Ode to the Horse Brass

horsebrass 021

I have an article at Doublethink today about the last days of smoking at the legendary Horse Brass Pub, one of the first places I felt at home when moving to Portland a few months ago. Debates over smoking bans tend to focus on the impacts on business, public health, and property rights. The culture that’s wiped out when smoking is banned gets much less attention. In this piece I try to convey what that culture means to those of us who love it.

Incidentally, I finally got to meet Don Younger, the pub’s owner, a few days after I submitted this. He’s not at all worried that his bar won’t survive the ban. The beer, the atmosphere, and the food are all too good for that to happen (and the Scotch eggs, incidentally, are probably far more dangerous to people’s hearts than all the cigarette smoke in Oregon — but totally worth it). When we ban opponents talk about the rights of business owners, we’re not just talking about them making money; as Don says, he didn’t get into the tavern business to get rich. We’re talking about not having a community that they’ve nurtured for more than 30 years wiped out at the whim of some busybodies in the state legislature.


Minor rebellion

My friends at Grape and Bean have won a small victory against the strict code regulations in Alexandria, VA and made it into USA Today for their troubles:

When David Gwathmey and his wife opened their coffee and wine bar in Alexandria, Va.’s “Old Town” section, he defied a ban on sidewalk signs to try to steer customers their way. Now that the city has eased its restriction, what Gwathmey did surreptitiously, he can do in the daylight. Already, he has seen the difference.

“It definitely drives foot traffic,” says Gwathmey, 38, noting that the sign may have boosted the number of weekend visitors to his shop, Grape + Bean, by 20%. “This is a very strong statement and action that supports (the city’s) claim to want to support small businesses.”

Alexandria is one of several communities that have lifted or are considering loosening restrictions on sidewalk signs and banners to help shore up businesses struggling to survive a recession that has slowed consumer spending and depleted municipal tax revenue.

Grape and Bean is one block off the main strip of King St. in Alexandria, so it was easy to miss without the sidewalk sign. Check them out if you’re in the area.


Liberty Tavern not so keen on liberty

Virginia Governor Tim Kaine is predictably pushing once again for a comprehensive statewide smoking ban. Not so predictably, he’s teamed up with the owners of Clarendon’s Liberty Tavern to launch his campaign:

This year, he believes momentum is on his side. At a news conference Tuesday at a Clarendon tavern, Kaine said the public is increasingly supportive of such bans…

Stephen Fedorchak, owner of The Liberty Tavern, the restaurant where Kaine held his news conference, said he has been in the business long enough to know smoking was once entrenched in bars and restaurants. But those days have passed, he said.

He said he does not regret the decision to ban smoking in his restaurant and said these days “smokers are somewhat used to going out in a … fresh-air environment” and no longer assume they will be allowed to light up.

I was something of a regular at Liberty when it opened in 2007 and nearly became an employee (they offered me a job, but I wasn’t comfortable with the time commitment). It was an unofficial home for many libertarian-minded people in the area and was among the handful of bars I revisited when back in town last month. That, however, was my last beer there. I sent them the following letter this afternoon:

I was disappointed to hear today that Liberty Tavern is teaming up with Governor Kaine to push for a statewide smoking ban. I’m happy that you’ve chosen to make your business smokefree and have found customers who welcome the clean air. You’ve set an admirable example for other Virginia businesses. So please, leave them free to try it on their own. It’s a sad irony that a place called the “Liberty Tavern” is now attempting to force its policy onto every other bar and restaurant in the state.

Though I’ve enjoyed the food and drink at your bar in the past, I value my freedom of choice even more. From now on when I’m in Virginia I’ll be exercising mine at Arlington’s many other worthwhile establishments.

Their email address is info@thelibertytavern.com. Take a minute to let them know how you feel.

For an alternative bar, try out EatBar and Tallula if you haven’t already been. Liberty Tavern’s only real advantage over this nearby competitor is proximity to the Metro. EatBar’s food is the equal or better of anything at Liberty, the beer selection is bigger and better, the wine list is far larger, and the crowd features fewer lame young professionals. Even if you don’t like the fact that they allow smoking in the small back room, you can appreciate that they don’t think every other restaurant in Virginia should be forced to do the same.

