Chef and restaurateur Jamie Leeds welcomed two additions to the Hank’s family in 2016. Opening Hank’s Cocktail Bar in Petworth and Hank’s Pasta Bar in Alexandria expanded Leeds’ empire — and her commute. She travels between her five restaurants each week to keep tabs on the diverse operations.
“I spend a lot of time in my car,” she says with a laugh.
Hank’s Cocktail Bar, originally called The Twisted Horn, is celebrating one year of innovative cocktails, whimsical titles, and community involvement. The compact bar replaced a former church, but it’s been transformed into a different kind of gathering place. Despite having the smallest footprint of any property in Leeds’ restaurant group, Hank’s Cocktail Bar has become a big part of the Petworth community.
Eater managed to catch Leeds during a rare window of free time to ask about the first year of business at her only dedicated cocktail bar.
Why did you decide it was time to open a dedicated cocktail bar under the Hank’s umbrella?
Jamie Leeds: I realized in running the restaurants that the cocktail program was very popular. And I expanded Dupont; I doubled the size of Dupont so that I could put in a larger bar. We have a bar manager in each restaurant that creates really creative cocktails and people come in just for the cocktails. When I built the Hill [location], it was a cocktail-focused restaurant. In Old Town … the bartenders are really into it, they do their own infusions and all this. And I was thinking why not have a place that’s just about cocktails and it’s a little bit also like our test bar. We’ll create cocktails here that we’ll use in some of the other restaurants, so it seemed like a good fit.
Can you talk a little bit about the philosophy behind the cocktail menu, specifically the exploration of savory flavors, and the naming of drinks?
JL: We like to have fun with the names. We just have a lot of different experimentation with different flavors. And I originally wanted to do something in Petworth because I used to live here, and Petworth is a great neighborhood; it’s become a great community. All of the Hank’s are community-driven and neighborhood restaurants, and Petworth really needed a place for people to go and just have a good cocktail and some good bar bites.
Is it typical for drinks from this menu to show up at different Hank’s locations?
JL: We’re kind of doing a back-and-forth. So we have this section called “Tales from the Family,” and so these are twists on some of the classics from the other restaurants. Like the “Hanky Panky,” and different things like that. “I Know What Boys Like” is a drink from Capitol Hill, and “You Remind Me of Something” is adapted from Hank’s Pasta Bar. So we do cross over.
Are there any drinks that are exclusive to Hank’s Cocktail Bar?
JL: All of them are exclusive except for the “Tales of the Family.” It’s a seasonal menu. There’s one that the guys have done [“Don’t Be a Menace to Petworth While Drinking Your Popcorn in the ‘Horn”] where they’ve infused popcorn and the drink tastes exactly like popcorn and we serve a little side of popcorn with it. It’s pretty crazy. All kinds of stuff like that. We have fun. “Is There Any Tea on this Spaceship?” and it’s made with oolong tea. “There Will Be Blood … Oranges.” “He’s Still Bad But He Does It Even Better,” that’s the vodka drink.
Do you have any favorites?
JL: The “Old Pal” [a Negroni made with vodka instead of gin] is my favorite. That’s my drink. They always have some kind of variation of an “Old Pal” for me.
What stands out from the selection of signature cocktails?
JL: They really sell pretty well across the board, but the popcorn one I think is the best selling drink right now.
How have the beginning stages of launching this concept been different from other Hank’s concepts?
JL: Me being a chef, coming up as a chef, and opening restaurants, I focused a lot on the food, on the kitchen. And the metrics are a little different with a bar. The shelf life of the product is a lot longer. You don’t have to necessarily think about spoilage or anything. But I also wanted to make sure that the food was really really good. But we’ve definitely tweaked the menu many times since the beginning, given what people want. Originally, for example, because I love charcuterie, and different meats and cheeses, and I thought for sure that would be a big winner here, but it turns out people aren’t really into that in this neighborhood. So we’ve taken that off.
I like to open in spaces that have character — older spaces, not necessarily new constructions all the time. So this used to be a church and we totally gutted it and built it out and found a lot of things, a lot of surprises in the construction, that we weren’t expecting as far as plumbing and electric and things like that. But what’s really exciting about this space is the back. We have an outdoor patio in the back that seats 40 people.
For people who know and love the Hank’s brand, what will they find at the Cocktail Bar that they’ll be familiar with?
JL: We’re very big on good service. We have a lot of training for service and I feel like the staff here is very well trained and friendly. And like I said, we’re community-oriented, very neighborhood-oriented. People come in multiple times a week. And so that’s kind of the culture of Hank’s. And also good value. We lowered the prices on a lot of the food since opening to be able to be more inclusive and become more in line with the Hank’s brand.
What was the reasoning behind the decision to change the name from The Twisted Horn to Hank’s Cocktail Bar?
JL: We realized that people didn’t know that Twisted Horn was part of the Hank’s group, and that just started to become very evident. More and more people that we talked to, everybody would say “Oh, I didn’t know that was a Hank’s” and “I didn’t know you owned that.” And quite frankly, the sales weren’t there that we thought would be there, and so we made the decision to change the name. And literally overnight the sales doubled. So it was the right move.
Did you make any changes to the space?
JL: One thing that we did do is we lightened things up a little bit. So we have our signature chalkboard. All of the Hank’s have a chalkboard. So we put that up. We also now feature a local artist every month or two months. So these paintings are all done by a local artist. We have a cocktail reception to kick it off, and then we sell the art to patrons if they want. That’s been a huge success.
What else has changed at Hank’s Cocktail Bar? What’s different now?
JL: Business has definitely increased and we’ve become more of a part of the community of Petworth. We just had a big fundraiser event with all of the neighborhood Petworth restaurants coming together. We created a t-shirt with everybody’s name on it, and we sent the proceeds to a local school. Just growing and becoming more a part of the community has been what I’ve seen [as the] most significant.
How is business in the burgeoning Petworth neighborhood? How have you seen the community evolve since you arrived here?
JL: This block is turning into a restaurant destination. My friend Anna Bran-Leis is opening a taqueria next door; the pizza place just opened; the wine bar across the street just opened; a couple places on Georgia Avenue; Homestead opened up around the corner. It’s just been very satisfying to kind of be a pioneer in the growth of the neighborhood. I’ve definitely seen an increase in business because of that.
What are your plans for the next year at Hank’s Cocktail Bar, and beyond?
JL: Just to steadily grow and keep tweaking and listening to the guest, seeing what they want, and just keep going on and doing what we can to serve the community and make great cocktails and good food … It’s been just very satisfying to be part of the Petworth community and we’re just looking forward to being part of the growth of the next few years. I really see Petworth coming around.