For an intimate space, the Imperial has a whole lot going on. Credit the meticulous owners Bill Thomas and Stephen King, who also built Adams Morgan neighbor Jack Rose—a bar that boasts the largest whiskey collection in the Western Hemisphere. While their second act is different from its predecessor in many ways, its bones are similar, right down to a firelit room and rooftop bar. There’s an encyclopedic collection of rare spirits and innovative cocktails (Jack Rose’s lauded cocktail bar, Dram & Grain, has moved here). The two also share a Southern-leaning dining room helmed by chef Russell Jones. Add a bunch of new features like an extensive wine collection and raw bar, and you can see why the Imperial has been over two years in the making.
Here’s what you can expect at the three-story bar/restaurant when it soft-opens tonight. The venue will have limited hours, menus, and seatings by reservation-only through November 12, along with a 10 percent food discount. The official opening is slated for Wednesday, November 13.
High-reaching, low-proof drinks
If Jack Rose is moody and boozy, the Imperial is its brighter, lighter sibling. That’s true for the decor in the 58-seat dining room and adjoining eight-seat raw bar, courtesy of Gronning Architects, as well as the drink menus. Here, sommelier Morgan Kirchner homes in on “fun, funky, affordable, approachable” wines, with over 1,000 bottles on display in a downstairs “showquarium.” Meanwhile, beverage director Andy Bixby has devised a menu of low-proof cocktails that patrons can easily sip through a meal (see menus below).
“Cocktails and food don’t usually pair well. Our taste buds have a hard time figuring out what’s going on through high-alcohol drinks,” Bixby says. “Plus, if you linger here over dinner for two hours you should still be able to enjoy the night.”
To that end you’ll find whimsical creations like the “Sher-groni,” a riff on a Negroni that uses sherry infused with gin botanicals in lieu of gin itself. Or the “Cham-boo!,” a bottle filled with a house-carbonated blend of sherries, vermouth, and homemade orange bitters, that’s presented tableside like Champagne. Instead of your average G&T, there’s a sake version garnished with an edible rice ball. The menu includes a section of cobbler-style cocktails—popular pre-Prohibition-era concoctions that mix spirits or fortified wines with fruit over “cobbled” ice. There are also several non-alcoholic drinks, such as house tonic with dehydrated grapefruit, bitter orange, and black cumin.
Vintage food to match the vintage spirits
You may not drink a 1942 Armagnac with your oysters, but chef Russell Jones is running with a throwback theme for his refined Mid-Atlantic menu (see menus below). Jones helmed Jack Rose’s kitchen in the early days and recently returned from cooking in his native South Carolina. Both his southern roots and French training show in dishes like steelhead vol-au-vent in puff pastry; fried “poulet rouge” (a.k.a. heritage chicken); or beef Wellington with truffle jus. Both medium and family-style plates are designed to share.
That’s not to say all the dishes have a vintage feel. Jones embraces our current uni obsession in a dish of risotto-style Carolina gold rice capped with sea urchin. A former vegetarian, he also embraces the vegetable-forward trend—think butter-poached cauliflower with curry yogurt and fried kale. Meat-free diners will find several options in the homemade pastas and seasonal vegetable categories.
A raw bar that will double as a lunch counter
While the main dining room and bar accept reservations, the adjoining eight-seat raw bar is first-come, first-serve. Shuckers will pop open local and regional oysters and clams, and diners can order plateaus that feature the raw shellfish along with composed dishes like oysters Rockefeller, smoked mussels, and lobster-and-crab imperial.
Once the restaurant is up and running in the coming months, the raw bar will double as a lunch counter serving a simple afternoon menu and coffee drinks. Customers can take sandwiches to the rooftop bar, which will also have wifi. A full-service weekend brunch is also on the horizon.
A fire-lit basement bar and airy rooftop
Once the weather warms, a two-tiered rooftop bar will be in full swing with more greenery (in the meantime, it opens next week). Those on the hunt for unusual sips and boundary-pushing cocktails should head to the moodily lit Dram & Grain bar in the basement below the restaurant—a roomier version of its former incarnation in Jack Rose with seating for 50, including a cozy fireplace room.
When amassing his 400-plus bottle collection of rare and vintage spirits, Thomas scoured auctions, dusty liquor store shelves, and estate sales for interesting finds. He says people will often reach out to him if they think they have an unusual bottle on their hands (podcasts like Bourbon Pursuit help spread the word). For Thomas, it’s less about rare-for-the-sake-of-rare and more about the story: “I love the history. Take a bottle from 1935. That’s two years after Prohibition and right before the world is getting ready to be involved in a war.”
Dram’s shelves are lined with antique gins and Chartreuse from eight different decades, 1950s Frank Schoonmaker cognac and early mezcal releases from Del Maguey. Customers can order the spirits by the ounce or in “sacred slaughter” cocktails made with bottles that may reach back 100 years. So yes, this is a place you could easily spend $20 on a cocktail—or $100 on an ounce of something special. Still, Thomas says the idea wasn’t to create a spirits museum. “These are priced to drink, not priced to sit,” he says of his vintage collection, where pours start around $15. “Other places do it as a hook, we do it as a philosophy. If I can’t make it somewhat accessible to people, why do it?”
The Imperial. 2001 18th Street, NW
Check out the menus below: