Christine Kim drinks Capri Sun at the bar midday. With stools stacked away, Service Bar’s Beverage Director — and newly minted partner — stands in the center of the bar with her laptop, combing through Excel spreadsheets, emails and Slack messages.
To her left, fellow Service Bar partner Chad Spangler joins the makeshift standing desk setup silently working on his laptop. To her right, a photo shoot takes place. Surrounded by staged lights with early aughts alt rock blasting, a bartender garnishes the citrus-forward Semester Abroad cocktail with a delicate lemon peel, while a photographer snaps away. Kim frequently pauses from her laptop to direct the shoot.
Despite being closed until 5 p.m., Service Bar’s front door swings open every few minutes. Staff trickle in to get their photo taken for the bar’s social media and website updates. Distributors drop off boxes of liquor. Kim promptly greets each new face, often with hugs and jokes, followed by ushering them out of the camera shot. There is a sense of ease amidst the bustle. What most would constitute as chaos, Kim takes with stride — and even joy.
“It was my fallback until it wasn’t,” Kim explains about working 15 years in the hospitality industry.
Throughout high school and college, the Silver Spring native was on a more conventional career track and worked as a server and bartender part-time, until she had an epiphany.
“I was always happy working in the dining environment,” Kim says. “I get satisfaction out of making people happy. That helps me feel better about myself and what I am contributing. So I quit school, quit my boyfriend, and got lucky bartending at a place where I met people who I still work with now.”
Kim didn’t initially receive approval from her family about her career pivot, but she was determined nonetheless.
“I didn’t care if they cared or not. I was very stubborn and my family always knew I was going to do whatever I wanted. I told them, ‘Either support me or don’t.’”
With conviction and full dedication to her profession, Kim quickly accrued connections in D.C.’s restaurant industry and found her place in the bar scene. In 2012, she met her future business partners, Spangler and Glendon Hartley when helping reopen Farmers Fishers Bakers. In 2016, when Service Bar opened its doors, Kim was vital in creating a cocktail menu to match the intimate low-key environment the bar is now known for.
“We wanted to create a space that [inspired] people, whether traveling or local, to come back. We wanted to be the place you want to go after work.”
With dark woods, $1 bills serving as wallpaper behind the bar, fried chicken and a cozy private cove known as the Snug Room with its own door, Service Bar is full of quirky charm fit for any neighborhood pub. And yet, the refined cocktails and warm hospitality Service Bar provides (hence the name), elevate the experience without being pretentious. The Baked Apple + Pear Gin & Tonic embodies this balance: a classic drink elevated by infusing comforting flavors.
“I start with the ingredient I want to highlight,” Kim explains. “I like looking at the general [cocktail] menu and seeing what could fill the gaps. I often start with classics and then do riffs or variations and see where we go from there.”
In early July, Kim, who is Korean American, was working on creating a seasonal cocktail menu focused on Asian-inspired ingredients, which is a first for her.
“I never get to work with Asian ingredients, generally,” she says. “I just don’t even think about it because it’s what I use for food, not drink application. One of my drinks right now is focused on honeydew in terms of a very specific melon bar popsicle product. We will see if it works.”
Kim judges the success of each cocktail concoction on community input.
“The one thing [that confirms] a cocktail is great is if someone orders it again. Then you’ve won. You’ve accomplished the goal.”
The focus on patrons’ experience is the key to Service Bar’s success and accolades. They survived Covid-19 quarantine measures with to-go cocktail packages, and almost doubled their staff when they expanded to offer outdoor seating. This past June, Service Bar was ranked as one of the North America’s 50 Best Bars, leading to widespread recognition for both the bar and Kim’s cocktails.
“We knew [the bar’s award] was happening, but we didn’t know where we [ranked],” Kim says. “Our whole staff was in New York watching in a hotel room, streaming on my laptop. We planned dinner around being announced in the 40s. And then it just kind of kept counting down from the 40s, 30s, 20s, and we were like, ‘Why did they not announce us yet?’ Then, they finally got to us at number 18 and waterworks were everywhere.”
Kim immediately saw an uptick in the volume of people eager to visit the bar after the announcement, noting, “We had people take the bus down from New York because they had a day off and just wanted to check us out.”
As the only bar in D.C. to be awarded on the list, Kim now wants to use the recognition as a way to shine a light on the entire city’s beverage scene that fostered her talents.
“I think people sleep on D.C. a lot, and there are so many good places here,” Kim says, who noted Black Whiskey, Chaplin’s and Zeppelin as personal favorite spots. “We are working on something to help promote our friends and places we enjoy going to.”
Pre-pandemic, Service Bar hosted events and pop-ups once a month that featured up-and-coming local businesses. They are currently in the process of restarting the pop-up series, including one that would coordinate with bars all over the country, helping bring even more national attention to the District’s hospitality industry.
Back in early June, before the Supreme Court struck down Roe v. Wade, Kim took part in the Bartenders Against Bans fundraiser at Michele’s, where 100% of the proceeds went to Planned Parenthood. She along with six other local mixologists, who are all women, quickly came together after Justice Samuel Alito’s opinion draft undercutting Roe v. Wade was leaked.
“It took like two emails,” Kim recalls. “Judy [Elahi, bar director at Michele’s] set it up and had everything organized. She did a great job putting everything together. We really just had to tell her what drinks we wanted to make and what prep we needed, and that was it. Everything else was taken care of.”
The success of the event, which raised approximately $6,000 for the cause, further drives home why Kim believes in the District’s bar scene and its potential.
“I love how tight the D.C. community is. I want other people to recognize what an awesome city we are.”