When the Sheppard closed its doors in January 2019, who knew what form the next iteration of the bar would take after it reemerged from the proverbial ashes.
More than two years, on a warm evening in June 2021, we received our answer. The quaint Mt. Pleasant neighborhood received a beloved speakeasy worthy of its affection. And it didn’t take long for the O.K.P.B. team to make new friends with neighboring businesses and locals — a testament to the genuine congeniality (and infectious jovial spirit) oozing from every inch of the space.
This team’s not afraid to roll up their sleeves (they literally built parts of the bar with their bare hands) and their hard work is paying off. They’ve charmed everyone in their path — yes, us included.
So, after several visits, we got down to brass tacks — kind of — with mixologist David Strauss to explore their decision to resurface in Mt. Pleasant, get the scoop on that mysterious name (spoiler, we didn’t get much out of him … this time) and why residents aren’t eager to spread the word about their favorite new cocktail bar.
District Fray: What’s O.K.P.B. origin story? Also, the name’s a bit of a mystery, huh? Is it an acronym for anything specific?
David Strauss: The origin of the O.K.P.B. speakeasy started six years ago with the Sheppard in DuPont Circle. I took that space over exactly as it was, had zero budget for improvements, and hired a staff of four friends, two of which had never bartended. We went for a total word of mouth campaign: no signs, no phone number, no social media. Despite our best efforts it worked out wonderfully. The O.K.P.B. name is certainly a bit of a mystery, and like our menu, the story behind it changes almost every day.
Why reemerge in Mt. Pleasant?
Strauss: We were looking at properties all over the city. There honestly wasn’t a neighborhood that was off the table. The challenge was finding a space that was the right size and price. I was looking for a space that was 1000 square feet or less. [And] not selling any food means significantly less income than a traditional bar or restaurant, so the rent needed to fit our business plan. The other piece of the puzzle was finding something that had [a] dense [residential community] around it. Opening a speakeasy in a downtown location and filling your Fridays and Saturdays is not a challenge. Making a slow Monday night feel special for neighborhood folks and building regulars, who take ownership and pride in your place as much as you do, is what keeps you around for a long time. And Mt. Pleasant is the perfect neighborhood for that; the people that live and work in Mt. Pleasant value and protect their neighborhood like no other place in the city.
What does it mean to be the only speakeasy in the Mt. Pleasant neighborhood?
Strauss: It means we get to create symbiotic relationships with our neighbors. If we’re too full to seat new arrivals, we can send them to Elle, Purple Patch, Nido, Sun Cinema, [or] Don Juan’s, and they in turn send them our way too. It means there isn’t a struggle to find [an] alternative and really great options in the neighborhood. It also means we are the last thing open when all the other destinations close and their staff will hopefully fill our seats at the end of their work day for a nightcap. We’ve had staff from Purple Patch having their manager meeting at our bar and that felt like the best welcome to the neighborhood imaginable. The other part of that is our neighborhood regulars, who live within a few blocks of the bar, can show up or add themselves remotely to the waitlist, and then chill at home until we text to say there is room at the bar. I love when our regulars tell me they put a movie on pause to come and grab a drink.
What kind of reception have you received from the community since opening?
Strauss: The community has been amazing and so welcoming. We have the best neighbors. One of our owners lives in Mt. Pleasant. We shop at the farmers market on Saturday and buy fresh fruit for the bar. We’ve made friends with the neighbors and have had to borrow the proverbial cup of sugar on more than one occasion — and the answer has always been yes. We eat dinner from all the local restaurants together before shift. We are so lucky to have such good food right outside our front door. The locals that live here have taken ownership of the space and made it their neighborhood bar. We know their names and are making new relationships daily. My favorite comment from regulars is that they love this place so much, they don’t want to tell anyone about it.
What makes the bar unique among other speakeasies in the city?
Strauss: Every speakeasy is unique, in the sense that there is typically one voice at the helm, and the final product is an expression of how they envision a bar to feel and operate, and there is typically a unifying quality, or profile, to the drinks they make. I can’t think of any other bar that makes as much of their own product in house as we do. We hand cut every single piece of ice, [and] not just rocks, but the production ice for shaking and stirring as well. We also make all our own syrups and juices, falernum, all space, dram, limoncello. We also mop the floors and clean the toilets and take out our trash. We don’t have support staff, porters or barbacks. [We] all bartend, prep, host, clean and contribute to menus. I [also] don’t know of any bar that changes their menu daily.
Why did you decide to make changing the menu daily a feature of the bar?
Strauss: This started with the original Sheppard. It was opening night and, as I’d previously mentioned, I had staff that had not [never] bartended previously. My intention was to never have a menu and [for] the bar [to] only offer bartenders choice. My staff was a little nervous about that situation, and instead, [decided] a menu would help clue guests in to what we had to offer and help anchor the experience. So I walked over to CVS and bought the memo clipboards and little yellow pads. Six years later, we’re still at it. We also always strive to offer a variety of spirits and styles on each menu.
In terms of the physical design, what are your favorite elements? We personally love the skylight and the doorbell.
Strauss: The skylight is definitely a defining feature. I hope my succulent garden eventually grows in to fill some of the [space] and help filter the summer sun. We did a large portion of the build ourselves because of the pandemic: we built all the furniture and did the wallpaper and tile work. We had equipment that was wider than the stairwell and there are scars in the wall that prove it. I guess I like the little mistakes the best. There’s a few rough spots on the tile work and the whole room is just not level. Everything we hung is level, but the building is over 100 years old and sinks and dips in different places [that] gives it a fun house vibe. I’m also proud of the bar interior. It is the smallest functioning cocktail bar I have ever built.
What kind of experience should patrons visiting the bar for the first time expect?
Strauss: We like to describe ourselves as high brow/low brow. We put everything into the drinks and we love to dress up, but we also love high fives and hugs, and I curse a lot. Basically, we will match your energy. If you want a refined experience, we have that. If you want to joke around and let us be snarky, we’ve got that too. More than anything, guests should expect us to find your party a seat as fast as possible.
In what ways do you hope the bar evolves over time?
Strauss: I hope to increase the [offerings], incorporate a curated beer list and [add] more snacks. I also hope we can anchor ourselves as the neighborhood bar. I’ve already run a destination bar and an event space. Neighborhood regulars are the reason I love doing this.