Saturday, May 14, 2016

We walk into a bar in Washington D.C.

Church and State: the American Bar
Sometimes we feel we have no choice about which bar we should go to and write about. We had to go to an Irish pub on St. Patrick's Day. We had to go to the bar in a Mexican restaurant on Cinco de Mayo. When we discovered a bar called Church and State two blocks from where we were staying in Washington, D.C., we had to go there. It's thematic to the location and to our journey to visit a church and a bar in every state. As if that wasn't enough reason, we're patriots who love the red, white and blue, and this is a bar that loves America.

We were tempted (okay, I was tempted) by the bar downstairs (but under the same ownership) with a video game theme, but we walked up to the second floor and waited to be seated as the sign at the top of the stairs told us to. The decor primarily went with the Church theme -- stained glass, pews, and a pastor's study. For the State theme, there were a few eagles, but the real emphasis on patriotism was in the menu.  

It's printed like an old timey newspaper called The Church & State Times.  The preamble to the drink list reads, "This not a Church. D.C. is not a State. But every bottle, whether heavenly or devilish, comes from the United States, its territories or possessions. We are the first all-American cocktail venue. Our craft cocktails take time, we appreciate your patience and invite you to be free and brave."

In other words, disappointed Commies, you won't find much vodka at Church and State, just libations originating on this continent. As a companion website says, they're "converting vodka drinkers to gin drinkers one cocktail at a time." So the liquor served is Yankee-made: bourbon, vermouth, brandy, etc. I ordered a Jack Rose cocktail, said to be invented right there in Washington. Mindy went with a Mint Julep in honor of Nyquist's win at the Kentucky Derby last weekend.

There is a church side to the menu as well -- you can order from the Seven Deadly Sins or Hymns sections. Though we considered some of those selections, we decided to keep things separated.

Patrick was sitting next to us at the bar. He's a regular, working in the area but not living nearby.  He appreciates the small and intimate atmosphere of Church and State, since he doesn't like big bars or sports bars. In answer to what makes for a good bar, he continued with other things he appreciates about this bar. He likes the creativity of their cocktails and likes to watch the bartenders work. He likes to take mixology tips for making drinks at home.

I asked what he would look for in a good church. He said he didn't go to church, but thought people might go to church for community. He didn't have much more to say about what made a good church, though he pulled up a picture on his phone of a closed church in D. C.that was transformed into a large art project.

Like many Washingtonians, our bartender Victoria is involved in politics. Bartending is a side job for her; she has a fulltime job in the District, working for what I agreed is a "white hat" cause. She says she enjoys work at the bar as a creative outlet, that it's "another skill that will the long run," as she has short conversations with people and is able to quickly turn the direction of the talk.

Mindy asked her our questions, "What makes for a good bar?" and "What makes for a good church?" Victoria said the booze is the obvious first thing -- having good options for people to choose. For her, though, she said that "even with good options, you need a good atmosphere." She likes a place that is a "little sexy, a little seductive," but that as a local, "I like being known -- the Cheers atmosphere." (She'd heard me mention Cheers when I was talking to Patrick. I need to speak more quietly.)

As for church, Victoria said she had some bad experiences, but didn't elaborate. She said community was good, but she wanted a degree of anonymity along with it. She doesn't want a small town atmosphere, with people judging and everybody getting in her business.

We'd picked a fun night for talking to staff. Christopher, who works there, though we forgot to ask what his job is, said that a bar should have knowledgeable staff who know their drinks, and it should have a low key, intimate atmosphere. He said a church should rebuke judgment and be welcoming and accepting. He really doesn't think people in a church should pass judgment.

I also talked to Ron, one of the bar's managers, who certainly had opinions on what made for a good (great) bar.  Like everyone else we talked to that night, he mentioned the importance of atmosphere and ambiance (which was certainly something Church and State has down).  But he also emphasized the importance of customer service, hospitality and quality. He said it's important to have a clear vision of what a place should be. And perhaps above all, a place needs consistency, maintaining a standard of excellence. Ron has been in the business for twenty years, and he's learned the importance of caring for customers.

I asked Ron what makes for a good church, and he said the "subject matter of the minister matters" and, "excuse the pun, the congregating of the congregation." If there are young and old together, he believes that says something. He says a church must also set a bar of excellence and maintain that bar (but a church does not usually "maintain a bar," just to be clear).

Washington D.C. was recently ranked by the Daily Beast as the nation's "second drunkest state" (while acknowledging, like Church and State, that the District of Columbia isn't actually a state) The rankings are based on the average number of drinks consumed by adults, the percentage of the population classified as binge drinkers and heavy drinkers, based on information from market researchers and the Centers for Disease Control. 

Church and State Bar isn't about getting drunk; it's designed to give people an experience they will remember rather than forget, and one that will keep them coming back.

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