Great neighborhood bars are often a closely guarded secret among locals. And the best ones aren’t always where you’d expect them to be. Practically everyone in Washington (and beyond) knew about the late, great Citronelle, Michel Richard’s France-meets-California concept that ruled in Georgetown until it suddenly closed a year ago. The food was formal, reservations were hard to get, and the place was usually packed with boldface names, including, on one memorable evening, President and Mrs. Obama.
But that was downstairs. Upstairs was the bar with its own menu and its own cast of characters. It had a strong following of locals and foodies who came for the good food at good prices and especially the great drinks and charming joie de vivre of the bartenders—especially the always-smiling Angel Cervantes, who was quick to recall a face, name, and favorite cocktail. My favorite Angel drink was his Cosmopolitan—well, and his mojito, his Manhattan, and his Old Fashioned . . . I could go on. He never steered me wrong on a glass of wine, either.
The good news for Angel’s fans is that after a year outside of Georgetown—at the Park Hyatt—he has been wooed back to the neighborhood by the new Capella hotel, where he begins work Thursday evening. “I’m so excited, you have no idea,” he wrote to me in a text message. “I can’t wait to see all the people I know after all those years at Citronelle.” He was with Citronelle for seven years. When asked his favorite cocktails, Angel said, “anything made with fresh ingredients, with fun and not such mainstream liquors.” He’s particularly proud of his creation the 30th and M—Catoctin rye, a dash of absinthe, lavender-infused simple syrup, and fresh lemon juice, shaken and served in a martini glass with a splash of Champagne.
Here’s the thing: I owned a bar for 12 years. I have strong opinions about bartenders. The good ones are keepers, and Angel is a keeper. In addition to his skills as a mixologist, he has that other special quality: He’s easy to talk to, and whether in a group or alone he makes a patron feel completely welcomed and at ease. For all its fame and accolades, Citronelle provided the neighborhood with a bar at which they felt welcomed. That’s one element locals feel is lacking from the Capella. Adding Angel to the mix may provide the welcome they’ve been missing.