One other note on the proposed ban: Kaine is always careful to refer to this as a ban on smoking in “restaurants.” Technically, that’s true. That’s because there is no such thing as a bar in Virginia. According to ABC regulations, all businesses that serve on-premise alcohol are required to sell significant amounts of food. Casual listeners are likely to interpret the proposal as a supposedly reasonable restriction on restaurants that leaves bars free to set their own policies. It’s hard to view his word choice as anything but intentionally misleading. Since what he’s really pushing is a smoking ban in all businesses, he should say so directly.

Update 1/7/09: Thanks to Radley Balko, former bartender and former smoker Jonathan Blanks, and Suetonius at Freedom and Shit for spreading the word. Good job!

Update 1/8/09: And now David Boaz at the Cato blog, Andrew Roth at the Club for Growth, and Caleb Brown at Catallaxy.

Update 1/9/09: Fr33 Agents threw in with the boycott, leading to coverage this morning at Washington City Paper’s blog.

Don’t need no stinkin’ bans!


Bans across the pond

With several smoking bans just going into effect in the US and debates over proposed bans going on throughout the country, it’s worth revisiting the question of how they impact businesses. (You didn’t really think I was finished with ban posts for the week, did you?) The US has fared decently well thanks to growth in the hospitality industry obscuring the losses in bars that have suffered; whether that will continue in the down economy remains to be seen. The Financial Times‘ Matthew Engel notes that pubs have been hit much harder in the UK and Ireland:

In Britain, where smoking in enclosed public places became totally illegal in 2007, beer sales are down by 10 per cent; analysts attribute half of that to the smoking law. Pubs are now closing at a record rate of 36 a week.

The publicans I talk to (and they have plenty of time to chat these days) have many complaints but the loss of the smokers is top of their list. Some are on the pavement, but most stay at home. Pool tables stand empty; darts leagues wither.

This may not be so noticeable in the cities. The pubs that are closing are mainly small and often rural, precisely the places that are crucial to their communities and that tourist boards witter on about. Big city drinking barns survive; gastropubs may thrive. The inns of Olde England face extinction, killed by the well-meaning.

My own village local is thought likely to go under this year. It is hard to imagine, under current conditions, that more than a handful of traditional pubs – as opposed to thinly disguised restaurants – will be left in the English countryside 10 years hence…

I hardly ever smoked in pubs myself. Nor does anyone else now. They do not drink in them either. Brilliant.

I worry that the same will happen in Oregon, Iowa, Illinois, and other states with far-reaching bans. The urban bars will likely weather the change. The smaller rural and neighborhood bars I’m not so sure of.

As noted here before, Portland’s restaurants are in for a tough season. The end of 2008 was pretty terrible:

Observers can’t remember a worse year for Portland restaurants. In the first two months of 2008, seven restaurants closed, four as part of the implosion of the overextended N.W. Hayden Enterprises. The year ends with the fall of Lucier — the $4 million South Waterfront showcase — ringing in our ears. In between, more than 20 Portland restaurants shut their doors…

“I’ve heard some people say their business has dropped by as much as 40 percent in the last month or so,” says Bill Perry of the Oregon Restaurant Association. “Things weren’t too bad until October — sales were off just 4 percent or so over the year — but then, two or three weeks before the election, things just froze. I’ve never seen anything like this; if we want to avoid a big rut in January, people are going to have to begin spending again.”

Perry says January’s increase in the minimum wage from $7.95 to $8.40 per hour will be another blow, especially in tough times, when raising menu prices could further empty dining rooms. “They really won’t have much choice,” he says, “but to let people go or cut their hours.” […]

Effects ripple through the community. Oregon lost 1,900 restaurant jobs in September and October, and suppliers are left with unpaid bills and dwindling orders.

[Links via Andrew Stuttaford and the excellent Oregon Economics blog, recently recommended by Maureen Ogle.]


Don’t need no stinkin’ bans!

Chad sends in a blog post noticing that Arlington, VA bars and restaurants are trending smokefree in the absence of legislation:

They said Arlington’s bars would never voluntarily go smoke-free … then Liberty Tavern did and places like Eleventh, Union Jacks, and Clarendon Grill soon followed.

They said sports bars would never go smoke-free … then Summers created a separate smoke-free bar, followed by Four Courts and Crystal City Sports Pub, and Thirsty Bernie’s opened entirely smoke-free.

