I bought my house in Hampden in 2000. Yep, my neighborhood’s gotten better and better every year. And, when you look at the restaurants, even more so. I got into cooking later in life…in my mid 30s, Julia Child, Jacques Pepin, America’s Test Kitchen and Ina Garten all taught me how to cook. And then in my 40s, Hampden got new restaurant after new restaurant. When I moved in, there was Holy Frijoles, Cafe Hon, Golden West and a few others. I still miss Mamie’s lobster night. Now? We have The Food Market, Dylan’s Oyster Cellar, Arômes, Paulie Gee’s Pizza and the list goes on. And on. Saturated? Maybe, but the good ones will stay. Quite possibly one of the best places to open in years? The Bluebird Cocktail Room.
First, let’s not call this a hipster bar. I’m so tired of that word – it’s lazy. To me, it’s a bar run by two guys – Paul Benkert and Ben Poole, both former Woodberry Kitchen bar staff – who pay particular attention to things that matter to them, creating a specific kind of experience. And I like that. A lot.
Paul and Ben are a good mix. Both are somewhat quiet when you first meet them, then…they warm up for sure. On our second sit down (the first one was at an undisclosed location in the neighborhood…) the bar was closed and we talked a lot about what they wanted to create here for themselves as owners, for their staff, guests. First, this bar has been a complete labor of love. They worked on it for about 18 months and Paul says, “there were definitely some happy accidents – like the exposed brick and original glass and all of the natural light – which helped to (unintentionally) make the place so beautiful. We were all about using what we had and being creative.” Paul’s family is also involved in various aspects: his dad is the attorney, father-in-law is the accountant, his aunt helped them with the plants. It certainly helps to work with people you trust. Also, they wanted to create a place where the employees feel a sense of ownership. Ben explains, “we both know how hard the work is, we’ve been bar backs, bartenders, we’ve run busy bars. You have to treat your staff well – they deserve it. I look at someone like Lane Harlan of Clavel and WC Harlan. She has created a culture at her businesses that we all really admire.” Also, the bar’s literary theme is there, but it doesn’t hit you over the head, which I appreciate
Another thing that makes The Bluebird a little different? It’s never overcrowded. If you arrive (mainly on weekend nights) at prime bar time you might not get in right away…there might be a short wait. If there’s a long wait and you have a bunch of people in your group, they can text you. They want the people who are already upstairs to enjoy the experience, not feel crowded, not feel rushed. Also, if you’re sitting at a table, you go up to the bar and order your drinks and food at a dedicated queue and they bring it over to you. So far, I’ve only sat at the bar, but lots of people have told me they liked the whole queue thing. And when the bar is packed, having bartenders whose sole focus is to bang out cocktails – vs taking orders, payments, etc – seems pretty smart. I like the idea of sitting at a community table or even a two top and not feeling like you have people standing at your table. It feels a little bit grown up.
The physical menu is a little book, which reflects the bar’s literary theme – and is divided into four chapters. Chapter one: simple, lighter, more refreshing drinks like the vodka-based Mrs. Dalloway. Chapter two we’ll call crushers: a little more boozy, a little more complex. I loved the Hemingway Daquiri and they surely make a lot of the Pig Island, which is two kinds of rum, falernum, bacon syrup, pineapple juice and it’s garnished with a piece of bacon that’s been candied in pineapple syrup. My friend got the Jack Rose – Calvados apple brandy, housemade grenadine, lemon juice with an apple garnish. For me, it was a little too sweet, but she loved it and ordered a second. Chapter three is where you begin to wind down, sip a little. This is where you have the Old Fashioned and the Handsome Devil. One that I have not had in this chapter is the Bijou and I love this part of the description so much: “We prefer the more romantic interpretation of the history of the Bijou equating the ingredients of the drink to jewels: diamonds for the gin, rubies for the vermouth and emeralds for the green Chartreuse.” Then, finally in Chapter four we roll into the after dinner options including absinthe, etc. One particularly memorable drink in this section is the Exploration #4, which has Angostura bitters as the base spirit (instead of the usual dashes added), which I love. Plus lime, house grenadine, sugar, a little heavy cream and an egg white. If you know me, you know I am a sucker for an egg white. This drink was a great way to end the night, which thankfully, involved walking home.
Details. Ice, for example. I’m okay with nerding out over ice. I love learning things from bartenders…like which drinks get which kinds of ice, why certain ingredients go together, how they create various components, where do they come up with the names? To me, that’s the good stuff. I’ve learned that one of the only times I like crushed ice is in a Mint Julep. And, in an Old Fashioned, I like a big hunk of ice. And, glassware is key. I’ve always admired The Brewer’s Art, for example, for how they serve different beers in different glasses. At home, I have different glassware for different drinks, but I tend not to overthink it too much. However, when I’m out, I like to know that the folks making my drink pay attention to the details. I go out a lot and I love when I can tell that a bar is set up just right and the bartender takes a lot of pride – in a good way, not a pretentious way – in their work. One of my most favorite (and maybe weird) things is when the water is simply from the tap, but chilled in a refrigerator. No ice. I know, it’s super specific, but I love it. So, you can see – little things matter to me.
