Photo of Chris Francke by Darrow Montgomery
Photo of Chris Francke by Darrow Montgomery

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“I’m not going to say we’re the official bar of the resistance, but if people want to see us that way, they’re welcome to,” says The Green Zone founder Chris Hassaan Francke. His pop-up Middle Eastern cocktail bar, named after a safe zone in Iraq where it was once possible to find expat parties, officially debuted in May 2014. 

“We started out being rather apolitical, but over the last few months it’s been unavoidable,” he continues. “Everything that’s been going on is unconscionable and inexcusable.” 

Francke’s political bat signals come primarily in the form of punch. The Green Zone first opened shortly before the terrorist organization ISIS claimed the city of Mosul in northern Iraq. Francke, who’s half Iraqi and half German, fired back by serving “Fuck ISIS” punch on his early menus. 

After Donald Trump secured the presidential nomination, the punch was renamed “Fuck Trump Punch.” It contained Vimto, mezcal, and rum. Vimto is a British product popular in the Middle East that mimics the taste of Cherry Coke or Dr. Pepper. On the menu, the “Fuck Trump” punch was accompanied by the #NoBanNoWall hashtag and the tagline, “Arab-Mexican resistance fusion.” 

Finally, after white supremacist scumbag Richard Spencer got clocked on Inauguration Day, the punch adopted a third moniker, “Richard Spencer Punch.” The only repercussions of being so outspoken have been losing a Twitter follower here and there and receiving a biting, one-star Facebook review from a Lebanese-American who was indignant about The Green Zone’s choice to host a raffle benefiting Planned Parenthood.

All political advocacy aside, Francke has a serious mission—to be a safe haven of sorts for Middle Eastern Americans facing Islamophobia amid the tensest political climate since the days immediately following 9/11. He says his pop-ups have already started accomplishing this. 

“Arab-Americans have been showing up at 9 or 10 p.m.,” Francke explains. “That’s when the Arabic dancing happens.” Indeed, you’ll find carefree young professionals moving, hands locked in a circle, to the beat of jubilant music. 

Maybe the idea of a Middle Eastern cocktail bar seems like an oxymoron because devout Muslims don’t drink? After all, many countries in the region are either de facto or de jure dry. Francke lists Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and most recently, Iraq, as places where penalties for imbibing in public or imbibing at all are steep. “It’s ridiculous. Iraq is arguably the birthplace of distillation,” he says. “The Sumerians, creators of the first civilization, were all about beer.” 

That’s not to say that there aren’t pockets of the Middle East where alcohol slips into the culture—most notably in nations with Christian populations such as Lebanon, Egypt, Jordan, and Syria. “They all have their own national beer, and they all have their own distilling companies,” Francke says. “In Lebanon, if you’re in a Christian village, every family has one uncle or grandfather who has a still in his basement making moonshine Arak, which can be pretty good.” 

Arak is a neutral grape brandy that’s been redistilled with anise seed. Francke uses it sparingly in Green Zone cocktails because the licorice flavor can overwhelm other elements in a glass. 

“So, people drink,” Francke concludes. “They drink beer, local wine, and [Johnnie Walker] Black Label.” The Lebanese club-going crowd even tends to favor the combination of Red Bull and vodka. Francke would know—he travels to Lebanon annually because that’s where his extended family migrated after leaving Iraq, and it’s where his mother lives half of the year. When in Beirut, he frequents two cocktail bars that he says could go toe-to-toe with top drinking dens in London or New York. 

Here in the U.S., Francke says, “There are a whole bunch more secular, less religiously-minded Muslims that drink. I know very few self-avowed Muslims who will eat pork, but I know many self-avowed Muslims who drink.”

That said, in accordance with Francke’s goal to be a safe haven for everyone, not just for those who drink, The Green Zone can whip up enticing non-alcoholic drinks with help from an ingredients list heavy on juices and syrups, all featuring Middle Eastern ingredients Francke procures at Turkish, Persian, and Lebanese grocery stores in northern Virginia. 

