I first met Manili back in October, when the Red Derby first opened. Since then, like countless other twentysomethings living in the Columbia Heights/Petworth area, I’ve become a regular at the bar. The Derby, as everyone who knows and loves the place seems to call it, is laden with eccentricities—the absence of an outdoor sign, the cash-only policy, and the can beers—that distinguish the place as our bar rather than just a bar. This sense of familiarity with the place is partly the doing of owners Sasha Carter and David Leventry and part Manili’s.
As the Derby’s bartender, Manili is the kind of guy who naturally draws crowds of men and women. Guys like his sense of humor and endless stream of stories, and he seems to have a quality that women really respond to. His ease behind the bar, Manili suggests, may be the result of a predisposed affinity for the business: “My dad did this for 30 years. It was the only thing I really enjoyed besides movies, and who’s going to get a job in the movie business? That’s damn near impossible.”
Hollywood’s loss is the Red Derby’s gain.
Where are you from?
I’m from Kent Island, just right across the Bay Bridge. It’s a really small town where everybody knows each other—you know, one of those towns. My dad, even though he works in the city, drove an hour back and forth every day because he didn’t want me to grow up in DC. It was nice, but I was happy to get out of there once I was 21, just because there is really nothing to do. Everybody either farms or fishes or goes hunting, and I don’t do any of that.
How long have you been in the restaurant business?
Probably eight or nine years. I started working for my dad [who owns Colonel Brooks Tavern in DC’s Brookland] when I was 12, but I obviously wasn’t on the books. Once I was 14, I pretty much did everything, working my way up like anybody else. I started hosting and did that for a year or two. Then we opened the restaurant next door, where I was the host, busboy, dishwasher, and barback all at the same time. It was crazy busy and it was lot of work, but at 16 it was also really good money and fun.
When I was 19, I started managing, and by the time I was 20 I was the senior manager, basically. Once I turned 21, I could bartend. The thing is, people say you usually start off bartending and then move into management as you get older—once you’re 40 or 50, bartending is too much work, and managing gives you free time for your family and all that—but I did it in reverse. I did the managing and liked it, but I was really eager to bartend because, having gotten to watch people bartend my whole life, it just looked like it was the most fun in the world. So the second I turned 21, I told my dad, “I don’t want to manage anymore, I want to bartend,” and started working three days a week.
What’s special about bartending for you? Why do you do it?
I guess same thing as everyone else, you know? It’s a really social job. It’s pretty much different every day, not like a little cubicle kind of a thing. I get to see a bunch of the same people every day, but you always meet new people and get to have a glimpse of their life and what’s going on in their world when you talk to them. You also get to hear a lot of funny, crazy stories, which is always great. It’s a job like any other job, but for me it’s just a lot of fun. I don’t even feel like I’m working. I’m making drinks, I’m talking, I’m bullshitting—it’s just an easygoing job.
How did you end up bartending at the Red Derby?
[Red Derby owner] Dave actually used to work as bartender at Colonel Brooks on the Saturday, Sunday, and Monday shifts that I eventually took over. We worked together for over a year, and I got to know him pretty well. Sasha came in every once in a while, and I got to talk to her, too. She was really cool and nice. Dave was always talking about how he had this dream to open his own bar. The thing is, I’ve always heard a lot of people say that, but most don’t end up doing it. Dave was actually really serious about it, and so I told him if he ever got it going to let me know.
They looked around for a long time to try and find the right spot, and when they did he called me and told me he’d like me to work with him. I’d been bartending for a little while, so I kind of knew what I was doing. Honestly, for me the opportunity to work for Dave and Sasha—who are career bartenders and know so much more than I do—was huge. So when Dave asked me to come along I said, “Hell, yeah, let’s do it.”
Tell me about the Red Derby’s first location in Adams Morgan. [The Red Derby shut down its Adams Morgan location a few months after it opened due to issues with the building’s owner]. How long were you there?
