing,” Phuse explains. “We have so much on the horizon — infusions, oleo saccharum, fermentations and so much more.”
Hotel bars used to be boring (if reliable) affairs. But smart brands like Kimpton are giving talented teams more space to experiment, reflect the locale and build unique experiences.
Lady Bird is open Tues.-Thurs. 4:00 p.m. to midnight; Fri.-Sat. 4:00 p.m. to 1:00 a.m., and does not currently accept reservations. Folks planning to visit on a weekend can hang out at the very charming ground floor restaurant or bar while waiting to float to the top of the waitlist.
Lady Bird at the Kimpton Banneker: 1315 16th St. NW, DC; thebanneker.com/washington-dc-restaurant/rooftop-bar // @ladybirdbardc