Ahead of our rendezvous, I sit patiently in the corner gathering my notes, before he appears, flashing a bright disarming smile and offering a warm apology for keeping me waiting. Ryan Chetiyawardana, the man standing over me now, is the same bouncy, unassuming figure I’d later observe moving through the moody Silver Lyan space, greeting familiar faces, with a well-poured dram in tow.
An Unexpected City
Chetiyawardana slides into the flanking chair and we dive in, but not before offering me a drink — whatever my heart desires. I chose a Japanese Saddle: their play on a Whiskey sour, that holds a significance I wouldn’t fully comprehend until much later in the conversation.
I’m enamored as he waxes on, almost immediately, about the “instant gratification” of a great cocktail, that’s planned with precision and imagination, and delivered much faster than, say, making sourdough bread.
The son of Sri Lankan immigrants, Chetiyawardana turned to bartending after “studying cooking, fine art, biology and philosophy.” He’s an intellectual and history aficionado, with great attention to detail and a magnetic personality.
Chetiyawardana’s decision to open a swanky basement cocktail bar in the District — his first foray in the states — felt instinctual. In fact, listening to him retrace the events, conversations and revelations that set it all in motion, one might think there was an invisible force compelling him to act.
The truth is, visiting the capital city was love at first sight for Chetiyawardana; encountering the local culture, energy and lushness were unexpected and serendipitous, as the Brit describes it.
“Not only could I experience so much of the history [during my first visit], but I could see an incredible depth of different cultural insight: the music, the food, the art scene. It really surprised me. It really made me feel very welcome. And there was something magical about that,” Chetiyawardana gushes.
The same magic that’s enchanted some of the country’s greatest culinary talent, is also charming world-class mixologists, and drawing them here to plant their creative roots.
“At the moment, there’s an incredible new journey that’s going on [in D.C.] — a movement by young chefs, bartenders, baristas, farmers. There was a real buzz going on and it felt like we could join that seat, [and] be a complement to what else was happening.”
Chetiyawardana, evoking the same confidence of an entrenched Washingtonian, declares that the District rivals the world’s greatest metropolitan areas.
In that spirit, the greatest gift the arrival of his bar bequeaths to D.C. is the confidence to stand tall in its own splendor, all while sidestepping constant comparisons to megacities like Chicago, New York and Los Angeles, with long-established reputations as cultural bastions.
It’s a supreme compliment, given Chetiyawardana’s past accolades and the corners of the globe he’s frequented or called home like Spain, Edinburgh and currently, London. Known as Mr. Lyan, he’s the brilliant mind behind some of the world’s most prestigious watering holes, including the White Lyan, Super Lyan and Lyaness, all in Europe, and far from D.C., the home of his latest creation.
A Magical Space
Of course, any project seems ambitious as a follow up act to the likes of the Dandelyan, the London-based bar named, in 2018, as the “World’s Best Bar” by the highly regarded annual 50 Bars ranking.
Yet, Chetiyawardana’s knack for innovation and showmanship would suggest he’d find success in whatever business venture he pursued.
And Silver Lyan [Ed. Note: pronounced Silver Line] does more than hold its own, harnessing the District’s magic in its own unique way, while also giving us a glimpse into the city’s future, where award-winning drink programs may equal the cache earned by the volume of decorated restaurants.
Originally opening in February 2020, its initial introduction to the District was brief, but impactful. In the fall of 2020, the esteemed Tales of the Cocktail named it the Best American Cocktail Bar — an amazing feather in the cap of the nascent establishment.
And after one evening in their subterranean digs, it’s easy to recognize why.
Tucked well beneath the ground floor of the plush Riggs Washington DC hotel, down a staircase, anchored inside a restored bank vault, the space is elegant and enticing. It’s beautifully adorned with dusty orange barrel chairs, mid-century modern decor — saturated with sharp red accents, exposed concrete, mirrored walls and a magnificently lit center bar.
In every way, It strikes a perfect balance between graceful design, surprise and merriment.
“We put a lot of care and attention [into] drinks, but we want something that feels really accessible,” Chetiyawardana says. “It’s a beautiful space and a grand room…we get to do things like blow up a balloon. [And] we get to serve some fun snacks.”
Silver Lyan represents yet another creative leap for D.C., a place where every accolade (or slight) kindles an insatiable collective desire to put the city on the map.
Chetiyawardana goes on to describe the bar as a place where locals should feel welcome, whether they’re coming in for a cocktail, beer or glass wine. And with a cohort of bartenders familiar to anyone who’s frequented D.C.’s plentiful bar scene, it should feel like coming home.
And true to form, Chetiyawardana and his team cleverly fold several homegrown ingredients into the playful menu that pushes the boundaries he loves to shatter with his concepts.
D.C.’s broad cultural, culinary, and agricultural landscape is well-represented, beginning with the peas and fig leaves procured from local farmers (among other ingredients) integrated into its cocktails; the half smoke hand pies — a nod to the legendary D.C. cuisine; the Virginia peanuts; to the cultural exchange-themed chapter of the cocktail menu: a memento to the city’s notoriety as a seat of international diplomacy.
“When I was reading about these [past] diplomatic exchanges, a U.S. diplomat acknowledged, ‘Those are the things that are important — for us to understand something new and change, [and] it might seem there’s clouds over these periods, but they always have a silver lining (hence the name, Silver Lyan).’ And I [thought] that was such a wonderful idea.”
The “Japanese Saddle” (described as a zesty, savoury aperitif) is a reminder of the ornate, handsomely crafted leather saddle gifted to the U.S. in 1860 by the Japanese (following the signing of the Treaty of Commerce and Friendship) as a token of enduring goodwill. It was gifted alongside the Cherry Blossoms that are so deeply ingrained into the District’s identity — a sentiment Silver Lyan is eager to emulate.
The bar, like the city it inhabits, is still a work in progress. But, for Chetiyawardana, that’s the best part of the journey.
“That’s what we’re talking about…the way things change and evolve and grow: ideas, thoughts, flavors. I’m really excited by this concept, and what it can start to develop into [and] the new areas that we can start to explore. I’m excited by not knowing where that’s gonna go. I think that’s the point. The beauty of it is, it’s something that is ever changing.”