We were probably only there for two months. I look at it as a test run to see if Dave and Sasha could get a place going and if it worked—and it did. When my dad opened Colonel Brooks, he used to sleep on the floor for months. It took a long time before the place had a regular lunch crowd and was doing good business. With the Derby, it was only two or three weeks before it got packed on a Friday night—and I mean, that’s just ridiculous. I knew it was going to be a good thing. Dave and Sasha just knew what to do and what people would like.
We were only there for a few months, but the second we shut down, Dave said, “I’m finding a building, and we’re going to do it. I’m going to buy a building, and we’re going to open another Derby.” It took him about a year to get that going.
What were you doing during that time?
I hung on and just went back to work with my three shifts and waited for him to call me. They bought the building in January 2007 and renovated for about eight months. I was here every once in a while when I could, helping them paint and clean this and that. It turned out pretty darn cool, I’d say.
So you were sure all along that they would find another spot?
Oh, yeah. Dave was really adamant about doing this. He had made up his mind that he was no longer going to be a bartender and that he was going to find a building. That’s the thing: They took a year because they wanted to find the right spot. They didn’t want to just buy some random building. They wanted to find a good neighborhood with good people and have all the pieces of the puzzle fit perfectly. They got really lucky with this spot because we are in the middle of a few neighborhoods where before there wasn’t a really solid neighborhood bar. There’s Wonderland and Temperance Hall [now the Looking Glass Lounge] and spots like that, but that’s two bars in a really big neighborhood.
Were you surprised by how warm a reception the bar has gotten since opening?
Heck, yeah! I guess just from previously working in Northeast DC, it’s a completely different feel. Honestly, there I liked half of the customers and the other half I couldn’t stand, because the people were just really weird. Here I have yet to meet an asshole. Everyone who comes in is really nice. People just want to have that after-work beer or hang out with a couple of their friends for a little while and socialize. It’s funny, I see people sitting next to each other and they’ll say, “Hey, don’t I see you all the time?” and then they find out they’re neighbors.
What the crowd like here?
The week is definitely more regular-based. We get new people every day, and I think that’s because we didn’t do any advertising—we did everything kind of word-of-mouth style, so it’s just taking time as people tell their friends to come check out this spot. We meet new people every day, but it’s mostly regulars who come in throughout the week for the Tom Collins Tuesday or the White Russian Wednesday. I have four guys who come in every Wednesday and drink like ten White Russians and they’re great.
As the night goes on during the week, we usually get a lot of bar people, too, which is cool. I think it’s because Dave and Sasha take a personal interest in talking to everyone and saying hi, and I try to do it as well. It’s always fun to have restaurant people here to bullshit with because they do the same thing you do every day, you know?
What about weekends?
The weekend is definitely a mix. It’s half of your regulars on Friday and Saturday, and the other half is completely new people you never see. It’s much busier, obviously. I think we do three times as much business on a Friday than we do on a Tuesday, which is to be expected. It’s another situation where I get to meet a ton of new people, and then my regulars get to talk to all these people, versus seeing all the same people, and it helps people make new friends.
The bar has gotten some hype since opening, but it still feels very much like a neighborhood bar. I think that was what we hoped for. That was kind of our idea from Adams Morgan; we didn’t want to be that frat-boy-let’s-come-get-wasted spot and in Adams Morgan it’s really hard not to become that because that’s just the mentality there—everyone’s barhopping and so on. We were tucked away in this little space where you had to go up a flight of stairs, and we didn’t advertise.
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Do you worry about the Derby becoming a destination bar?
You can’t really help it if you become a destination location. That happens. The question for me has always been if you become a destination location and you don’t take care of your regulars and you chase them off, what are you going to do when you’re not the it spot anymore? We really try to stick to the idea of being a neighborhood bar. We don’t want to be that it spot; we just want to be that local bar that everyone likes to come hang out in and be around for a long time.
This place has great beers, from the cheap to the hard-to-find exports. What are some of your recommendations?
