The clubs, chaos and shitty bars just aren't my scene any more, not that they ever were. I do love Madam's Organ, but even that ramshackle joint isn't enough to deal with the mess anymore. And as the good Ethiopian restaurants disappeared from the 18th Street corridor, there was nothing to draw me to the neighborhood.
Well, there was nothing.
A couple years ago, three friends who met in a bar opened a bar. A good bar. A very good bar -- The Black Squirrel, the hardest working beer bar in Washington, D.C. And they did it in the heart of Adams Morgan.
If there was ever any doubt that the craft beer revolution has changed D.C.'s bar scene, you need only consider The Black Squirrel. Before Gene Sohn, Tom Knott and Amy Bowman took over the space, it was another Irish pub, one of too many in the area. Like so many businesses up and down 18th Street, the Irish place failed. The fickle tastes of the twenty-something bar hoppers that crowd the sidewalks every weekend decided that pints of Guinness weren't their thing and so another Adams Morgan business needed a buyer.
Since the trio moved in and replaced the imported macros with American micros, they've established a following of neighborhood regulars and loyal beer enthusiasts willing to trek into Adams Morgan to experience what's on tap. Two years after opening, The Black Squirrel is on its second expansion. Last year, they opened an upstairs bar and lounge. Later this year, they'll outfit their freshly graffitied basement with a bar (with 30 to 40 draft lines!) and bring in live music. Soon enough, they'll open a second location and start brewing their own beer.
And to think they've done all this without Jägerbombs, drink specials or, frankly, much experience.
Gene Sohn spent his career in fine dining. After a three-year stint cooking at Marcel's in the West End, Sohn was ready for something different, maybe a place of his own. So he started talking to Amy and Tom, a long-time couple who were fellow regulars at the old Austin Grill in Glover Park. Amy is a health care writer, Tom a sports columnist, and neither has ever worked in the restaurant or bar business, but they were interested.
Man, were they. In the past two years, Gene, Amy and Tom (far left, background and right, respectively) have operated one of the most interesting craft beer bars in the area. Their draft lineup isn't the largest in D.C., but beer director Melissa Yuckel (center) makes the most of what they got. Two taps are dedicated to Black Squirrel white and Black Squirrel black beers (usually a Belgian witbier and an amber), but the other 15 feature a regular rotation of American craft and imports, including Great Lakes' Eliot Ness lager, Great Divide's Titan IPA and North Coast's Brother Thelonious abbey ale. In the coolers, The Black Squirrel offers 80 to 100 bottles, the latest of which are advertised on the chalkboard next to Tom's favorite perch at the end of the bar. A couple months ago, they got on the growing firkin bandwagon and started tapping a cask of fresh local beer every Friday.
This alone would make The Black Squirrel a good beer bar (and the best damn bar in its neighborhood). But they're not done (I told ya, they're workin'.).
Because all of that is just not enough, Amy or the bar staff have made multi-state beer runs to pick up beer otherwise unavailable in the D.C. area (Greg Jasgur may be driving Three Floyds back from Chicago, but Amy's going up and down the damn East Coast). As a result, The Black Squirrel has held North Carolina Beer week, New Belgium beer week, Philly beer week and has more theme weeks on the way. Each time one of these new beers rolls into the bar, Gene rolls out new specials from the kitchen. North Carolina beer week featured Big Boss from Raleigh and pulled pork sandwiches from Gene. Philly beer week included beers from Yards and Sly Fox, and foie gras cheesesteaks with black truffle mousse (yeah it did). Now, they've cracked open cases of SweetWater beer from Atlanta and served them with an appropriately Southern menu of fried chicken, greens and grits.
"What we've learned from our type of customers is they want to be surprised," Tom said. And so the road trips and taps rotations will continue.
When Amy, Tom and Gene started talking about opening a place three years ago, the District's craft beer scene was just getting under way. There was Bierria Paradiso in Georgetown, the Brickskeller in Dupont Circle and its sister restaurant RFD in Chinatown, but ChurchKey was still two years from opening and Pizzeria Paradiso's cramped Dupont location didn't have a bar. Granville Moore's and Brasserie Beck had just opened, expanding the Belgian beer scene from Belga Café on Barrack's Row to the Atlas District and downtown.
Today, the beer bar scene is in full swing, yet The Black Squirrel remains a standout.
"We do have more of a domestic (beer) focus," said Amy, who described The Black Squirrel as a "hop head" bar. "It's sort of nice that they have their niche and we have our niche."
That niche includes location. Think about where all the beer bars popped up in the District: Dupont Circle, Georgetown, Logan Circle, downtown, even H Street, which is still pretty rough. For a neighborhood that's known for its Miller Lite bars and noisy clubs, its only craft beer bar stands out.
