A Tale of Two Bars
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,
for good booze flowed, but we had to face some lines.”*
For the last two-ish years, DC has been torn between two drink dens specializing in superlatively mixed craft cocktails. They both turn out drinks unseen elsewhere in the city, if not the world, and they both have their fair share of devotees. But the two could not be more different. One is overly exclusive, in-your-face-with-upper-class-hipster-arrogance†, shrouded in too-low light, and with a door policy rarely seen outside Moscow nightclubs. The other is welcoming, catering to and attracting all types – and the light is better.
They are the Gibson and the Passenger, and I favor the latter. Here’s why:
I have had truly original drinks at the Gibson – most of the menu is cocktails that were invented at the bar, and regularly feature ingredients no longer commonly used – egg white is a common example, an ingredient that was popular prior to Prohibition and adds frothiness to a drink when shaken. This antique vibe is reflected in the overall atmosphere, designed to be a “speakeasy.” I put the term in quotations because a) bars listen on Yelp and reviewed in the Washington Post are not speakeasies and b) the whole speakeasy trend is stupid. Wow, Gibson, you turn the lights down really low and don’t have a sign on your door or windows to speak of (hint: it’s next door to Marvin and owned by the same people). Also, I accept that you’re popular, because you serve a good product. But your policy of only allowing guests to stay two hours is obnoxious in principle, and your “you don’t have a reservation? Oh, sorry” attitude is obnoxious in practice. Granted, on slower nights reservations are less necessary, but come on, it’s a BAR.
The Passenger, on the other hand, has a sign. A big one. And windows. And an ID checker outside, so you know that it is, in fact, a bar. Unlike the narrow, opium den environment of the Gibson, the Passenger’s main room is wide open, reasonably but not overly bright, and has a large bar in plain view with several booths around the side, as well as some rooms in the back where you can chill with a bit more privacy. Here, there is also a menu, but it features a rather good beer selection and some interesting food options (I think they have kimchi hotdogs or something like that). So what about the cocktails? This is where the name of the bar comes in. You tell the bartender or waitress what you want, whether it’s a defined drink, or just vague instructions like “I’d like something with gin and citrus, very slightly sweet,” and you get back a custom drink that the bartender invented on the spot – he’s the driver, you the passenger. Recent hits were something with tequila and St. Germain, and something with white rum and orgeat that ended up tasting like a grapefruit mixed with almond paste. Both excellent. There’s a huge element of surprise in this which is what keeps me coming back. I have never specified a drink, only general guidelines, and have always received something remarkable. Other pluses: the staff are friendly, nobody is showing off, and the drinks are several dollars cheaper than Gibson. The one major downside? It also gets crowded and can therefore be a bit loud, but not as loud as other more generic bars in town.
Gibson does have one huge draw, and that’s a back garden, but obviously it’s only open in nicer weather. It’s also centrally located, at 14th & U, whereas Passenger is over by the Convention Center at 7th & L, which is a slightly empty area. If you’re trying to impress someone, take them to Gibson. If you want to have fun, go to Passenger. I don’t need to try, so my choice is almost always to go in the capable and creative hands of the mixologists at the Passenger.
1021 7th Street NW
Washington, D.C. 20001
*Apologies to Charles Dickens.
†A contradiction in terms? Perhaps.