Now Arlington’s best diner, Bob & Edith’s at Columbia Pike & S. Wayne St., is going 100% smoke-free.

Arlington makes an interesting test case. It’s one of the wealthiest, most liberal cities in the country, and residents would surely approve a smoking ban if they were allowed to. Fortunately they’re restrained by Virginia law that forbids local anti-smoking ordinances to exceed the state’s own rules. Every year a statewide ban is introduced in the senate and immediately shot down by the tobacco-friendly house.

The fact that popular bars and established restaurants are voluntarily choosing to restrict smoking shows that ban opponents have been right all along: given demand for smokefree environments, profit-seeking business owners will eventually provide them, if not as immediately as a legislative ban would. And as someone who generally prefers bars with clean air, I think that’s fantastic — as long as dive bars like Jay’s or the backroom cigar lounge at EatBar remain free to set their own policies too.

The same has been true in Portland, another city one might have expected to institute a smoking ban long ago. Even before the statewide ban went into effect last week I noticed there were far more smokefree bars here than in other places I’ve lived. I checked the directory at SmokeFreeOregon.com and the site listed more than 400 establishments within the city limits. That was hardly a lack of choice for non-smokers.

At best, one could make the case for nudging businesses to go smokefree with one-time tax breaks to speed up adoption of the policy. Otherwise, leave people free to associate on their own terms and they’ll eventually figure out ways to accommodate each other. There’s no need for coercion.

The magic of politics
Why aren’t more bars smokefree?


A Repeal Day for the ages

Free to Booze Bar

With the end of December almost here, it doesn’t look like I’m going to get to that big Repeal Day wrap-up I had planned. Luckily Tom Pearson’s all over it with Repeal Day and post-Repeal Day entries, so check over at his site for the links. See also Jeffrey Morgenthaler’s adventures in DC and “libertarian kind of guy” Lance Mayhew’s thoughtful reflections about Prohibition and the growth of government.

I was in DC too, kicking off the day at Cato’s Free to Booze event. I wasn’t able to watch the forum, being too busy setting up the bar in the lobby and teaching the interns some practical skills like how to juice citrus for 200 people. Thanks to their help, spirit donations from DISCUS, and a very last minute purchase of sweet vermouth, Jeff and I were able to mix up some tasty vintage cocktails for the thirsty mob. Here’s what we served:

Manhattan: Bulleit Bourbon, Sweet Vermouth, and Angostura Bitters
One of the first uses of vermouth in a cocktail and a true classic to this day

Martinez: Beefeater or Tanqueray Gin, Sweet Vermouth, Maraschino Liqueur, and Orange Bitters
Forgotten cousin of the Dry Martini, also born of America’s love affair with vermouth

Sidecar: Hennessy VS Cognac, Cointreau, and Lemon
An early mix of spirit, orange liqueur, and citrus, a versatile combination enjoyed today in the Margarita and Cosmopolitan

Aviation: Beefeater or Tanqueray Gin, Lemon, Maraschino, and Crème de Violette
A beautiful classic regaining popularity thanks to new imports of violet liqueur

Stone Fence: Maker’s Mark Bourbon, Cider, Angostura Bitters
Ethan Allen’s Green Mountain Boys drank a rustic version of this drink before storming Fort Ticonderoga. What are you gonna do?

Sazerac: Hennessy VS Cognac, Pernod aux extraits de plantes d’absinthe, Peychaud’s Bitters, Angostura Bitters, and Sugar
Vintage New Orleans cocktail; though originally made with cognac, rye whiskey became standard in the 1870s

Pegu Club: Beefeater or Tanqueray Gin, Cointreau, Lime, Orange Bitters, and Angostura Bitters
A refreshing gin drink published in Harry Craddock’s Savoy Cocktail Book (1930) and credited to the Pegu Club in Burma

Jeff and I had a great time making the drinks. I hadn’t worked a busy bar shift since leaving Open City in March, so getting back into the groove and working through a long line of orders felt great. One of my favorite moments of the night was informing a person who ordered a vodka tonic that we had neither vodka nor tonic. Working with a limited bar and a small menu let us put the focus on introducing people to new experiences and I think we opened a few eyes to well-crafted cocktails.

