ChurchKey, a popular Logan Circle bar that helped put DC’s beer scene on the map, is reopening after a two-year pandemic hiatus. Neighborhood Restaurant Group (NRG) founder Michael Babin and beverage director Greg Engert are readying the tavern-esque watering hole for its re-debut on Wednesday, April 20—with plenty of fun new menu items, events, and a fresh look in store.
When ChurchKey opened on 14th Street in October 2009, DC’s current brewing scene had yet to take off. DC Brau, the city’s first modern production facility, was still two years away; NRG’s own brewery in Navy Yard, Blue Jacket, was just a dream. Engert’s cicerone-level approach to beer was also novel for the time: 50 temperature-controlled draft lines and various temperature zones for storage to maximize the flavor of the beers; a huge variety of specialty glassware in lieu of standard pints; and cheffy gastropub fare to compliment finer-dining sister restaurant Birch & Barley downstairs. And like the top bartenders and somms in the city, Engert maximized DC’s direct-ship alcohol regulations that allow sourcing from all over the world.
Very little of that has changed (Birch & Barley is set to reopen in the coming weeks). Engert has stocked rare finds behind the 75-foot bar that you likely won’t sip elsewhere, such as limited releases from Side Project Brewing in St. Louis and Belgian family-run brewery Cantillon. He’s also planned a full month of events around the re-opening with breweries he says are rarely represented in Washington like Fidens Brewing from upstate New York and Los Angeles’s Monkish Brewing Co. One notable pandemic innovation: beer to-go. Around 500 cans and bottles will be available for retail sale on-premise, as well as packs of Blue Jacket beers and hard-to-find vintage bottles. That being said, the bar isn’t limiting hours for drink-in patrons—it’ll stay open until 2 AM on weekends and 1 AM most weekdays.
Chef Bill Williamson returns to the kitchen at ChurchKey and Birch & Barley after a pandemic stint running popular butcher pop-up the Butcher’s Market out of Purple Patch in Mount Pleasant. An alum of Osteria Morini and the Riggsby, Williamson is familiar with both Italian flavors and bold bar bites—two things patrons will find on the pub menu. A wood-fired oven will turn out tavern-style pizzas—an increasingly popular pie genre seen at bars like Nighthawk and Colony Grill due to their thin, crispy crusts that can both bolster toppings and be eaten with one hand while holding a drink in the other. Williamson is working with NRG colleague Rachel Marie, chef and partner at the Slice Joint on Capitol Hill, to create the perfect pies. Other bar-friendly dishes will include upscale snacks like chilled oysters and cheese/charcuterie boards, and pressed sandwiches.
Engert says the team decided to “slow play” Churchkey’s reopening in the pandemic largely due to its lack of outdoor space and other projects in the company. NRG currently operates 20 independent restaurants between the DC area and New York, and grew during the pandemic to include Capitol Hill food hall the Roost and online marketplace Neighborhood Provisions.
“We took our time to get things right,” says Engert. In addition to an interior refresh, the menu has expanded significantly beyond beer. Drinkers will find 100-odd whiskeys; 60-plus natural, local, and global wines; and whimsical cocktails from NRG spirits director Nick Farrell.
“It’s not a beer bar,” says Engert. “It’s really just a bar we’re proud of that happens to have one of the best beer programs on the East Coast.”
Churchkey. 1337 14th St., NW.