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Will the Influx of Big-Name NYC Bars Help or Hinder D.C.’s Cocktail Scene?

When Columbia Room won the 2017 Tales of the Cocktail award for Best American Cocktail Bar, it felt as if it were the culmination of an enormous effort to establish to the world at large what DMV locals had long known: that Washington, D.C., was one of the very best cocktail cities in the country.

Alongside that award-winning venue from Derek Brown’s Drink Company, there was the first iteration of Dram & Grain, hidden away within the basement of Jack Rose; barmini, the swanky sister bar of avant garde José Andrés restaurant minibar; and a proud succession of staunchly D.C. drinks institutions such as The Gibson, The Passenger, 2 Birds 1 Stone, Copycat, and many others, with openings such as as Espita Mezcaleria and Service Bar becoming beloved local outposts from their earliest days.

Today, Service Bar is one of two D.C. listings on the current edition of North America’s 50 Best Bars, ranking at No. 33 and joined by Allegory, at No. 45, which was further honored for the year’s Best Cocktail Menu.

As for Columbia Room, it closed in 2022. Today? It’s a Death & Co.

While that might not be quite akin to a neighborhood cafe being overtaken by a Starbucks — venerable Death & Co. was a hand-picked successor to the space — for some in the D.C. community it represented a tough blow against the local scene in favor of the national one. More recently, the city is percolating with the announcement of another early 2010s New York hot spot coming to the city in 2024: The Dead Rabbit.

Call it the NYC-ification of D.C., as big-name New York cocktail bars set up shop in the nation’s capital, despite the ongoing success of local establishments. The questions of why it’s happening, whether or not the imports are playing nice with the locals, and if the two spheres of influence can coexist within the same city are still being answered, though the early returns may come as a surprise.

D&C Meets D.C.

Death & Co. made its debut in the former Columbia Room space in July 2023, a move that stemmed in part from a shared appreciation since the nascent days of the craft cocktail renaissance. “In our early days, Derek Brown would come visit us at Death & Co. in New York, clearly a brilliant cocktail enthusiast, and his passion quickly made us close friends,” says Alex Day, partner in Gin & Luck, the hospitality group parent company of Death & Co.

“It was both thrilling and daunting taking over this space,” he says. “In one respect, we feel an immense amount of pride to be the stewards of such an iconic bar, to give it a new life. But we also knew that we had to make it our own while also respecting The Columbia Room’s place in cocktail history.” Day and his team came to the project with a preexisting reverence for the space, even drawing inspiration from Columbia Room when opening the since-closed The Walker in Los Angeles.

Now joining Death & Co. in its 200-mile southward journey is The Dead Rabbit, with a planned 2024 opening. For managing partner Jack McGarry, the idea isn’t to be a New York bar joining the D.C. fold, but to represent what he calls contemporary Irish culture. “Of course, The Dead Rabbit as a founding story, both the gang and the bar, has its roots in New York City,” he says. “But when you broaden the aperture, the gang and the bar were both principally formed to protect, preserve, and advance the Irish story. … Long story short, we’re an Irish pub first and foremost, and everything flows from that.”

 “No one likes to get taken over in their own city by an outsider, so I think the more that comes, the more that tensions will rise.”

Meanwhile, the D.C. scene hasn’t always been receptive to every NYC hospitality import. There was, for instance, a particular relishing of STK Steakhouse crashing and burning, though the chain is now planning a surprise return to the nation’s capital. David Chang’s Momofuku came and went in the city, and Daniel Boulud’s DBGB Kitchen & Bar met its fate as well.

But in other instances, D.C. has indeed fanboyed about NYC restaurant groups coming to town. “I think the D.C. crowd has an affinity for anything New York,” says Chad Spangler, co-founder of Service Bar. “While it doesn’t seem like the press has had a huge hard on for the imports in the bar world, Stephen Starr restaurants are a whole other story.” This year’s hotly anticipated opening of Starr’s Pastis has received breathless coverage, and the city has long clamored to bring Eataly into the fold, despite the soaring success of the local-driven Union Market.

Spangler predicts the New York exports will receive “a pretty warm welcome” — until they don’t. “No one likes to get taken over in their own city by an outsider,” he says, “so I think the more that comes, the more that tensions will rise.”

Merging Off I-95 and Into the Local Scene

New York isn’t the only cocktail capital encroaching onto D.C.’s turf. The interloping began by way of London, with the opening of Silver Lyan. The project debuted just ahead of the pandemic in 2020, finding its footing after navigating not only the New World, but the then new world of Covid-era closures and restrictions.

“I think at first people worried we were just trying to impose what we did in London into a new scene,” says Ryan Chetiyawardana of parent group Mr. Lyan. “But thankfully we were able to show people that our intentions were honest and that we were coming to town because we fell in love with the scene and culture, and only ever wanted to be a part of that.”

