For four years Rachel Sergi bartended in front of a backdrop of 2,500 brown liquor bottles lit aglow while looking out to a luxe room upholstered in red velvet. She ran the show at The Next Whiskey Bar inside the Watergate Hotel. Coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic, though, the longtime D.C. bartender traded her high-end digs for a much more casual watering hole that quickly became a hit when it opened in October 2019. Last Call owner Gina Chersevani recently named Sergi the general manager of her bar near Union Market.
Their relationship was once reversed. Chersevani says Sergi was her mentor in the bar industry early on in careers. “She taught me how to make cocktails,” Chersevani says. “She wanted a change and I wanted to elevate but not remove the fun of Last Call. The one thing that Rachel always taught me is it doesn’t matter where you work, it’s always the experience. Whether you’re opening beers in a beer tub at a festival or you’re serving drinks at the Ritz-Carlton in Miami, you’re giving a guest an experience. It’s always the same—you’re giving a little bit of you.”
Chersavani says the best part of reopening has been “seeing people remember how to meet people again,” with Sergi as the master of ceremonies. “She is a facilitator of fun, but with cocktail knowledge of a queen. The first thing she always says when she walks in a room is ‘People, can we just please party,'” Chersavani says.
The career change made City Paper curious. Throughout the pandemic, some of D.C.’s fine dining chefs traded tasting menus for more laid back food. Reverie’s Johnny Spero made pizza. So did Komi’s Johnny Monis, who also made plant-based gyros. It was more of a necessity than an itch that needed to be scratched, but it felt like the chefs had some fun. For some it seemed to stick. Masseria’s Nick Stefanelli, who has a Michelin star, developed the menu for the sports book at the Capital One Arena. Meanwhile, Seven Reasons’ Enrique Limardo is opening a roadside stand-inspired restaurant in Maryland.
Did some of the city’s premier spirits experts and mixologists also feel pulled toward something less fancy? Cocktails start at $6 at Last Call. Some canned beers there cost $3. There are potato chips clipped to the wall and diversions like darts and pinball. We asked Sergi that very question, among others.
City Paper: What was the best part of your job at The Next Whiskey Bar?
Rachel Sergi: I loved it. It was my baby and something I was very proud of. The people I worked with at the whiskey bar itself and the clientele who came in, it was all very satisfying. There were people who were fully into whiskey and extreme novices. You got to engage with those people and share what you knew. You learn from novices and you learn from experts because tasting notes are incredibly personal. Seeing staff progress, they took pride in knowing about whiskey. There’s also the bells and whistles that come with working in a hotel—your compensation package, insurance, and other perks.
CP: How did your time there come to an end?
RS: They laid me off on March 16, 2020. They were honest. They said we have to close down the Watergate and hopefully there will be a time when we can reopen. They remained in contact with us until July 2020 and said they wanted to reopen in September. But they didn’t bring anybody back. That was a kick in the uterus.
CP: How did you wind up at Last Call?
RS: I was constantly in touch with Gina, with us being friends. She asked me if I was interested in September  when they decided they wanted to open back up. That was pre-vaccine. I said, allow me to think on that. Then after being vaccinated and speaking with her and D.C. opening up, I said we can talk further. I said let’s do it.
CP: Why drew you in?
RS: Not that the Watergate wasn’t fun, because we brought the fun. But there’s a lot more openness for fun and creativity [at Last Call]. I don’t have to go through a director of operations and wait months to get new cocktails on the menu. Then there’s the conviviality. You open the doors and think, let’s have fun. It changes your whole outlook and personality. It’s going to be rainbows and unicorns and happiness. You’re not going to die on the cross if you run out of Jack Daniel’s. The guests don’t seem to come in with any sort of preconceived notion other than fun. They come for Jell-O shots.
CP: Is there something enticing about a more casual environment?
RS: I’m going to go with something where they offer me a great time, great pay, and the community has trust in them. I don’t have to play that game of corporate life to still make the same amount of money and to be happier.
CP: What are your plans for the bar? What’s changing? What’s staying the same?
RS: We’re keeping the carbonated Old Fashioned. That’s our static drink that we’re known for. There will be fun things like a paloma pajama party. You come in pajamas and drink palomas. We want to open up seven days a week starting during football season. Everything is built on being creative and fun and keeping that positivity alive.
CP: What do you want people to feel like in Last Call under your management?
RS: I want them to feel like they’re themselves, as long as they’re not a dick. Come as you are. Leave happy.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
Last Call, 1301-A, 4th St. NE; (202) 543-2051; lastcallbardc.com