If you missed the Cato event, it’s too late to make you a drink but you can catch video of the policy forum online. Organizer Brandon Arnold also recorded a podcast for the occasion.

Following a nice dinner with friends, I went off to DC Craft Bartenders Guild’s fantastic Repeal Day celebration, featuring drinks from some of the DC’s best mixologists. Then we took the afterparty to Gibson, the new speakeasy off U St. As Jeff notes, some of these speakeasy themed bars stand on ceremony to the point of inconvenience. At one I watched the host make a woman search her Blackberry for her forgotten codeword before granting entrance, despite the fact that every table but my own was unoccupied. There’s none of that nonsense at Gibson. There the focus is entirely on serving wonderful drinks in a comfortable, relaxed environment. And the drinks really are excellent. If you’re in DC, it’s absolutely worth visiting. I just wish it had opened before I moved across the country.

This Repeal Day will be hard to top, but the 100th anniversary is just 25 years away. It’s hard to predict what will happen then. Perhaps there will be blowback against the nanny state’s current excesses. Maybe we’ll finally overturn some of our outdated alcohol distribution laws. Given all the momentum in the craft movement right now, I’m hopeful we’ll see even broader interest in mixology and be closer to overcoming Prohibition’s legacy of crap cocktails. Whatever happens, we’re going to have one hell of a party.


Most missed in DC/NOVA

This morning I’ll be hopping on a plane from Portland and flying to DC, returning for the first time since leaving in August. I miss the place more than I expected to. I miss my friends, though with all your Tweets it sometimes feels like I’ve never left. I miss the constant happy hours and the intellectual engagement. I miss biking; I’m surprised to be driving my car here in Portland more than I ever did in Virginia. And of course I miss the food. Here’s a list of some of the places I’m hoping to get back to. Not the best places necessarily, just the ones I subjectively miss the most.

EatBar — This place combines the feel of a true neighborhood bar with a real commitment to quality. The food is always excellent, the beer list is solid, and Gina Chersevani has made the cocktails superb as well. The smoke-friendly back room is one of my favorite spots in Virginia; when the winter made our outdoor Sunday cigars impossible, this was our refuge. I spent a year living around the corner in a crappy, run down apartment. EatBar was one of two places that made that worthwhile. The other was…

El Charrito — This unassuming Salvadoran and Mexican restaurant caters equally to construction workers and white collar professionals, serving up $2 cabrito tacos, great burritos, and fried plantains. It was a block from my house. My current apartment is much nicer than my old one, but all I’ve got here are Burgerville, Subway, and Red Robin.

Murky Coffee — Where everybody knows my name, where I first got into coffee, and where I first started not hating DC. If not for Murky, I would have left the city back in 2005. (Thanks, Nick!)

Grape and Bean — I loved working here. They got their on-premise beer and wine license after I left, so I’m looking forward to getting back and seeing how it all worked out.

Crisp and Juicy — Of the many rotisserie chicken places in Northern Virginia, this was by far my favorite. Super Pollo was convenient. Pollo Rico was good, but serving steak fries instead of yuca takes it down a notch. Crisp and Juicy was, very strangely, the site of my first date with me previous girlfriend. I dream of their chicken.

Kabob Bazaar — Mondays and Fridays, ghormeh sabzhi. That’s all you need to know.

Birreria Paradiso — This basement bar is where I had my eyes opened to beer and was the only reason I’d go to Georgetown at night. I had Belgian ales and barley wines for the first time here and regret that I rarely went back after leaving my job at nearby Baked and Wired.

Baked and Wired — Speaking of B&W, I do miss their chocolate cupcakes with buttercream frosting. How did I get by having these for breakfast for so many months? They never tasted better than the night I spent closing down Paradiso and sleeping on the floor of the coffee shop to be there for the opening barista shift.

Rustico — My other favorite beer place, and damn good food too.

Brasserie Beck — My other other favorite beer place. You’ve gotta respect a joint that’s pure Belgian and has a beer knight (Le Chevalarie du Fourquet des Brasseurs) running their list. The apple curry mussels are how mussels pray to be treated in the afterlife.

Eamonn’s — Come for the fish and chips, stay for the batter burger. Oh yeah, and there’s a speakeasy on top.

El Rinconcito and the Korean cart on 14th and L — Lobbyists have no taste. Cato’s office is close to K Street. Therefore, despite our proximity to Chinatown, there wasn’t much good ethnic food in the area. These two were notable exceptions.

