At first glance, DC’s Chinatown/Mount Vernon Square area seems an unlikely location to open a neighborhood bar. Between the screaming Jumbotrons, the camera-toting tourists, and the sea of commuters, the area has about the same level of homeyness as Times Square. Yet its flashy distractions have a way of attracting those passing through—a fact that’s not lost on brothers Tom and Derek Brown, co-owners of the neighborhood’s newest bar, the Passenger.
“There’s a vague transportation theme to the place,” explains Tom, who pulled the bar’s name from an Iggy Pop song. “But I guess it’s not so vague when you’re building a train car in the back.”
The Passenger, which opened at the end of November, is the first of the Brown brothers’ two cocktail-forward, beer-friendly destinations bordering the Warehouse Theater. The Browns’ collective bartending résumé includes stints at Cork, the Gibson, Hummingbird to Mars, Palena, Komi, and Corduroy. Fitting with the theme, blurry images of DC—shot from a car window—hang on the walls, and there’ll be a custom-built 28-by-8-foot train cabin in the back with antique mirrors held in gilt frames and a vaulted ceiling (but as of right now, it's still under construction). Elsewhere, 12 seats surround a 24-foot birchwood bar holding four drafts (Lagunitas Pils, Stone Arrogant Bastard, Bell’s Kalamazoo Stout, and Gouden Carlolus Hopsingjoor), an exposed-brick wall climbs toward a gaping skylight, and streams of light sneak through holes in the uneven pine-slab floor from the basement.
“Part of the idea of being a passenger is letting someone else drive, so there’s no set cocktail menu,” explains Tom, who’ll likely be behind the bar most nights. “We like for people to tell us what ingredients they like so we can concoct something they’ll enjoy.”
Those looking to take a bit more control of their tipsy trip can choose from 25 wines by the glass as well as craft, conventional, and cider brews that come in cans, not bottles. And because you can’t ride a drinking car on an empty stomach, there are panini, chips, and hot dogs—a menu that developed over a game of darts between Tom and chef Javier Duran, also formerly of Cork.
While the Passenger is Tom’s domain, his younger brother, Derek, will sling drinks at the Columbia Room, a cocktail bar opening in January, shoehorned between the train car and the theater’s stage.
“Think of it this way,” Derek says, half joking. “At the Passenger, we have an ice machine. In the Columbia Room, I’ll be hand-carving the ice from distilled water. It’s a science-lab-meets-bar based on the ritualistic history of the cocktail. I might take 20 minutes to measure out a drink with an eyedropper.”
“Yeah, my brother’s a geek,” Tom laughs. “My idea of bartending is a bit looser. I tend to fall less on the nerdy side of things and more on the having-a-good-time side.”
We’ll let the neighborhood pick sides.
The Passenger, 1021 Seventh St., NW; 202-393-0220, passengerdc.com. Open Sunday through Thursday 5 PM to 1:30 AM, Friday and Saturday to 2:30 AM.
Spanish olives $3
Marcona almonds $3
Route 11 Chips (Lightly Salted, Salt & Vinegar, Sour Cream & Chive, Dill Pickle, Chesapeake Crab, Barbeque, Mama Zuma’s Revenge) $3
Chili half-smoke $7
Kimchi hot dog $7
Paninis (prosciutto, mortadella, pepperoni, roasted-vegetable) $10