Everyone who’s a fan of The Green Zone—drinkers and teetotalers alike—have cause to raise their glasses because after nearly three years in pop-up purgatory and even more time as a speakeasy in his apartment, Francke has inked a contract to open a brick-and-mortar space in Adams Morgan at a soon-to-be-released address. Come fall, the bar will no longer be just a once-a-week event in roving locations that have included Black Whiskey, Vendetta, Room 11, EatsPlace, Zeba Bar, Darnell’s Bar, and Hank’s Dupont

It’s a dream that’s been in the making long before the first Green Zone pop-up. Francke, now 32, grew up in northern Virginia and has always been drawn to both hospitality and all things Middle East.

Francke graduated from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore and then got a master’s degree in Middle Eastern studies from the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies in D.C. In 2011, that helped him land a job at the World Bank, where he is still under contract working on projects in the Middle East. 

While Francke first experimented with making cocktails in the early 2000s after falling in love at first sip with a mojito he tried in London, it was during grad school that he began making drinks for his friends. He’d host parties where he would play the roles of both DJ and mixologist. “I’d have a bunch of batched cocktails set up, and I was fermenting my own ginger beer for dark and stormies,” he says. 

To hone his craft and find inspiration, Francke began visiting top cocktail bars in New York like Death & Company and Little Branch from the late great Sasha Petraske. He says the cocktail renaissance was in full swing in the Big Apple, but D.C. was a little behind.

“I remember even in 2009 or 2010, I’d go to Bar Pilar and ask for a daiquiri on the ground floor and they’d say, ‘we can’t do that, we don’t have a slushie machine,’” Francke recalls. “That was before I knew about the second floor.” 

Despite a fascination with New York’s high-end watering holes, Francke ultimately settled on D.C. for The Green Zone. “D.C. is unique in that it has a high proportion of Middle Eastern people here for school or work at one of the think tanks or the World Bank,” he says. “You also have people who are cosmopolitan and have studied or worked in the region and speak Arabic.” 

He also says he has a strong support network in D.C. Specifically, he’s found his membership in the DC Craft Bartenders Guild to be beneficial and counts Derek Brown and Angie Fetherston of Drink Company and Devin Gong of CopyCat Co. as mentors who have encouraged him to go from pop-up to prime time.

When it opens, The Green Zone will have an expanded menu of cocktails, Lebanese wine, Moroccan beer, and whiskey. Drinks that have proven to be hits will be dubbed “Green Zone Classics” and will almost always appear on the menu, including the “Janissary Corps” with Green Hat Gin, house-made pistachio syrup, lemon, and what Francke calls “silky magic.” 

Francke purposely doesn’t list every ingredient in his drinks. It’s a sly move since no one else is doing this. “The Green Zone is kind of like a Middle Eastern tiki bar,” he says. “It’s exotic, full of mysterious flavors, and I’ve decided not to reveal every damn thing in my drinks.” Francke’s “silky magic” mystery potion is not unlike U Street tiki bar Archipelago’s “Pineapple of Hospitality,” said to contain only “rum and secrets.” 

Another classic is the “Saz’Iraq” with rye whiskey, house-made Arabian bitters, and a spritz of “Sharqtreuse,” which is Francke’s house-made Middle Eastern answer to Chartreuse—an ancient French liqueur crammed with flavor from more than 100 herbs, plants, and flowers. 

The rest of the cocktails will be seasonally driven. “When it’s sour cherry season, let me buy a fuckton of sour cherries and make syrup,” he says. “Or, when it’s sour green plum season and the one Turkish grocery store carries them, I’ll buy as much as I can and turn them into a shrub or garnish.” Orange blossom water and cardamom are two elements from his stable of cool ingredients that he calls upon often. 

To keep his patrons upright, Francke will serve a concise food menu headlined by manakeesh—Lebanese flat bread made zesty with cheese and za’atar. Because the kitchen doesn’t have a pizza oven, he’ll make it the rustic way—on top of an overturned wok known as a saj. Also expect smooth, creamy hummus, “real honest-to-god Lebanese falafel,” and chicken wings flavored with lemon, garlic, and coriander. 

If The Green Zone proves successful, it could be the beginning of even bigger things for Francke. He has a dream of one day opening a 24-hour, open-air street food market that also contains a bar modeled off Barbar in Beirut, which takes up a whole city block and has booths cranking out everything from Shawarma to baked goods.

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