When they were considering locations for The Black Squirrel, Amy said they recognized that Adams Morgan was a club district that didn't have anything like what they were considering. However, it was more affordable than other locations around the city. Besides, for all late-night crowds and turnover in businesses on 18th, they knew a lot of people lived in the neighborhood who didn't have a spot to grab a decent meal and enjoy a beer. If they could attract the locals (they have), their business might just work (it has).
Another factor in their success is their staff. Tom said they attract well-educated, bright employees who understand the concept and are good with the customers. The problem with bartenders and wait staff with graduate degrees, however, is it's hard to keep them around.
Now, I've never asked Melissa or their former bar manager Hollie Stephenson (who's heading up their brewing project) for their CV, but The Black Squirrel's staff is friendly enough, which is probably more important than their academic backgrounds (but who am I to argue?). After all, you can clearly run a successful beer bar and restaurant in a challenging neighborhood with absolutely no experience whatsoever.
When he was looking for business partners, Gene said he was more interested in finding someone who would be a good fit rather than someone with a restaurant industry background. As it turned out, it may be Amy and Tom's lack of restaurant experience that has been their greatest asset.
Gene runs the kitchen, while Amy and Tom handle the front of the house. Amy also takes care of marketing, paperwork, beer menu and stock levels and deals with the city. Tom oversees the staff, financing and works on new endeavors, like the second location and brewing project. It's a system that's working, but that's not to say there isn't room for improvement.
I understand the decision to open shop in Adams Morgan, but I don't have to like it. But because I like The Black Squirrel - and I do - I'm compelled to wade back into the neighborhood. To mitigate my misery, I tend to hit the bar earlier rather than later, which helps, but even in the late afternoon, Adams Morgan isn't great, it's just less shitty.
If Gene, Amy and Tom had opened The Black Squirrel in another neighborhood, I might've had my own stool next to Tom's by now.
During the interview, Amy said one of the keys to their success is the food, which Gene calls typical bar food, but done with fine dining quality. That's probably true (foie gras cheesesteaks, people). I've rarely been in The Black Squirrel without seeing families and couples having dinner. But as I've mentioned before, a good restaurant doesn't make a good bar.
It's kind of like kids in a casino. I like my bars to be full of drinkers, so the family sitting at the next table enjoying their meal always takes me a little out of the moment. A native of Houston, Amy said you can't go into a bar in Texas without finding good food. Well, I'd like to keep my bars and restaurants distinct, but that's just me.
As for the beer, Melissa does an excellent job making the most of the space she has. Of all the beer bars in the D.C. area, The Black Squirrel consistently has the strongest and most consistent selection of American craft beers. However, their selection of local beers is spotty. While you may find a couple bottles of Flying Dog and occasionally a Heavy Seas on draft, I'd like to see a wider selection of local beers (Hook & Ladder, Evolution, even Baltimore's The Brewer's Art), particularly from a bar that prides itself on its domestic lineup. After all, what's more American than supporting your community?
What they do have on hand does rotate a good bit, which keeps the beer and selection fresh. But the way they advertise the new beers is confusing. The chalkboard by the bar (and Tom) lists the new bottles. I know this because the first time I ordered off of it expecting a draft beer to show up, I was given a bottle and a glass. In my experience, my chalkboard lists are for drafts and printed lists are for bottles. However, the printed draft list is (occasionally) relegated to the menu and may or may not be current. Honestly, the best way to find out what's on draft is to ask, which is fine at the bar, but sucks when you're at a table.
The communication problems also extend to the Website. As far as I can tell, the only useful information on the Website is the phone number and address (maybe the food menu, too). The draft and bottle beer lists are out of date, and they never advertise all their special beer weeks. So, if you want to find out about an upcoming event, you need to connect with The Black Squirrel on Facebook. If you want to find out what's on draft, you better head down there. Pizzeria Paradiso, ChurchKey and RFD do a decent job of updating their beer selections online, and there's no reason The Black Squirrel couldn't do the same. When I'm trying to decide where to spend my money on a few craft beers, I like to know what my options are. Unfortunately, The Black Squirrel's Website doesn't help.
That said, roll the dice and see what Amy and Melissa have brought in. The Black Squirrel isn't the biggest place, and it doesn't have the most taps or the largest selection; but Lord knows they're all working hard and burning fuel to make sure that that 18th Street joint is one of the best beer bars we got.
And you know what? It is.
Score: 16 of 20 (beer: 7 of 8, atmosphere: 3 of 5, bartenders: 4 of 5, other elements 2 of 2)
The Best Beer Bars so far: Birreria Paradiso (17 of 20), The Galaxy Hut (16 of 20), Franklin's (14 of 20), and Rustico (16 of 20), Lost Dog Café (12 of 20). And don't miss our special feature on D.C.'s best German bars.
The Black Squirrel
2427 18th St., N.W.
Washington, D.C. 20009