Chef Elena Venegas Credit: Jennifer Chase

Before the pandemic, you could slide onto a leather tufted sofa and sip something boozy and elegant in Columbia Room’s Spirits Library. You had to shuffle through the a la carte cocktail lair to get to the Tasting Room in the back. But over the past 18 months, the Spirits Library and the people running it have gone through transformations so significant you could call them metamorphoses.

The Spirits Library that once stocked vintage cognacs and its accompanying outdoor punch garden will reopen as Disco Mary on Oct. 22 serving mostly spirit-free “apothecary cocktails” and vegan Mexican cuisine from Chef Elena Venegas.

“I like that everything is healthy and we’re using a lot of things from my country,” Venegas says. She immigrated from Mexico City 20 years ago. “I want to teach people Mexican food is not just tacos and tortas. We have a lot of things to show the world.”

To bring a fresh approach to nightlife, Columbia Room owner Derek Brown passed the torch to his business and life partner Maria Bastasch. “Maria is a genius,” he says. “Whether it comes to the herbal practices or just thinking about how we restructure hospitality—it’s just so forward thinking.”

“Disco Mary is a hope, a dream, a wish to expand what we see as nightlife and make it more accessible to everyone in terms of how we party, connect, and be in the night,” Bastasch says. She’s weary of alcohol being the singular way to release or relax. “There are so many reasons why I’ve been seeking an equally magical way to enjoy that celebration and come together that doesn’t have to be structured around alcohol exclusively.”

Bastasch, who has 20 years of experience in the hospitality industry and served as the wine director and operations manager of Maydan and Compass Rose, is incorporating her passion for plant medicine and herbalism into the beverage options at Disco Mary: “Each drink will contain something beneficial, something nourishing to you as a person,” she says.

To make “Influencers in the Wild,” for example, Bastasch combines pitaya, strawberry, lime, lemon balm, schisandra berry, and monk fruit. There’s an option to add mezcal. Disco Mary will also serve wine, beer, kombucha, seltzers, and shots with turmeric and beetroot.

Growing up in an enormous Catholic and Colombian family, Bastasch says she developed a complicated relationship with religion. “But the iconography is something I connected with,” she says. “My uncle had a huge statue of a Virgin Guadalupe that was covered in disco ball tiles. I was obsessed with it. It even felt a little transgressive.” Look for a four-foot homage from artist Lina Shamoon when you enter Disco Mary. Bastasch hopes the bar has “the vibe of a 70’s go-go party.”

Brown, despite being a bar owner himself, also champions taking breaks from alcohol. He recently reopened Columbia Room’s Tasting Room with two courses to chart—one featuring low-alcohol drinks and another that’s spirit free. Both incorporate mushrooms, algae, and insects like chicatana ants. Brown pairs an oyster shell-infused non-alcoholic gin drink with wild sage bitters, a kelp tincture, caperberries, and orange peel with a snack of vegan caviar fashioned from sea grapes.

Venegas is tasked with creating plant-based food for both Disco Mary and Columbia Room with an assist from consulting chef and mentor Christian Irabién of Muchas Gracias. Venegas started working at Columbia Room during the pandemic when it operated as the Your Only Friend sandwich pop-up. That was Paul Taylor’s show. Now Venegas helms the kitchen.

The opening Disco Mary menu will have about six dishes such as al pastor tacos that swap in local root vegetables for pork, “rainbow nachos” topped with plant-based cheese, and a hearts of palm ceviche that uses Icelandic kelp and spirulina to bring a whiff of the ocean. “We want to show people that vegan food is not what they think,” Venegas says. “It should feel like a nice snack in a bar that happens to be vegan.”

Irabién recently launched an initiative called Hospitality Humans. Part of its mission is to help immigrants advance in their careers in the restaurant industry. He met Venegas through her husband, who is currently serving as his service director at Muchas Gracias. “I’m from Mexico, and I’m a Latin American immigrant, so my goal is to help my community,” he says. “People who are fully capable are often marginalized because of a language barrier or whatever other obstacles prevent them from getting ahead.”

“I’ve been learning a lot from Christian,” Venegas says. “You always learn from other people, and that makes you feel growth.” Irabién says he’ll work alongside her until “it’s time to pull the training wheels off.”

Irabién is hopeful for a restructuring of the hospitality industry that not only improves work-life balance and quality of life, but also shakes up who is given leadership roles. “As we’re putting menus forward that take from different cultures—be it Latin or Asian food—the question I try to pose to my peers is: ‘What are we doing? We’re building businesses we’re excited about, but what are we doing to contribute to the communities in D.C. that are actually bringing the cultures we learn from every day?'”

Venegas is up for the challenge. “This is, for me, very important,” she says, tearing up. “I want other people to see that other people can do it too. The Latino community we’re here to work with you guys. There are a lot of people like me that don’t speak the language and don’t get the opportunity to do something better. I want everybody to see that they can do it too. Latino and Latina chefs, we can be part of this country.”

Once it opens on Oct. 22, Disco Mary will be open Wednesdays through Saturdays from 5 to 11:30 p.m. (the kitchen closes earlier). They accept walk-ins, and reservations will be available on Resy. The Columbia Room Tasting Room will remain open during October on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays with reservations required.

Disco Mary, 124 Blagden Alley NW; (website coming soon: discomary.com)
Columbia Room, 124 Blagden Alley NW; (202) 316-9396; columbiaroomdc.com

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