Pho 75 — I can get good Vietnamese food here, but Pho 75 is still my favorite; it got me out of countless hangovers when I lived in Court House.

Nam-Viet — If I were smart, I would have scheduled this trip during soft-shell crab season.

Five Guys — Suck it, In-n-Out. NOVA’s cultish burger franchise puts you to shame.

China Express — Just a typical American takeout Chinese restaurant, but they were good at it in a city where people often weren’t and the owners were always incredibly friendly.

Open City — They put up with my first experimentation behind the bar, and for that I’m eternally grateful.

PS7 — I didn’t go as often after Tiffany left the bar, but their happy hour is one of the best around. Few do cocktails and food as well as they do.

There’s no way I’m getting to all these places this weekend, plus there’s a few newcomers I’m eager to visit: Peregrine Espresso, Source, Commonwealth, and Gibson come to mind. What else am I missing?


Have a ball in DC

OK, one more post about Rocky Mountain oysters, then I promise I’ll stop. Actually I don’t promise. But check out this photo at Amanda’s blog of the General Tso’s-coated mountain oysters currently on the menu at Firefly in Dupont Circle. A big step up from the big bowl of fried, floppy discs I enjoyed in Denver, don’t you think? Anyone in DC going to try them out?


San Francisco wi-fi blues

I’m in San Francisco now, enjoying the city’s abundance of excellent coffee. Yet for such a tech-friendly town, I’m having a hard time pairing it with working wi-fi. The new Four Barrel, where I had a really nice cappuccino this morning, doesn’t offer it. Ritual does, but they’ve removed their electrical outlets. I’m here now and when my battery dies I’ll be unable to catch up on work or give them any more money. Blue Bottle in Hayes Valley serves my favorite espresso in the world, but they’re just a kiosk. Their new store doesn’t have wi-fi either. Is there any place in town that combines great coffee, internet access, and free electrons?


A boaring dinner menu

If I were still in Virginia I’d be all over this. Amanda reports on an upcoming dinner in Alexandria:

Jackson 20 will host its first bourbon and boar dinner — an event the restaurant hopes to make a monthly feature — at the chef’s table this Wednesday, Sept. 17, at 6:30 p.m. The six-course meal will be paired with bourbon cocktails, like the pictured Boartini, made from bacon-infused Blanton’s, Chambord, bitters and fresh raspberries. The cost is $75, not including taxes and gratuity.

Chef Jeff Armstrong’s menu for the evening includes various boar cuts like barbecued shoulder on carrot and cayenne slaw, cider-braised belly with roasted peaches, blackberry and sherry syrup, and grilled loin with sweet potato mash, juniper and onion relish.

I got to Jackson 20 for lunch once before leaving town. It has good food, a well-stocked bar, and is right around the corner from Grape and Bean and the newly opened Lavender Moon Cupcakery. If you’re one of those DC people who never heads into Virginia, you’re missing out.

From my guest blogging stint at The Agitator, how to baconify your bourbon.


Sweating the hops shortage

Sighted at Bell's

Hops in deodorant? They’re an essential ingredient in Tom’s of Maine’s products:

Unpleasant odor is caused by skin bacteria when we sweat. The “bitter principles” that help hops to preserve beer also, it turns out, fight odor. Hops inhibits the growth of bacteria by causing leakage in the bacterial cell membrane, which impairs bacterial function and therefore prevents odor.

I wonder if they’ve been hit by the hops shortage too, and how beer could be made instead with all the hops people are rubbing into their armpits.

[Via Rob Kasper. Photo from the hops case at the Bell’s Brewery General Store and Eccentric Cafe, which you should definitely visit if you’re ever in Kalamazoo.]


The fast and the… ?

I’m in Chicago, catching up from a long drive down from the UP yesterday that included stops at Grand Traverse Distillery and the Bell’s Brewery Eccentric Cafe, so no morning links yet. As I move further west the “morning” part of those links is going to become less and less relevant to this blog’s primarily East Coast readership, so I’ll probably be dropping the AM part of the headline anyway.