Chetiyawardana’s read on the initial reaction isn’t too far askew. “When I first found out that all of these famous bartenders were going to open up bars in D.C. … I was definitely worried about the D.C. cocktail scene,” says Deke Dunne, bar and creative director at Allegory. His worries were alleviated, though, as he witnessed the teams at Silver Lyan and Death & Co. taking the time to understand D.C.’s bar scene while providing opportunities to local bartenders along the way.

“For us, the transplants almost energized our scene in a sense by throwing down the gauntlet.”

When Silver Lyan debuted, the team emphasized finding its local footing above dictating its import identity. “The fact that we have locals running the bar certainly helps,” Chetiyawardana adds.

It may seem a trivial detail from the outside in, but for those working in the industry it makes a huge difference, helping to foster what Dunne refers to as a drama-free D.C. scene, where community is prioritized above competition. He’s steadfast that D.C. bartenders have received more opportunities as a result of these big brands coming to town rather than fewer. “I think we all prescribe to the motto of a rising tide raises all ships,” he says.

Initial industry skepticism has been replaced by an appreciation for how these imports have enhanced the D.C. scene while also serving as a source of motivation to forge ahead. “For us, the transplants almost energized our scene in a sense by throwing down the gauntlet,” Dunne says.

It starts with a measured, thoughtful take from the newcomers, of course. “As long as people look to learn from their new surrounds, then I see it as a positive – it’s a chance to learn from a new perspective and to bring the community closer together, without the trappings of homogeneity, or a colonialist approach,” Chetiyawardana says.

Dunne also believes that American cocktail bars on the whole have fallen a bit flat compared to their international peers in recent years. “I think there are a few exceptions: Double Chicken Please, Overstory, Yacht Club in Denver, Thunderbolt in LA, but I think a lot of American bars are resting on the laurels of the mid 2010s cocktail boom,” he says. Seeing different ideas come into town from London, or hitting the Guest Shift Circuit to get a firsthand view of what’s happening in Tokyo, Hong Kong and Singapore, enables evolution to take hold. Exposure to new ideas adds fuel to the creative fire in the city, along with that extra edge needed to avoid becoming safe or stagnant.

If You Can Make it in D.C., You Can Make it Anywhere?

What outside operators have found in D.C. is not only a high quality and diverse restaurant and bar scene, but also a consumer base that expects a certain standard. From that perspective, industry locals appreciate that big-brand bars wanting to come to town is an acknowledgement that the market warrants it. “Places like Columbia Room primed D.C. guests to think about cocktails in a really high conceptual way,” Dunne says.

“We’ve considered expanding markets ourselves but ultimately decided we’d like to have a bigger footprint in D.C. before moving onto another city.”

It doesn’t hurt that there’s plenty to go around in D.C. It’s regarded as one of the heaviest-drinking places in the country whenever those lists get passed around — and hey, you’d be drinking, too, if you were dealing with D.C. traffic and politics while wielding a schmoozing expense account to tap into.

Once you factor in the Maryland and Virginia suburbs, there’s a large, affluent population with an established taste for the finer things, including forward-thinking cocktail bars. With the growth and recognition that D.C.’s homegrown scene has received, maybe it won’t be long before its top bars and bartenders start migrating into new territory as well. Consider the success of a little old restaurant group spearheaded by one José Andrés as an example of a D.C. institution spreading its wings to great acclaim.

“I’m sure we will see the river flow the opposite way — the restaurant scene in D.C. definitely boomed and has been exported,” Spangler says, citing not only Andrés, but the Fiola restaurants from Fabio Traobicchi. D.C. restaurants have seemed to find a track out to Los Angeles in particular, with operators such as Bresca and Jônt, and Rose Previte of Compass Rose and Maydan, heading to the City of Angels.

“I’m sure the bar scene will trend in that direction eventually,” Spangler says. “We’ve considered expanding markets ourselves but ultimately decided we’d like to have a bigger footprint in D.C. before moving onto another city.” That resulted in the launch of highly touted twin concepts Causa & Amazonia.

In the meantime, for D.C. bar owners or those of any other city feeling heat from bigger-city competitors, it’s worth noting that a shiny big brand doesn’t mean a damn thing when it comes to the day-to-day operation of a bar in a new city. “New bars coming in probably can’t count on their reputations in other markets alone carrying them in their first year,” Spangler says. “They’ll need to ingratiate themselves with the native community here and earn their respect like everyone else.”

It’s like Frank Sinatra always sang. “If you can make it here…” or was that Chuck Brown?

The article Will the Influx of Big-Name NYC Bars Help or Hinder D.C.’s Cocktail Scene? appeared first on VinePair.

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