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Tom and Derek Brown have pour, mixed, and stirred drinks at some of the best 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 in Olney. “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 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 the old hunter-green booths, which date back to God knows when, will stay in place.
The main additions are few, but significant. The partners have built booths in the front window nooks, which will be perfect for larger parties. 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.
So 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 far as the beverages, the brothers are striving for the personal on all fronts. By that, I mean that the brothers 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 Chateau 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. They will not offer a cocktail menu, says Tom Brown, which, to him, can create the wrong impression with drinkers. He tells me about a cocktail he once designed for Corduroy; the menu listed its ingredients as tequila, green chartreuse, and sparkling wine. Few, as you might suspect, ordered it.
When Tom Brown changed the language to read, “a blend of rare liqueurs,” the drink was “flying off the shelves,” he says.
He offers this anecdote as evidence that it’s better to try 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 in the back of the bar. 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.
But will the Passenger really play hardcore music? 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.” If you don’t like the song, just wait a minute, he adds. Something completely different will follow it.
The Passenger’s opening date is still up in the air. Derek Brown tells a reporter this afternoon that the bar should be finished in a “few weeks,” a remark to which his older brother immediately takes umbrage. It’s sibling rivalry right there at the construction site!
“Why did you say a ‘few weeks’?” Tom Brown carps. “I think we’ll be open much sooner than that.”