I need to get out of Chicago before this happens:

Fast and the Furriest


DC bar openings

Lots of DC area bar openings I’m missing out on. First, my friends at Grape and Bean in Alexandria opened their tasting bar this month, offering small, plates, coffee, and wine and beer by the glass or bottle. They’re taking a break till Labor Day to do some research [i.e. drinking] in California’s wine country and to attend the Slow Food Festival, but they’ll reopen then with expanded hours.

Inside the city is Commonwealth, a British-style gastropub I’d really like to visit. They offer “butcher boards of charcuterie (don’t miss the ultra-flavorful Surrey County ham), house-made head cheese, stuffed pigs trotters, deviled sweetbreads, pork belly, and Scotch eggs wrapped in sausage—the chef’s favorite.” Also a selection of English ales and a rotating cask ale.

And speaking of beer, Frank Morales and Greg Engert of Rustico are opening the first DC location for the Neighborhood Restaurant Group, and it’s going to have tons of it. Birch and Barley and its upstairs bar ChurchKey will offer more than 500 bottles, 50 drafts, and 5 cask ales. And unlike a certain other DC beer bar, I’m betting these guys will do a good job keeping their menu in stock. Amanda’s got the rest of the details at Metrocurean.


Good coffee in Chinatown?

This classified ad sounds promising:

New cafe opening in cool part of DC needs a serious barista to help establish and oversee coffee operations. Looking for someone passionate about coffee-coffee making as a craft. We intend on serving the finest ristretto shot in the District. Duties include consulting with owner/operator on equipment purchase, hiring of other talented baristas, and helping to determine overall feel of cafe. not your ordinary coffee shop.

Sounds like my friends at Cato might have an option better than Starbucks in the near future.


Say yes! To M!ch!gan coffee!

Capp at Ugly Mug in Ypsilanti

That’s from Ugly Mug Cafe in Ypsilanti, MI. They roast their own beans, pull shots on a two-group Synesso, and are currently playing Dear Catastrophe Waitress. It’s like I never left DC! Between the coffee wastelands of Columbus and Cedarville, I’m glad to have found the place. The espresso is sweet, the capp smooth, and the barista happy to talk coffee. Thanks, EspressoMap.

I’ll be in the UP by evening. Not sure if I’ll have cell access while up there, but I’m told that we do have wi-fi now, so I should be able to get back to the regularly scheduled blogging.

Back to the road…


Grape and Bean in The Post

Grape and Bean, Big Bear, and Murky all get coverage in The Washington Post today in an article by Michaele Weissman, author of the new book God in a Cup. Weissman’s book covers the new wave specialty coffee industry from seed to cup, profiling the people at Counter Culture, Intelligentsia, Stumptown, and other roasters, along with baristas, farmers, and importers. Though perhaps too personal at times, it’s an interesting and sympathetic look at our sometimes weird and obsessive subculture. Definitely recommended.


Save Flash for the kitchen

There’s a new restaurant opening up in DC. It sounds intriguing and like something I might want to write about, so I clicked over to the website to find out more. And that’s where I stopped. It’s no Jared Allen’s Sports Grill,* but… damn. All Flash, annoying music, terrible sound effects, and confusing navigation. So screw it.

I’m not going to name the place, because it’s just the latest example in a long line of bad restaurant websites and I don’t want to reward them with a link. But more generally, what is it about restaurants and bars that makes them so prone to unnavigable, unlinkable, incredibly annoying Flash designs? Do owners just not use the internet?

Flash websites may look good, but that’s all they do. And that lack of usefulness cuts down on a restaurant’s web presence. The page can take a long time to load. If a reviewer wants to write about his meal at a place, he can’t copy the text or even link to the menu. Search engines can’t pick up key phrases people may be looking for. Potential customers can’t even cut and paste the address into a map search to find out where it is. The only person who benefits is the designer, who collects a nice check and hands off a complicated but worthless relic that no one will ever visit more than once.

If I ever open a restaurant, I can’t promise you yet that it will have wonderful food, reasonable prices, or appealing decor. But I will promise you this: it will offer permanent links, text that you can copy and paste, and no annoying music.

For the comments, what restaurant sites do you hate? Who has a site that works? I nominate Rustico as an example of good design: lots of text, working links, and frequent updates, all while giving a good feel for the place’s look and tone. Throw in an RSS feed and event archives and they’re golden.

*The website’s broken now, sadly, which might actually be an improvement. It was a thing to behold.