Derek Brown has long been a mixology maestro across the city. As of a year ago, he concentrated some of his cocktail work in Shaw, specifically the 1800 block of 7th Street. Along that stretch, Brown has not one or two but three cocktail joints, sitting side by side, each with their own niche. The fact that they're so physically close to each has made the sibling establishments a natural choice for bar crawls in which groups of imbibers go from one to another to another.
Last Friday night, I took on the challenge of visiting all three — Southern Efficiency, Eat the Rich and Mockingbird Hill — so that I could get a taste of the interplay between them. Here's how the night unfolded for me and my partners in crime:
6:46 p.m. Southern Efficiency is first on the list. We decide that on a Friday evening, after a long week of work, whiskey is the perfect antidote. And with cubbies (yes, cubbies!) full of bottles of bourbon, rye and whiskey there is more than enough choice to go around.
Walking in, I'm hit by what feels like a wall of sound. There are less than 20 people inside, yet it sounds like triple the amount. Man, does their conversation carry. I arrive before my friends and sidle up to the center of the bar. Like other Brown-owned bars there's no such thing as happy hour, just special drinks of the night. Yet no one seems to mind.
6:51 p.m. The first word I hear out of the female bartender's mouth, as I begin to peruse the cocktail menu, is "bodacious." As a native Californian, I'm at home. I'm not sure what concoction elicited such a valley girl response, but I settle on "This Never Happened to Pablo Picasso" which boasts huckleberry soda along with rye. A) The title is a name dropper that I fall for and B) It's one of two cocktails on draft.
The male bartender proudly lets me know that all cocktails on the menu will soon go the way of the draft. "It'll be a lot of fun." There's no hint of sarcasm. He's pumped.
6:58 p.m. Still waiting on my drinking companions, I study my surroundings. The L-shaped bar occupies most of the room with stool seating at the front facing out to the street and a row of stools with their backs to the bar for privacy. At nearly all of them there's a common type of customer: white, young, a 7 out of 10 on the hipster scale. At least half are sporting spectacles, and the only slight deviations are a man in his 40s and a bow-tied drinker who could double as Tucker Carlson's youthful twin.
7:07 p.m. The chatter is still muffled and blends together except for select words and conversation points that break through in spurts. Among the topics: dressage, the new horse-tastic Olympic event, and cheap beer that is not on the menu.
7:20 p.m. My friend shows and has news. Mockingbird Hill, which she just had to walk past to get to the entrance, is closed, at least for now. No!!! There's a sign on its door that cryptically mentions an electrical issue. "We will reopen as soon as we can. In the meantime, please join our sister bars (we'll make sure there are a couple bottles of Sherry behind the bar just for you)." How very upbeat for some type of power snafu.
Detective work — in the form of asking our Southern Efficiency bartenders — informs us that the culprit was a floor panel that caught fire after the bar closed the night before, causing half of it to melt. Apparently a blaze at 4 in the morning makes it really "fantastic" to find professional help and they're crossing their fingers for a fix in time for some type of service that night.
"It's kind of a bummer," the male bartender says as a way of closing out the topic. Indeed.
7:31 p.m. I should mention that my female friend, a bartender herself, is no liquor slouch, so ordering becomes a game of "stump the bartender." There is also not enough bitters in the world — or in the spontaneously dreamed up drinks they make her — to satisfy her palate. The bar staff is up for experimentation, and she keeps tinkering with combinations for them to execute.
Not so with a girl who comes up to the bar craving gin. She's apologetic, knowing full well that the specialty of the house is whiskey. But she wants what booze she wants, and an aviation is the resulting drink.
7:42 p.m. A male-female couple sitting near the front is hugging for an uncomfortably long time. This is after I spy them resting their heads on each other. Either they're really tired and needing to physically support each other, or they're entirely too affectionate for the rest of the crowd. Everyone else is very professional and behaved and seems to either be on a date or with a coworker or two.
7:50 p.m. The acoustics of the Woodley Park Metro escalator come to mind. There, it's impossible make out what riders the next escalator over are saying, yet riders two escalators over are perfectly audible. At Southern Efficiency, we can't hear the patrons around us, behind us or besides us. But we can follow along in the adventures of a bearded guy at the extreme opposite corner of the bar who's scarfing down pimento cheese like it's his job. He's doing all of the eating and talking while the brunette female who he's with takes on nodding responsibility. With surprising clarity, he tells her of his hope and dreams. At least we assume they're hopes and dreams. "I imagine myself out in the middle of Utah ...running a marathon, writing a script. Those are things I want to do." Good luck there, buddy.