I always try to recommend a couple of things. The Oskar Blues Company does a really good job. They do the Old Chub, which is a Scottish strong brown ale, so if someone wants a darker beer, I always go for that. If someone wants a really good IPA, I like to recommend the Dale’s because it’s from the same company. If someone really wants a stronger IPA, the Oskar Blues Company also does the Gordon’s, which is a double IPA. That’s really hoppy, but a lot of people who try it really like it. For anyone who wants to try a lighter beer, I always like to recommend the Wittekerke. It’s a really great Belgian beer that’s got a really nice citrusy flavor to it. Generally, anyone who asks for a lighter beer really enjoys the Wittekerke, because most of the time when people drink wheat beers, they’ll have Blue Moon or Hefeweizen and it’s not like a true Belgian beer. When they try the Wittekerke, they’re like “Wow, this tastes so different. It’s so much better.”
Most frequently ordered beer?
It’s got to be the Natty Boh, and a close second would have to be the Schlitz just because we do a Schlitz pop where it’s five bucks for a Schlitz and a shot of Jameson.
What’s the funniest conversation you’ve overheard?
I’m going to go with the one I heard last week because it’s fresh in my mind: This couple had to be on a blind date, and the guy just tanked so bad it was just hilarious. He was making fun of her about something, and then she responded, “Yeah, well, I had cancer. It was actually a pretty rare kind. I’m really lucky I didn’t die.” And then he responded, “Well, that’s just not funny anymore now, is it?” I had to walk away because I was laughing, and I’m sure they knew. It just went downhill from there: He was talking about how he loved to eat steak, and the girl was a vegan. Everything this guy did just tanked. She had one drink, he had three or four, and the whole time she just ordered water, waiting to leave.
What about the strangest drink someone’s ordered from you?
It was a bar guy who ordered a Harvey Wallbanger, which has a Galliano float. He did it as kind of a joke because no one had drunk any of the Galliano yet. I tried some, and it actually didn’t taste that bad. I can see why it used to be really popular, but no one really orders it anymore.
Do you have a cocktail you enjoy making the most?
My favorite cocktail to make has to be the white Russian, just because I love the guys who come in and drink them so much. White Russian Wednesdays are a lot of fun, and I probably end up making 30 or 40 of them on a single night.
Anytime you get to make a martini, though, is a chance to see if you can really do a good job because martinis can be made too strong, too weak, too dirty, et cetera. If you make a martini for someone and they really like it, I always think that’s pretty cool.
What do you do when not at the Derby?
Do I ever not work at the Derby? That’s the question right there. I get two days off one week and then one day off the following week. When I have the one day off, I honestly have too much stuff to do—errands and that kind of a thing. When I have two days off, I’ll vary it: One week I’ll try to go see my parents and hang out with them for a little while. They only live an hour away, and I know it’s nice for them to see me, so I try and do that.
I also like to go barhopping, for sure, whenever I can. Molly [a waitress at the Red Derby] has been dragging me to a couple of Smithsonians and art institutes, which I never got around to visiting before. Lately, we’ve also been hanging out around Chinatown a lot for some reason. Rocket Bar is pretty cool. I like the pool tables.
If you weren’t a bartender, what would you be doing?
I would probably be living in Vegas as a professional poker player. I was very into poker for a long time, and I met a pro the last time I was in Vegas. I asked him if he thought I was good enough to do this for a living. He said yes but told me I couldn’t do it. I asked him what he meant and he said, “You’re absolutely good enough, but you don’t have enough money.” He told me he’d been playing poker for 30 or 40 years and that to play you needed to have enough money to lose a thousand big bets and still be okay, because you’re going to have bad-luck streaks and it’s hard for people to manage their money. So I took a step back and thought, you know, that probably really isn’t for me.
What’s up with the T-shirt you’re wearing? [It reads: “Talk derby to me.”] Who came up with the idea?
I wanted to wear it in case there needed to be a picture. Molly made these for us. She’s an artist at the Corcoran, and one thing she can do is screen-print, so she screen-printed a bunch of shirts for us. We still can’t remember who came up with the idea; it was probably Dave or I. I would guess Dave—I don’t think I’m smart enough to come up with it. But ever since I heard the idea, I just constantly asked Molly to make me that shirt, so she finally made a bunch for us for Christmas, and now we wear them all the time. Actually, we might start selling them just because people are always telling us how much they like the shirt. So soon everyone might be walking around with their “Talk derby to me” shirts.