Browse the drink menu at Brothers and Sisters, the restaurant and bar inside the lobby of the Line hotel in Adams Morgan, and you’ll notice imported ingredients like Japanese whisky or Lapsang Souchong smoked tea syrup alongside local products like Virginia sparkling wine and D.C.-made amaro. At the recently opened Moxy, Marriott’s downtown property catering to millennials, bartenders serve spicy margaritas and Moscow Mules, two favorite refreshers of the happy hour crowd. Both spots attract guests who aren’t staying for the night.
If these hotel bars sound similar to other trendsetting craft cocktail bars in D.C., that’s exactly the point.
For years, many D.C. hotel bars had the same stale feel, offering a wide variety of standard drinks to satisfy the steady flow of visitors from around the world. That familiarity can often come as a dull comfort — a consolation prize for travelers too exhausted or unfamiliar with the environs to explore the city. Enjoying an old fashioned or a macrobrew downstairs from a hotel room is easier than wandering in search of a creative cocktail or an eclectic wine list.
While there are some exceptions — grab a seat at Off the Record beneath the stately Hay Adams, for example, and you’re likely to catch politicos or journalists swapping stories over whiskey — few have emerged as true destinations.
“There hasn’t been great hotel bars in D.C.,” says Todd Thrasher, a renowned bar manager who leads the program at Brothers and Sisters. “Whereas you go to New York, you go to Paris, you go to London — even L.A. or Chicago — there’s always been great bars in hotels.”
Increasingly though, the city’s hotel bars are cultivating standalone identities that are aiming to attract an audience far wider than the networking happy hour crowds and sightseers.
“We’re no longer trying to just capture that captive audience and make them not leave,” says Nick Hellberg, beverage director at Hilton’s new ultra-premium Conrad hotel in CityCenter. “We’re gunning for accolades in our own right, not just as part of being identified as part of a hotel.”
Typical tropes of the cookie-cutter hotel bar include a menu built around crowdpleasers like martinis and barrel-aged Manhattans and servers dressed in staid uniforms that make them appear stiff and corporate. At Brothers & Sisters, servers wear slick green windbreakers.
When the Line opened in 2017, it advertised Thrasher’s bartending chops. The hotel also brought celebrated chef Erik Bruner-Yang and James Beard award winner Spike Gjerde in to lead buzzy restaurants. Almost immediately, the Line became a see-and-be-seen spot.
“D.C. people want to go places that D.C. people own, I believe,” says Thrasher, who helped popularize classed-up cocktails at his trailblazing Alexandria speakeasy, PX. Thrasher also operates the multi-story Tiki TNT bar and its attached rum distillery along the Southwest Waterfront.
The Eaton hotel opened downtown last year, attempting to lure a crowd that was moneyed, bohemian, and woke all at once. Like The Line, there’s a radio studio inside, and a wellness center with yoga classes. Chef Tim Ma (who until recently also ran Kyirisan in Shaw) operates the flagship restaurant, American Son, while veteran bartenders from across the District grip the shakers at Eaton’s speakeasy, Allegory, and Wild Days, its rooftop bar.
At the luxury Conrad hotel, celebrity chefs Michael and Bryan Voltaggio lend their names to the Estuary restaurant. The giant circular bar there has lounge seating surrounded by gas-lit fireplaces and wall-to-wall glass windows overlooking the park at CityCenterDC.
Besides hiring big names, D.C. hotels are also focusing on training staff to drop the old scripted spiels and focus on being genuine, welcoming, and warm. In some cases, previous experience in the industry is less important to managers than an engaging personality.
“You’re not going to hear a robotic welcome statement,” says Mark Namdar, general manager at D.C.’s Moxy hotel. “People are real people. There’s no orchestrated or pre-rehearsed type of a thing.”
At Brothers and Sisters, part of the customer service training includes a directive to give solo drinkers a little extra love.
“I tell my bartenders to take care of the single guests more because you’re in a strange city, you don’t know anyone, and you’re already on edge,” Thrasher says.
Hiring personable people is one of the first steps in creating a hotel bar that doesn’t feel like a hotel bar. Floor plans are becoming more integrated too, blurring the lines between lobby, bar, and lounge.
At the Line, Brothers & Sisters spills out from the wings of the main floor. Two bar areas flank the main dining area, so people have to pass through the restaurant to get to the check-in desk.
The idea of a space that’s both lobby and bar is even more dramatic at the Moxy, where the welcome counter decorated with tiki mugs and pink flamingos acts as a utility knife for check-ins, concierge service, and a place to order food and drinks. An adjacent sitting area is full of sofas, plush chairs, board games, and a foosball table.
“We got away from that white tablecloth, French service type of environment,” Namdar says. “People are just on the go. They want to have fun.”
Whereas the old guard of hotels may experience a lull between breakfast and dinner, modern hotels hope to attract people throughout the day with comfy seats, USB and power outlets, and free coffee.
“We don’t want you to be stuck here in your room by yourself,” Namdar says.
No matter how well-designed and friendly a bar is, it’s still only as good as the drinks it turns out.
Thrasher appreciates the flexibility he had when stocking the bar at the Line. He recalls buying up just about anything he could get his hands on.
“If someone comes in from Nebraska, they would see something that’s recognizable for them. And that to me is really important,” Thrasher says.
At the Conrad, Hellberg relishes having resources to work with a selection of rare and luxury spirits, like Nolet’s Reserve gin. The Conrad introduces some novice drinkers to mezcal with its riff on the Martinez, a classic drink that usually calls for gin in addition to sweet vermouth and Maraschino liqueur.
Other bars, like Quadrant at the Ritz-Carlton West End, entice spenders with a large safe of top-notch bottles. At the Eaton, Allegory mixes up anejo tequila, arrack, Aperol, and abinsthe in a Tyranny cocktail. Brothers and Sisters experiments with Asian ingredients like sochu and yuzu.
Shelves of fancy booze can certainly fill seats, but competitive pricing and specials go a long way, too. The Moxy, for example, opened with happy hour cocktail specials that ran seven days a week. American Son slings late-night bites at the Eaton, which also offers a popular happy hour at its Wild Days rooftop.
It’s all part of a greater strategy to inject energy from D.C.’s craft cocktail scene into spaces that are too often bland and sterile.
“Why wouldn’t that environment also be tremendously appealing to every out of town guest?” Hellberg asks.