From Jane Alonso. Her passion for food and spirits leads her on frequent excursions into Borderstan’s land of bars and restaurants. Email her at jane[AT]borderstan.com
I discovered the Columbia Room in a fashion totally appropriate for an exclusive speakeasy – by seeing something I wasn’t supposed to see.
A date had suggested we meet for drinks at Passenger (a hip, but somewhat divey bar near the Convention Center), and while on my way back from the bathroom, I accidentally collided with a server coming out of an unmarked door.
I peered in, expecting to see a kitchen or storage area… but instead, saw a secret bar. “What was that?” I asked. “Nothing,” he said. “You weren’t supposed to see that.” And then he slammed the door shut. Okay, I was intrigued from that moment forward…
It is my continuing mission to find the coolest and wettest speakeasies on the eastern seaboard, but how had I somehow overlooked Passenger’s Columbia Room? I have now been educated. Since opening Passenger with his brother in 2010, owner and Chief Mixologist Derek Brown (formerly of the Gibson, another Borderstan haunt) has won numerous accolades, including a James Beard nomination, for turning classic American cocktails into an art form.
From start to finish, the feel of the Columbia Room experience is one of exclusivity. Entry is through the aforementioned unmarked entry door into a classically decorated foyer that may or may not have an attendant (someone will eventually show up to usher you into the bar areas… in hushed and polite tones). It is a bit like visiting a spa for drinking.
The Columbia Room itself is quite small and quiet – only 16 seats, 10 of which are reserved for the tasting at a long counter in the middle of the room (customers may linger at back of the room tables after the tasting is finished). The walls are lined with apothecary jars stuffed with herbs, spices, and infusions of all shapes and colors. Several bartenders create their masterpieces behind the counter, quietly interacting with customers who express an interest in their materials and methods.
All customers sign up for the $67 three course tasting menu — an opening drink, a seasonal drink paired with a small tasting dish, and a third drink of your choice customized by the bartenders. Additional cocktails beyond the first three – plus cheese and charcuterie — are available at an additional cost.
Be prepared to sit back for several hours and enjoy the experience – like a spa, the Columbia Room is all about escape and lingering. And expect some surprises – for example, a dry sherry-based cocktail, paired with paella, the type of thing you expect to see at a tapas bar, not a speakeasy. Or a particularly fantastic mix of smoky liquor (Mezcal!), cinnamon, and red pepper. For every drink served, the bartender gives you a chance to examine the bottle of liquor chosen for that cocktail — perhaps my favorite part of the experience.
A visit to the Columbia Room is an investment in time and money, but it’s a truly unique tribute to Prohibition-era secrecy and cocktails that should be on your list.
- Where Am I Going: Columbia Room, a speakeasy located inside Passenger, 1021 7th Street NW.
- When Am I Going: Tuesday through Saturday from 5 to 11:30 pm (last call is 1 am). Reservations are required.
- Paycheck Pain: Customers are charged $67 per person, inclusive of tax and tip, for a threef-course drink tasting menu paired with several small dishes.
- Say What? No concern about noise here. There are only 10 seats at the bar and a handful of seats for customers who linger after the tasting.
- What am I eating and drinking: Cocktails are the focus here, with small plates, cheese, and charcuterie to complement the drinks.