On a dreary rain-soaked night in the heart of U Street, I was buzzed into The Gibson. Well, as befits a speakeasy or “secret bar,” first I was let into a ratty little foyer where my reservation and legality were confirmed with brisk efficiency by a tweedy doorman. Then he smiled broadly.
“Welcome to The Gibson,” he said, opening the inner door and ushering me into a jewel-box of a bar.
Deep blue walls, mirrored panels set off by ebony wood, red velvet banquettes, and really funky ceiling fixtures are highlights of the interior. Yet the overall effect is simple, with room for maybe no more than fifty people all together, at the long bar or side booths or tables in a back room. Reservations are highly encouraged – if there isn’t space, you can’t stand around at the bar and there won’t be a line at the door.
As far as speakeasies go, The Gibson isn’t really that difficult to find, but it does want to maintain a degree of mystery. I’m fine with that, as it encourages a quiet, romantic (dare I say adult?) evening in the company of people who love cocktails with a passion unrivaled.
The cocktail menu at The Gibson, designed by ace mixologist Derek Brown, is neatly divided by main liquor element and features a mix of imaginative drinks and variations on the classics. Or order your usual cocktail from the bar and see how they put their own twist on it.
I couldn’t resist starting off with the “Etouffer un Perroquet (Strangle the Parakeet),” a cheeky concoction of champagne, brandy, and absinthe. It sounded like something Tristan Tzara would’ve ordered. I was warned by our server that if I wasn’t fond of absinthe I wouldn’t care for it, but I’m not put off by a little anise flavor and this was perfectly balanced. The essence of the Belle Epoque in a champagne flute.
My second choice was the “London Special Variation” and it was definitely my favorite, a complex mix of gin, white port, bergamot syrup, and champagne floating on top. Sort of an alcoholic Earl Grey, um, without the tea. I was happily inhaling bergamot when the server dashed back over. “I forgot the garnish!” she said, and before I could tell her not to worry she was deftly heating the back of a lemon peel with a lighter. It dropped into the glass like a little moon. Having the icy champagne float slowly sink and dissolve into the rest of the cocktail as you are drinking makes for a constant mellowing of the original taste.
The resurgence of the speakeasy is an interesting development in these increasingly hard times. I wonder if it represents a desire to return to a more elegant time, or simply plays to Gen X’s conflicting feelings about tribal exclusivity – we don’t want to belong to any clubs that would accept us as members, and yet… we are constantly subdividing ourselves. As far as speakeasies go, it’s a fine distinction between playing hard to get and being an annoying tease. I think The Gibson gets it right.
If I told you where The Gibson was, it wouldn’t be a speakeasy, now would it?
Don’t worry, I’m sure your Googling skills are the cat’s pajamas!