The 1,400-square-foot project inside the Walter E. Washington Convention Center (1020 Seventh Street NW), backed by Top Chef alum Spike Mendelsohn, business partner Vinoda Basnayake, and Strauss, will pour its first cocktails for the public on Thursday, February 1.
Its debut menu is pretty straightforward: 11 cocktails for $12 apiece, with five classics, five originals, and a “bartender’s choice” option.
With 70 seats, the one-page menu will rotate drinks monthly instead of nightly like its 40-seat couterpart in Dupont Circle. The bars’ combined names are an ode to Morris Sheppard, the Texas senator who penned the Prohibition amendment.
The Swatchroom-designed space was originally expected to replicate Sheppard’s masculine vibe, with plush drapes and oriental carpets. But the team decided to switch things up before construction started. One big reason: D.C. had become becoming blanketed with lots of dim and candlelit spaces.
“We realized we had the opportunity to go in the opposite direction,” says Strauss. “It’s a breath of fresh air to get out of the dark and be a warm and welcoming space.”
There’s no connection to the convention center, “except for them being our landlord,” stresses Strauss, who’s worked on bar programs at Petworth Citizen and Le Diplomate. Bright white bulbs spelling out its name beckon to guests on the street.
Various shades of baby blue color the new space — a look inspired by the monotone-colored property in Wes Anderson’s film “The Grand Budapest Hotel”. Accents sprinkled throughout include white floral arrangements, colorful perfume bottles used as aromatic sprays for cocktails, glowing orbs of light, and a pink-wallpapered ladies’ room.
The roomier space allows for an expanded spirits list — the bar also makes its own Fallernum, Limoncello, and Curacao — and back-of-house inventory space. Morris will open nightly to start (closed Mondays) and plans to add daytime service this spring including a coffee program and cafe bites.
The reservations-free, first come, first served policy at Sheppard is the same at Morris, as well as no standing room. Luckily there’s plenty of comfy seating for lounging, including ornate couches, chairs near a roaring fireplace, and upstairs booths.
Also expect more modernized bar accents than those at Sheppard, like in-house ice production and the ability to chill glassware to turn out super cold cocktails, says Strauss.
“We have taken machining out of the process entirely — we are doing all hand cut ice for every step, from production to presentation,” Strauss says.
Buying the blocks in bulk also helps keep prices low; purchasing ice that’s already cut and prepped for drinks is pricey, he notes.
Strauss credits his attention to detail behind the bar to his late mentor, NYC cocktail king Sasha Petraske. Others who have shaken and stirred under Petraske’s watch have also gone on to own or manage bars, he notes (one former colleague runs Bar-X in Salt Lake City with “Modern Family” TV star Ty Burrell).
“We feel like we are the next generation and this is our favorite and best way to keep our friend alive,” Strauss says.
Once warmer weather kicks in, a seasonal patio will add more seats to the space.
As for its sister bar Sheppard, Strauss says its days could be numbered — for now. Its aging building (1337 Connecticut Avenue NW) has been for sale for some time now, and the landlord has requested that everyone be out by March. But that time line could be extended, says Strauss.
“Whatever happens it’s been the best run at that place. With how successful it’s been we would make great efforts to relocate it,” he says, adding that Sheppard consistently gets 300 guests on Friday and Saturday nights.
Status: Scheduled to open at 6 p.m. on Thursday, February 1. 1020 Seventh Street NW; website.