7:56 p.m. "She's so hot it's ridiculous." As the crowd thins out it's the repeated exchange between three women seated in a row at the left side of the bar. We had suspected that they liked the ladies. Now they're loudly confirming as they scan those around them and talk celebrities.
In stark contrast, closer to the door, is a new contingent of conservatives. Buttoned-up in suits and clean cut, they've entered together after, what we assume is, some type of conference event involving the use of name tags.
8:08 p.m. There's a pattern emerging. Groups walk in, take a lap and then leave without ordering. It must be the heat. By this point the 40 or so customers inside are upping the temperature to a point where there's napkin fanning and more sweating than should happen on an October eve. Then air blasts from above miraculously. Ah, precious AC. "I saw that guy turn it on," my friend points out. That guy is Derek Brown.
8:22 p.m. Flock of Seagulls must be the inspiration for one 30-something's hair. I call his ‘do a bouffant. But no, it's pompadour-esque and halting enough to interrupt our (at this point it's me, a male friend and a female friend) chit-chat. The height that he has achieved on each side of his hair wall is frankly impressive.
8:30 p.m. Hunger sets in. Bourbon balls become dinner lite. The sugary cubes are reminiscent of the donut holes of elementary school party fame, only with some subtle boozy hints. My male pal becomes obsessed with the idea of biscuits. Among the mix of signs on the wall is one advertising the bar's biscuit brunch. Sadly, Sundays are THE time for biscuits. Pimento cheese and crackers it is.
8:57 p.m. Discovery: the connective tissue between Southern Efficiency and Mockingbird Hill is a hallway with a shared set of unisex bathrooms. The two bars also, by the way, share a kitchen just behind the restrooms. Before realizing this, we'd lost track of certain sets of patrons. They'd head to the back of the bar and disappear. The magic of adjoining bars is entry and exit without even going outside.
9:01 p.m. It's not entirely clear when it happened or how but Mockingbird Hill is now open. The subject is buzzed about, and, in a hurry, the bar fills up. We're not ready for sherry yet, but are glad to have the option.
9:10 p.m. D.C. is the land of bureaucrats, and it's time to hear from the mouthiest of the night. This one works in the patent office and, as he tells it, "a whole world of patents passes through him." Sexy.
9:26 p.m. Conditions are crowded enough that sliding past other bar-goers is an Olympic sport. And then just as quickly as seating fills up, it empties again. It's very much a steady wave of activity, a tug of war between this bar and Eat the Rich.
9:32 p.m. Time to move. Eat the Rich is calling our names, and we answer out of a serious need for a scene change. The defining mark of this joint is alcoholic punch that can be shared a la pitchers of margaritas and a selection of fresh oysters and other seafood dishes. In comparison to Southern Efficiency, Eat the Rich is narrow and more rectangular in shape with a long vertical bar. It's also filled to the brim. There's one pocket of space we can take over, and it's seated at the bar right in front of the oyster shucking station. Since our backs will face the front window my mind flashes to the mobster belief that this is a big no-no. But, if we want to sit, it's all there is.
9:40 p.m. There are a few recognizable faces from next door. However the collective vibe is not the same. My friend says the drinkers are more approachable and more overwhelmingly male. I say it has a frat party sensibility and takes me back to my University of Georgia game days. As if on cue, a 20-something guy drinks Natty Boh with reckless abandon — and out of the corner of his mouth. Wait. They sell Natty Boh here?
9:53 p.m. The rain, which has been teasing and taunting all evening, is picking up. In line for the ladies room a female in a chic pink dress mocks the massive umbrellas Washingtonians tote around and how most of the night no umbrella was even necessary, let alone a golf one. She's from Seattle, and I believe is required to make such statements.
10:03 p.m. We have to get oysters. Sitting in front of the chefs who are prepping them forces our hand. As our dozen arrive, the downpour is scaring off the crowd. They head out in clusters as if there was a meeting that we were not privy to about location switches.
10:18 p.m. When we notice the mass exodus is sticking, the waitress explains that a few of the big groups have started "an impromptu bar crawl" that's now taking them to Mockingbird Hill. We didn't plan it but somehow we're moving in the order that patrons use to go from one venue to the next in the Brown bar corridor; our timing is just a bit behind the others.
