Tom and Derek Brown have poured, mixed, and stirred drinks at some of the finest spots in the District: Komi, Citronelle, Palena, the Gibson, Corduroy, and Cork. But when the brothers decided to open their own joint, the Passenger, they didn’t want anything as formal as their former places of employment.
“I wanted a place where I could drink wine and play Motörhead,” says Derek Brown, the younger of the two siblings who grew up on a horse farm in Olney with chickens and bulls. “I’ve grown in my tastes. I haven’t grown in my want for a laid- back environment.”
True to their word, the brothers Brown are building a watering hole high on quirkiness and low on pretension. It begins with the very building in which the Passenger is housed: the former bar/cafe space at the Warehouse Theater at 1021 7th St. NW. The space, co-owned by Paul Ruppert (who’s also a partner in the Passenger), dates back to 1890 and once was home to Ruppert Hardware, a fixture in D.C. for nearly 100 years.
The partners plan to let the building speak on its own terms. The old hardwood floor, much of which dates back to the late 19th century, will remain as is. The distressed concrete and exposed brick walls will go untouched, too. Even stuff that the partners salvaged, like some fairly ratty hunter-green booths, which date back to God knows when, will be spared the rehabber’s toolbox.
The primary additions to the space are few but significant. The partners have built booths in the front window nooks, which will be reserved for large parties (if not loud ones, given that sound will surely rattle around the glass space like Motörhead playing in a trailer). They have also redesigned the bar. But the biggest change will occur in the least-trafficked area of the place—at the back, near the entrance to the Warehouse Theater itself. In that space, the guys have hired architect Brie Husted to design a room to look like an antique dining-car, complete with arched ceilings, hardwood floors, and old mirrors to look like windows.
Why a dining car?
Patrons “don’t hang out here,” says Tom Brown about the back of the bar. “We wanted to create something interesting—”
“More alluring,” Derek Brown chimes in.
“—to entice people back here,” Tom Brown finishes his sentence, as if he were used to ignoring his brother’s interruptions.
As far as beverages, the brothers Brown are striving for the personal on all fronts. By that, I mean that they are, for example, stocking their wine list with a few offbeat labels, from a few off-the-beaten-track places, such as the L. Mawby Blanc de Blanc sparkling wine from Michigan or the Château Musar Cinsault rosé from Lebanon. In all, there will be 25 wines available by the glass, ranging in price from $5 to $15.
In terms of cocktails, for which the brothers have earned a reputation for mixing the most inventive in town, the siblings plan to just wing it. Tom Brown says they will not offer a cocktail menu, which, to him, can create the wrong impression with drinkers. He tells me about a cocktail he once designed at Corduroy; the menu listed its ingredients as tequila, green chartreuse, and sparkling wine. Few ordered it.
When Tom Brown changed the language to read, “a blend of rare liqueurs,” the drink was “flying off the shelves,” he says.
You might think the anecdote is a lesson on the importance of smart menu writing. But to Tom Brown, the anecdote is evidence that it’s better to understand his customers’ palates then to merely shove a prescribed list of cocktails at them. He plans to learn his patrons’ preferences—sweet or bitter, vodka or rye, for example—and then mix a cocktail based on them. It will require more work, yes, but “it helps cut down on disappointments,” Tom Brown says.
The last bit of personalization will be the most exclusive: the Columbia Room, located in a space near the dining car. This is where Derek Brown will host his intimate “cocktail club and laboratory.” Though still in the formative stages, the Columbia Room will likely be a reservation-only space in which Derek Brown offers an omakase-like selection of cocktails, along with some background and history on each drink.
“Ninety-nine percent of the people will not enjoy it,” Derek Brown argues. I suspect he’s joking.
The brothers will leave the solid foods in the capable hands of Javier Duran, a former sous chef at Cork. From Passenger’s tiny kitchen, Duran will turn out bar snacks as well as half-smokes, hot dogs, chili, and seasonal panini. The bar will also offer a kimchi hot dog, which Derek Brown likes to joke that he invented several years ago at a Fourth of July party and which some asshole in New York stole and turned into a signature dish, complete with celebrity chef David Chang’s red kimchi puree.
“We didn’t intend to be a restaurant bar,” Derek Brown adds. “We’ll do the best food we can within our limited confines.”
So will the Passenger really serve up hardcore music along with its designer cocktails and offbeat bottles of wine? Well, consider this: The name of the place is derived from the Iggy Pop song “The Passenger.” “I’ve always loved this song,” Derek Brown says. “It always had great energy.”
There’s no real explanation for why the brothers chose to name their place after a Pop song—though, in retrospect, Derek Brown acknowledges that it could be read as a commentary on how “everybody is always passing through” the District. But the tune does reflect the siblings’ punk spirit, which will filter down to the music they plan to pump throughout the Passenger.
The music is “going to go all over the place,” Tom Brown says. “You might hear Bad Brains and hear Simple Minds right behind it.”
When I visited the brothers at the Passenger’s construction site on Nov. 5, the opening date was still up in the air. At the time, Derek Brown told a reporter that the bar should be finished in a “few weeks,” a remark to which his older brother immediately took umbrage. It was sibling rivalry right there amid the sawdust and noise.
“Why did you say a ‘few weeks’?” Tom Brown carped. “I think we’ll be open much sooner than that.”
The Passenger, it turns out, opened on Nov. 18, less than two weeks from our meeting at the construction site, proving once again that older brothers are always right.
The Passenger, 1021 7th St. NW, (202) 393-0220.