I haven’t frequented Cafe Saint-Ex for very long, but to be fair I haven’t frequented anywhere in DC very long. But in the time that I’ve spent at Saint-Ex I’ve noticed their slow and steady change from a great neighborhood bar to one of the tops spots to get a drink in DC.
Let’s be real, we all know Saint-Ex. We’ve all been there for more than a few unforgettable nights and, of course, a few that we can’t remember. The 14 street staple opened in 2003 and since then the upstairs bar has been the go to spot for an afterwork drink, whether you’re 9 to 5 or stopping by for last call after a night behind the stick, and downstairs Gate 54 has taken on iconic status for its late night dance parties. While Saint-Ex may already be a DC standard, they prove with their new food and bar menu after all these years they’re still good enough to go round for round with the biggest names in the industry.
Driving the new bar menu is Ben Wiley, formerly of Jose Andres’ Think Food Group, and Noah Broaddus. One look at the menu and you can tell they took a serious, no frills approach to making good, simple drinks. Nothing too crazy, nothing too complicated, but all ridiculously good. Each drink is flavor-driven, with a focus on quality while still being approachable. As Noah puts it, “it’s all about bringing people into the fold.” Saint-Ex is and will always be the spot to drink a beer and get a shot on 14th, but now you can be sure to get a killer cocktail too.
But don’t worry, cocktail nerds, they got you covered too. I was nearly drooling over all the bitters-driven drinks. The short list of only ten drinks lists Fernet, Aperol, Zucca, Malort, Amer Picon, and Punt e Mes. I would be impressed to see that at a bar with a menu three times the size, let alone a neighborhood spot.
And if that wasn’t enough, along with eight original recipes, the menu includes two often overlooked classics, the refreshing 20th Century with gin, lemon, Cocchi Americano and creme de cacao, and the Brooklyn, the most hipster classic cocktail there is. It’s kinda like a Manhattan, but you’ve probably never heard of it before.
But it’s the original concoctions that really demonstrate the talent behind the bar. Try starting your night with the Up In the Air with gin, lemon, and house-made rosemary currant syrup, or the Coming In Fast with aperol, pineapple shrub, and orange soda, served tableside with 50ml airline-sized bottles of Tito’s vodka. Careful though, the uber drinkable Coming In Fast goes down way too fast.
Next go for a round of something a little stiffer like the cleverly named Parson Weems with a cherry shrub (perfect for spring in DC) or the Wayward Compass, a great variation on one of my favorite cocktails, the Toronto, using Compass box Great King St Whisky (recently gushed over in a previous Friday Happy Hour article). Smoother than the rye-based Toronto, the Wayward Compass has a long honeyed scotch finish with a mellow mint flavor. Simply put, it tastes just like scotch and Junior Mints. So… delicious (remember what I said about approachable?).
Once you’ve loosened up, go for something a little more adventurous like the bitter El Viajero, with Punt e Mes and Zucca (then google “El Viajero” and go to a library) or the Midwest Layover with beer, malort, and grapefruit syrup. Regular Friday Happy Hour readers know by now my deep (slightly obsessive) love of malort. In a few months, it’s gone from an esoteric spirit I had zero hope of finding in DC to being featured everywhere. And now I can just order it off the menu. And mark my words, I will not rest until they put the Midwest Layover in one of the tap lines, it is that good.
If it’s a cold night knock back the potentially life-saving Shackleton’s Desire before you head out into the cold, and let Saint-Ex’s take on a hot buttered rum with chai and apple keep you warm. Just make sure you don’t leave without trying the Upright In the Locked Position. Sort of like when an artist signs a painting, you know a Jaleo alum had some influence when there’s an incredibly smooth mezcal drink on the menu. After a few of these your night will be ready to take off.
For years, Saint-Ex has nailed the 14th street neighborhood bar vibe. I can’t think of a better place to chill out with a beer and a whiskey, eat some amazing food, and nerd out with the veteran DC bar staff over some great cocktails. There’s always something good to shoot or sip and the bartenders are always playing with something new and interesting. Oh, and they have tons of Pappy Van Winkle. So check excellent spirits selection off the list too. The one downside? They’re always packed. But no surprise there, because with this new menu, Cafe Saint-Ex definitely proves that the old guard still knows how to step in and show us how to do it right.