The drinks range in price from a $5 happy hour cocktail or glass of wine and $2 Natty Boh to a highball with Nikka Coffey Japanese Whisky for $19. I can’t say that I would ever order that highball, as I’m not sure my palate would fully appreciate it – and I don’t have that kind of budget. I have a few friends who will absolutely love that drink, but I’m very happy with the Old Fashioned with Old Grand-dad Bourbon, sugar, vanilla and bitters. And a BIG hunk of ice. Gimme. So far, I’ve had almost all of the drinks. I’ve been four times (twice before they opened and twice as a guest) and I have three favorites. The Old Fashioned, the Mint Julep and suprisingly, the Handsome Devil, which is made with Barr Hill Tomcat (barrel aged) gin, wildflower honey, amaro and activated charcoal. I’m a little over the activated charcoal craze already (kinda like avocado toast, I don’t hate eating it, I’m just tired of seeing it everywhere) but this drink is smooth and easy and well, I fell in love. And the jet black cocktail is simply stunning, especially when they add the huge clear sphere of ice into it. And, Ben told me, “I thought we might sell a couple of these a night. But it’s been really amazing to see that drink take off.” Also, on my last visit, our bartender, Dan, said it was his favorite and I can definitely see why. Also, I’m told that charcoal helps with hangovers, so perhaps it’s just a win-win.
Food options are mainly small plates and I feel like that fits. They didn’t want the food to seem like an afterthought. They wanted it to match the level of the cocktails. So, they hired Chef Pedro Metamoros of Bethesda’s Barrel & Crow. Pedro is already reworking the menu for what works best overall – for the kitchen and for the guests. Paul adds, ” We feel like sharing plates just fit us and our concept better than entrees. The vibe is not uptight, we want you to have fun with your friends. We have a growing collection of games, for example. We want you to hang. Turning tables over is not our end game here.”
Ben joked, “after 10pm on Fridays and Saturdays, it’s a little bit nuts. (Starts smiling and laughing.) It’s a club in here!” Paul says, “I feel bad making people wait. We are in the business of making people happy, so we try to make the waits short. On weekends, though, you just never know how busy it’s gonna get.” The bar has about 20 seats and is staffed by 5-6 bartenders depending on the night. The staff has been hand-picked, mainly based on recommendations from industry friends. Ben said, “you know…you meet, you mesh well, you decide to go for it. Our staff is really well-rounded. We’ve hired people from the neighborhood and from some of our favorite bars. Everyone is smart, hardworking and they want to keep learning. It’s pretty high-volume on the weekends at the service bar. On a Saturday night, we’ll serve 600 cocktails from the list, plus off-menu stuff like Negronis, Boulevardiers, Martinis, etc. That’s a lot of drinks. We have great bartenders.”
With so many dining options, you really could just hit The Bluebird before or after dinner. But if you’re like me and really enjoy sharing lots of small dishes, snacks, bites…you really can eat dinner there. I loved the yellow lentil hummus, ‘ndjua spread, gin cured salmon, charcuterie (the terrine was quite nice) and smoked gouda arancini. I liked the ricotta stuffed squash blossoms, but wish they had a little heat. I am excited to go back and try a few more substantial dishes like the steak frites, cheeseburger and also the grilled calamari. Someone near us ordered the cheese plate and it looked lovely. I’m also a sucker for a cheese plate.
When I sat down to talk with Ben and Paul the second time, I asked a lot of questions about ice. Mainly, HOW? How do you create the shapes, store them, know how much to make…I mean, how can you possibly know how many Old Fashioneds you’ll sell on a Friday night? So, here’s generally how it works: They start with 300lb blocks of ice, cut roughly with a band saw. Then, they carve it into various shapes needed for their cocktails. Paul said, “I mean, we go through 4,000lbs of ice a month and we run out! (Laughs.) Let’s say we might need ice for 30 or 40 Handsome Devils, 75 Old Fashioneds, 60 Pimms Cups (currently on happy hour for $5) daily. We have a spot downstairs where we can store it in freezers.” Ben said, “I thought about it like this: we either dial back the ice thing or go all in. Clearly, we went all in.” Paul added, “I pretty much cut ice all day. Our current situation is not sustainable. We’re looking at ways to make to increase productivity and make it easier on ourselves. We’d also love to be able to have a small ice shop on the premises so that people could come and buy some hand carved ice to impress friends at home. That could be fun. Plus we have a lot of other ideas that we’ll roll out as we get a little more time under our belt.” (I think he said something about boozy ice cubes…)
The Bluebird Cocktail Room has only been open since July, but so far, so good. And more to come, for sure – fall cocktails are just around the corner. For now, Ben and Paul, you have created my new favorite hang.