This review is going to be tricky. Our visit to Columbia Room in Washington, DC was my most anticipated stop for the first half of our whole Cross-Country Barcrawl journey. It was the first full-on craft bar we visited. And it was the truest speakeasy of all. So, I let my expectations get awfully high. I also was having a great time getting to meet the other half of Scofflaw’s Den, Marshall Fawley, and spent so much time talking to him and SeanMike that I didn’t give myself the time to engage our bartender or really bask in the experience. And I want to make all those disclaimers clear up front, because this is a hell of a bar, and a wonderful experience. If this review seems full of quibbles and complaints, it’s because if you point to the outfield a la Babe Ruth, I want your home run to shatter the light standard, not just drop into the tenth row….
It is important to explain upfront just what Columbia Room is. It is a small speakeasy bar inside the larger, totally different bar called Passenger (next post). You must make reservations in advance. They take reservations in groups of (AFAICT) 4 or 6 only. The basic experience is a prix fixe tasting menu, with an opening drink, a seasonal cocktail and a light dish, followed by a cocktail creation just for you. Your visit is designed to last just under two hours.
They tell you at the time you make your reservations that they will call you in advance to discuss your visit, and they do. First quibble: If you are going to do this, you ought to do more than just check for food allergies and reconfirm the number. I expected some discussion of our tastes, and didn’t get it. Note that they don’t promise any such thing, I just projected it. I still think they miss an opportunity with this.
When you arrive, you identify yourself and are escorted back through Passenger and through a dark, unmarked door into the Columbia Room. The noise drops to near zero and you find yourself in a beautiful, intimate space. The lush soapstone(?) bar runs the whole length of the left side of the room, and boasts only ten, very comfortable, bar chairs. Behind these, along the right wall, are eight upholstered and elevated seats which overlook the bar. The group before us was understandably lingering over their drinks, and I don’t blame them, so we were seated on the high seats to wait our turn. We were brought cool towels to refresh ourselves as we waited, and were served our opening round, a delicious punch. This is a highly intelligent setup which keeps a slow moving first group of the night from making everyone late for the rest of the evening, as happens all too often in less thoughtfully run places. I do wish they had the room to turn these seats sideways, because I felt a bit guilty that I was looming over these nice people’s shoulders like a vulture, waiting for them to vacate our seats.
The air-conditioning was over-taxed a bit due to the heat wave, but the funky 1930s table fans kept the air pleasantly moving. The lighting is elegant but dim (which I will seize on as an excuse for my crummy photographs). I took lots of fascinated notes, then accidentally deleted half of them from my iPhone before I could sync it, so I am missing a few important details, such as the name of our bartender. She was not the owner, Derek Brown, but was as a smooth, attentive, and elegant a drink maker as you could ask for in a craft bar.
Our main seasonal cocktail she brought us (also lost with the notes) was this smooth little concoction:
We were also brought our “amuse bouche”, this delicious bowl of soup. I put “amuse bouche” in quotes because this was a pretty big bowl to hang with that term. It was also delicious. I had eaten well to ensure I didn’t suffer another epic hangover, so I wasn’t really hungry. But delicious packs its own trunk full of hungry….
Now, here is my one (legitimate) beef with our Columbia House experience: For the most part, I didn’t see my drinks being made. This bar is only ten seats long, and more than half the time, our bartender was down a ways from us, far enough where I couldn’t follow what she was doing. Now, it is possible that she didn’t get quite so in our face as usual since we were so busy at times with that phenomenon of the Internet Age: Meeting Old Friends for the First Time. But it didn’t feel like that, and we couldn’t have more clearly been serious cocktail geeks if we’d stood up every fifteen minutes to offer a loud toast to Dale DeGroff…. Again—expectations: In this bar above all others, I wanted sole title to that bartender when our drinks were being made, and I didn’t get that.
Regardless, when I did see her working, she displayed that easy grace and skill you only see from a real pro. And what she made us was great. The mint julep with which I finished off the visit was completely different form the one I had the night before at Jack Rose, just as good, and even prettier.
And yes, I was drinking a lot of mint juleps… have I mentioned it was stupid hot in Washington while we were there?
As I said at the start, this has been a tricky review. Half of what I said has been beefs, fair and not. Yet I’m still going to heartily recommend that you visit Columbia Room should you get the chance. In fact, don’t miss it if you do get the chance. It is a wonderful atmosphere and a unique take on the speakeasy experience. Everything placed before you is great. If you have a client or two (cocktailian, or especially if not) that you want to impress, Columbia Room will deliver. And when you are done, you can experience cocktailian whiplash when you go back out and sample the utterly different, yet just as good experience that is Passenger….
This review is part of my larger Great Cross-Country Bar Crawl series. Here is the main post for our Washington stop, with links to all reviews for DC.