10:36 p.m. As the energy lowers in Eat the Rich, a couple sits down next to us. She wants a Port City beer, which he mocks given the extensive drink menu. "I will have a cocktail, which is what you're supposed to do," he responds. This makes him a "fancy man" in her eyes. "Well, first let me see if I can find something that's not $12" is his reply.
10:47 p.m. A gin rickey on tap. That's the ordering advice of our waitress to the drinkers all around us for when they make it to Mockingbird Hill. "Don't even bother with the sherry," she continues, even though sherry is the special of the house there. I'm pretty sure that's not the company line.
10:59 p.m. The chefs in white are still cleaning out the seafood and shucking even though orders have diminished. It's impossible not to eavesdrop on neighbors' discussions since what was once chatter is now a chill, half-empty bar. "There's this weird itchy thing on my back," the male member of the nearby couple says to his lady. "Do you know what psoriasis is?" she offers as a diagnosis. "There's more to it than that." More? We want to hear less.
11:12 p.m. When my third friend shows up (and the second one departs) it's crowd-following time to see Mockingbird Hill. Inside, the action is so loud it's a roar. The space is shaped like Eat the Rich, and just as full as when we arrive at that establishment. The crowd is boisterous yet not obnoxiously so, and groups stay relatively self-contained.
Yet again, the sole open spot is near the door, and we opt to sit down as opposed to standing in a mob of strangers.
11:20 p.m. Flannel must be the unofficial uniform of the bartenders here. Two of the men behind the bar are in similar shirts. Telling them apart is not so easy especially as they take turns waiting on us. One, though, has a pen behind his ear while the other stands a bit taller. The second is, we learn, a welder in his spare time. My friend chats him up further about the mystery of the fiery panel that closed the bar down temporarily. Turns out the panel will become his next art project. "I'll make something with it," he says.
11:33 p.m. "The only person who drinks sherry is my great aunt in Wisconsin." It's my friend's gut reaction to the extensive menu of sherry cocktails, straight sherry and sherry flights. I'm pretty sure it's a similar statement to what the staff hears all the time. But we decide to give the drink a whirl. When it Rome, when in Rome.
11:55 p.m. The four-top sitting in the table behind us, near the window, is talking famous literary characters. It's profound, intellectual fare for almost midnight. The subject matter must have arisen because of the Edgar Allen Poe signage at the front of the bar used to display specials.
12:21 a.m. Nearby customers are fishing some mysterious handfuls out of goodies from a mason jar. For all we know it could be tofu or paste or bugs. We ask for some and find out it's homemade brittle to snack on.
12:40 a.m. The night is dying down. It seems like the third time we're experiencing a noticeable deceleration. The female friend who started the night with me hails a taxi, and the remaining two of us start nursing what's left of our flights, The Unicorn, whose uniqueness the bartenders play up, and The Barrel, whose flavor range they highlight.
1:02 a.m. Applause over a group order of shots stands out amongst the subdued mix of sounds filling the air. A flurry of customers leave, and, before we know it, it's just us and the bartenders. We spend a long time nursing the sherry flights and then remember that we have not yet tried the gin rickeys on draft. Must. Fix. This.
1:30 a.m. No one's yelled "last call" per se. However it's obvious that Mockingbird Hill is coming to a close. The bartenders are actively cleaning, pacing between the front and the back of the establishment, no longer making small talk. If they tell us to go, we say to each other, we'll go. They let us keep sipping. Making a quick bathroom stop before heading out seems smart. Once we do, we stumble upon unfamiliar territory, a secret staff party. Our Southern Efficiency male bartender, both flannel-shirted bartenders and a female staff member are sitting in a small nook between the restrooms and the bar area. One at a time they put a white towel over their chest, lean back in a chair and pour sherry shots for each other using a silver contraption that resembles a lighter, metallic, one-person shotski. "It's a lay back shot," they explain and invite us to try. Who are we to say no? "It's been a long time since I took sherry shots from a long stick," my friend dead pans. The lay back shots are, undoubtedly, a final cue to go.
2:02 a.m. We walk into the night. At Southern Efficiency, it's pitch black, so we can't go full circle on the bar crawl. Eat the Rich still has a handful of people inside so we walk in and take a seat on stools near the wall. Beer is the only drink, as we're well past craft cocktail creating time. A hulking man in a black tee quickly walks over and tells us, "You have a whole bunch of time. Don't worry." He pauses. "Seven minutes."
Exactly seven minutes later he returns waiting on any last-minute chugging before leading us to the door. He's serious, and we don't fight the end of the bar crawl.