W Moves Next Door to the White House
And now you get to have a mai tai while you take it all in. And not just any mai tai, but one created by Sasha Petraske, the cocktail genius behind New York's Milk & Honey, Little Branch and several others, including the brand-new Dutch Kills. This is, well, the cocktail equivalent of Jean-Georges Vongerichten opening a D.C. outpost, which is also happening in the W.
The cocktail menus aren't finalized, and when I got a tour of the hotel last week, construction was still going on and most of the furniture hadn't arrived But once I walked out on that roof, all the scaffolding was forgotten.
When the W opens on July 8, here's what you can expect:
The hotel's ornate high-ceilinged lobby will be home to the Living Room Bar, a space that retains the Hotel Washington's gorgeous antique chandeliers and really shows off its marble floors. A blocky square bar that looks like a lacquered jewel box sits at one end of the room, which will be filled with chaise lounges and other seating for about 150. At night, the chandeliers -- which were saved from the Hotel Washington -- glow blue and purple, thanks to LED lights.
Those extended ceilings allow for a mezzanine level, where tables overlook at the action taking place throughout the lobby. There will be table service, so no one trips up the spiral staircase while carrying a cocktail. (You'll probably notice that the Hotel Washington's historic check-in desk is still located in its original lobby position. What you might not see is that there's a banquette and tables hidden behind it.)
An elevator speeds customers to the rooftop bar, which has very different indoor and outdoor sections. Inside, the modern, one-room main bar has just 66 seats. Large windows soar almost to the 20-foot ceilings and offer views of Pennsylvania Avenue. (The best spots in the house will probably not be at the low counter that runs along the bar, but at the circular tables for two that line the southern-facing windows.)
And then there's the outdoor deck. Some may remember the cramped conditions that Hotel Washington offered -- plastic picnic chairs and tables jammed on top of each other. Not anymore. Adding about four feet to the awning-style ceiling helps. Capping the seats at 104 is a good move, too, so you can have some privacy at your table as you gaze over at the East Wing.
The bar has a funky grass-style covering to match the prospective menu: seasonal drinks and a selection of tapas and light snacks. (No decision has been made about whether or not the rooftop will allow smoking.)
Now, about the cocktails. Sasha Petraske is serving as a consultant, and he's putting the menu together with input from Justin Guthrie, who will be handling day-to-day operations as "Director of Bar Concepts." Guthrie is no stranger to D.C., having served as general manager and head mixologist at Central Michard Richard before putting together the beverage list for Glover Park's new Blue Ridge.
Petraske's New York bars, like critic faves Milk and Honey and Little Branch, were ahead of the retro-cocktail curve; they stressed pre-Prohibition recipes and quality ingredients while many places were still offering cosmos and fruity-tinis. At the W, he says, "Fans of Milk and Honey will feel right at home. What's in the glass is going to be very similar to Milk and Honey or Little Branch or any of the New York lounges. ...
"We don't do a lot of original cocktails. Most of the cocktails we make are 70, 80, 100 years old. We're process-oriented as opposed to recipe-oriented."
That stringent "process" involves lots of temperature control -- the spirits are kept cold, the glassware is refrigerated -- and even seven different kinds of ice, from freshly shaved to slivers chipped off of table-sized blocks. "The basic reason is that modern ice machines are designed to create ice that melts as fast as possible," Petraske says. "We have the technology to make ice that melts much more slowly so it doesn't water down the drink."
Only "12 to 14" drinks will find their way onto the menu at the indoor bar; a separate list of four will be available outside. There, Petraske says, he's planning to go "sunnier and tropical ... drinks with fresh-squeezed pineapple juice, and drinks with crushed ice -- mint juleps, things like that."
Inside, those 12 to 14 drinks are just the tip of the iceberg, so to speak. "There won't be two fizzy drinks with gin [on the menu], just one," Petraske says. "Each drink on the menu is an entry point to a style. Once you have one, if you like it, the bartender or waitress can steer you to another ... the staff is trained to make you at least half-a-dozen variations of that drink."
Those drinks probably won't come cheap -- prices are still being discussed, and I'm guessing cocktails will start in the teens -- but once doors open, I'll bet the W will be the place for date night.
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