D.C.’s newest brewpub, The Public Option, has gotten quite a bit of attention for its plans to ban tipping and instead pay its employees a living wage of at least $15 an hour. But with its quiet opening last week at 1601 Rhode Island Ave. NE, owner Billy Perry and his wife Cathy Huben are currently the only people working there. The first hires likely won’t come until December.
For now, the brewpub is open on Friday from 3 to 7 p.m, Saturday from noon to 9 p.m., and Sunday from noon to 7 p.m. Offerings are limited to drinks and snacks like pretzels, but Perry hopes to have their kitchen up and running with a basic menu in early November. The place doesn’t even really have a sign yet.
The Public Option currently brews four beers on site: a Belgian ale, a Scottish ale, and American and English coffee porters. Perry, who worked for 30 years at National Geographic as a photo librarian (a real-life Walter Mitty), has been homebrewing for more than two decades, but this is his first professional venture. Still, the setup isn’t that much bigger than what he has at home. Right now, he only brews a barrel (31 gallons) at a time.
“We will never be even a pico-brewery. We don’t even aspire to sell beer through retail or anything like that. The plan is just to be a neighborhood pub and brew most, but probably not all, of what we offer,” he says. He jokes that the brewpub is the “smallest thing that’s actually got a license… and it’s a distinction I’m very proud of.”
All of the housemade beers are $7 each. The Public Option also carries a couple 3 Stars brews on draft as well as cans of Atlas Brew Works beers, Tecate, Budweiser, and PBR ($5-$7). A handful of wines and rail cocktails are available as well.
When the food menu launches, it will include flatbreads, sausage sandwiches, and other pub fare. Perry also hopes to have some guest chefs who will take over the kitchen on select nights beginning this winter or early spring.
Perry hopes to eventually open an sidewalk patio. The building also has an upstairs that he plans to convert into an additional seating area at some point. The space once belonged to a jazz club called Mr. Y’s Gold Room. (You can still see the “Y”s formed in the bars over the windows.) Perry hopes to some day honor that legacy with live music upstairs.
As for the no tipping policy, it’s explained on the menu as such: “As much as we appreciate the thought, please don’t leave a tip. We are trying out a new business model here where we are going to see if we can attract and keep good staff by paying a living wage and providing a decent working environment. Will it work? One way to see, right?”
If someone does leave a tip, Perry plans to donate it. When he hires a staff, they’ll have input on what organization it goes to.
“I think it will work for us. I don’t know if it’s going to catch on industry-wide,” Perry says. “Our aim is not to bring down the entire system but just to chip away at the edges. I think Clint Eastwood in one of those Dirty Harry movies said, ‘A man’s got to know his limitations.'”
CORRECTION: The Public Option does not sell cans of DC Brau, as was initially stated. But they do sell Atlas Brew Works cans!
The Public Option, 1601 Rhode Island Ave. NE; (202) 397-5129; thepublicoptiondc.com
Photos by Jessica Sidman